Modern Irish Society is the product of four hundred years of migration.  Discuss.


In reference to the reign of James I (1603-1625), Henry Hallam (1777-1859), author of A View of the State of Europe during the Middle Ages, said: ‘His reign is perhaps on the whole the most important in the constitutional history of Ireland, and that from which the present scheme of society in that country is chiefly deduced’.[1]  Could this be true?  Was Hallam referring to migration?  Can sufficient evidence be found to confirm Hallam’s assertion?  If so, have events in the early 17th century also impacted on modern society?  To determine this, the origin of today’s Irish society would have to be examined. With help from recent advances in database compilation, sufficient evidence is now available to track the ancestry of most families. 


Answers can be found in archives such as libraries, The Public Record Office, The General Registry Office and The Registry of Deeds. Amongst useful records that can be accessed are: Burkes Irish Families, land grants from the plantation, Cromwellian-settlements, Church registers, gravestone inscriptions, tithe records, Griffith’s Valuation, census returns, census substitutes, state papers, wills and history books.  Through these it is possible to trace descendants from immigrants that came to Ireland during the reign of James I.  From that time, migration became an important facet in Ireland’s history.  


Migration in Ireland peaked at various times during the last 400 years and was subject to influences such as:  colonisation, employment, religion, war, famine, world events, new technology, modernisation and legislation.   With this in mind, available records can sometimes tell us lots about migrants.  Often included are dates of when they came or went, why they migrated, where they settled, and for the landed gentry, their lineage.


A good place to start this discussion is with an historic event, the Treaty of Mellifont in 1603

The Treaty of Mellifont marked the end of the Nine Years War (1594-1603).[2]  Then shortly after, in 1607, there was another event, which also became significant, ‘The Flight of the Earls’.[3]   When the Irish leaders fled, there was immense repercussions for the Irish. Defeat at the Battle of Kinsale (1601) had sounded the death-nell for Gaelic Ireland.[4] In the aftermath, land belonging to the native Irish was confiscated and granted to English undertakers, servitors and soldiers.  Descendants of these settlers are part of modern Irish society.  Proof of their identity can be found in graveyards throughout Ireland. 


Nestled on a wooded hillside on the Antrim Coast, in full view of the Mull of Kintyre, is the remote graveyard of Nappin.[5]  It has two prominent inscribed tombs belonging to local gentry: the Higginsons and Turnleys.  Now how can one discover if these families were immigrants and find proof that their descendants are part of today’s modern society?  Simply go into the local library and check Burke’s Irish Family Records.   In this volume the ancestry of both these families and thousands of other gentry can be found.  Most like the Higginsons and Turnleys arrived in Ireland during the reign of James I and belong to a group known to historians as the New English.


Burke’s records tell us that the Higginsons first arrived in Ireland in 1610 from Bath and received a large grant of land at Knockballymore, County Fermanagh.[6]  During the insurrection of 1642, the Maguires drove them from Fermanagh and they made their way to Dublin Castle where they received a re-grant of the townland of Nappin.  Their gravestones record their presence from then till the late 19th century.   Since then, their descendants have since spread throughout Ireland and include the renowned poet of the Glens, Moira O’Neill and her daughter, Molly Keane, the recently deceased novelist from Waterford.[7]


The Turnleys original grants were Richmond Lodge near Belfast and another in Downpatrick.  After years of service throughout the British Empire they bought the mansion and estate at Drumnasole from the Donaldson family in 1800 for £60.000.  From this abode, they played a prominent role in local affairs ever since. The late John Turnley’s family presently reside in Drumnasole.[8]


Both these families have similar backgrounds.    They were English immigrants to Ireland, they played major roles in the creation of the British Empire, had their families educated in English public schools, were careful to marry only into their own ‘class’ and as with most planter families, marriages of first cousins was not uncommon.  On returning from army service in places like Africa, India and China, their sons were granted important roles in the government of Ireland and participated in commercial activities such as shipping, banking and railways. They married into other landed gentry such as Rochford, Skrine, Casement, Gage, Young, Cope, Alexander, Hamilton, and many more. [9]


Descendants of these New English are still plentiful and play an important role in modern Irish society.   When their ancestors first received their land grants, the government of the time legislated against Irish tenants.  With English tenants in short supply they were compelled to call upon Scots.  On attractive terms, Scots tenants flocked into Ulster.  They have since become known as the Ulster Scots.[10]


In 1612 King James I introduced to the Irish Parliament an act to repeal a statute, which had made the bringing in of Scots into Ireland, retaining them or marrying them illegal.[11]  Generally this law, which was in vogue for 40 years, did not deter Scots from coming to Ireland but its repeal marked the beginning of the Scots involvement in the Plantation in Ulster.  With a Scots king on the throne of England, these new immigrants were considered to be ‘loyal’ tenants and were welcomed by undertakers. 


The first official word to reach the Scots of their incorporation into the Ulster project came in a letter from Sir Alexander Hay, dated 19th March 1609.[12]  Hay, in addition to outlining the plantation scheme, informed the Scottish chancellor that he had the responsibility for selecting the Scottish participants.  There was a systematic introduction of Scots into the western districts of Ulster under the auspices of George Montgomery, whose brother planted the Ards area along with Sir James Hamilton.[13]  These Scots settlements had an enormous impact on Irish society.  Through them a new political force was introduced which gave the Scots a numerical as well as political dominance in certain parts of Ulster.  This also meant having a repeated need to defend the territory they had acquired under the auspices of English strategic policy.  Their sense of identity was strongly reinforced by their strong dissenting views.  The result was that they have stood apart from the rest of Ireland ever since.   


For Scots, North-East Down and East Antrim coasts were the most convenient areas to settle but their undertakers received large grants in all Ulster counties. Prominent in present-day Antrim and Down are their descendants with surnames such as McConnell, McLean, McKay, McAllister, McIntyre, Tweed, Irvine, and McCurdy.   They are to be found in every town from Ramelton to Killinchy.[14]  Others settled in Armagh, Tyrone and Fermanagh and were mainly from the border counties with surnames such as Armstrong, Johnston, Nixon and Foster.[15]  During the 18th century many of these Scots migrated to Canada due to a recession in farming and religious persecution.  There, many benefited from large government land grants.[16] 

Descendants of those that remained have become a large proportion of today’s society in Ulster.


At this time, few undertakers were attracted to the County of Coleraine, due to strong resistance from the native O’Cahans.  To overcome this, Sir Thomas Philips persuaded a group of London Companies to plant this area, which included Derry and parts of Donegal.[17]  The outcome was the arrival of 55 London Companies, who arranged themselves into twelve associations, built a walled city on the Foyle (Derry) and canvassed for Scottish, English and some Irish tenants.  The London Companies controlled land tenancies, commerce, in the Derry region and encouraged Scottish tenants.  Today we can see evidence of this piece of history in that area where in the Scot’s dialect where ‘Yin’ means ‘one’, ‘wheen’ is for a lot, ‘fadge’ is for ‘potato bread’ and so on.    


The next major influx was the Englishmen, who benefited from the Cromwellian settlement.   


In 1653, Patrick and Owen McCartan were called before commissioners Blundell and Rawdon, at Carrickfergus, for examination of their activities during the 1641 insurrection.[18]  Being unable to convince the commission of their innocence, their land in Kinelarty was confiscated and granted to, Sir George Rawdon, Sir William Petty and Mrs Traille.[19]  In this way, many Irish/Catholic landowners were attainted in Ulster and some were transplanted to remote areas of Connuaght.[20]  The major confiscations were in the east and south of the province; 41% of the land of Antrim; 26% of Down; 34% of Armagh; 38% of Monaghan and 4% of Tyrone.[21]  This left a vacuum, which was filled by Cromwellian servitors and soldiers.  Thus, the foundations of a Protestant ascendancy were firmly laid, which has impacted on Irish society ever since.


 Sir George Rawdon, like many other grantees, got more land than he could comfortably handle and on 28th February 1666 he leased the townland of Annacloy to another Cromwellian, George Cosslett.[22]  This consisted of 300 acres, and a flourmill at 2/- per annum for 500 years.  Similar cheap land deals were commonplace.  Confiscated land was used to pay Cromwellian soldiers, who were eager to convert it to ready cash.  Those that retained the land mostly prospered with many of them participated in the colonisation of America and trans-Atlantic trade.  The Cossletts acquired grants in the Carolinas, married into other Cromwellian families such as the Rutledges and held their lands in Loughinisland till 1830.  Surprisingly, in later years the main line of the Cossletts became Catholic and returned to Ireland and provided clergy and nuns.[23] 


Amongst the Cromwellian surnames still prominent in Ireland such as Bailey, Adair, Bates, Warren, Patton and Abercromey.[24]  Their  widespread occurrence throughout Ireland is proof of their Cromwellian ancestry.   This Cromwellian settlement paved the way for the coming of the industrious Quakers,[25] the Jewish community,[26] the Palatines,[27] the Huguenots[28] and the Moravians.[29]  Ireland benefited economically from their coming and through their easily identifiable surnames their valuable role in society is still extant.  


The 18th century commenced a flow of outward migration. Due to the aftermath of the Boyne and the introduction of the Penal Laws,[30] migration to the continent increased dramatically.  Internal migration also became more prevalent when persecution forced many to flee to remote parts.  During the second half of the 1790’s, thousands of people from central Ulster fled to Connaught.[31]  Their reason was sectarian violence.  The easing of the Penal Laws in the 1780’s brought competition between Catholics and Protestants for land and economic rivalry between their hand weavers.  The Protestants formed a society called the Peep-o’-Day boys and were opposed by a Catholic group called the Defenders.[32]  The climax came in September 1795 when the Peep-o’-Day boys began to systematically destruct Catholic houses and destroying furniture and especially weaving looms.   Due to this over 5,000 Catholics were forced to flee with the majority going west to settle in Connaught.  There they became known as the Oultaghs and their descendants are widespread throughout County Mayo today. 

Unfortunately, this prejudice and disharmony is still part of modern society in Ulster.      


For Irish society, the 19th century was a time of major transformation.  The earlier decades were punctuated by a time of massive overpopulation, Landlordism, Catholic emancipation, dependence on the potato crop, survival on small rented farms and urbanisation.   The latter decades saw: a massive reduction in population; industrialisation; improved transport; disestablishment; land reforms; emergence of the small farmer; electoral clout; and improved educational facilities. Between 1820 and 1920 nearly five million people went to the U.S. alone.[33]  Famine and economic reasons forced those that could afford the fare to leave.  Those less fortunate often perished.  Not having emigration as a release valve would most certainly caused an even greater catastrophe. 


Surprisingly, during the worst years of the famine immigration from Britain to Ireland increased.  Due to the introduction of census returns in 1841, we can get fairly accurate assessments of population movements.  For instance, in County Antrim the natives of England and Wales in 1841 are recorded as 760 and 1,456 in 1881 and during the same period, Scots immigrants increased from 817 to 1,676.[34]  In County Down we can also get a clear picture.  In 1841, there were 877 natives of England and Wales and by 1881 this number increased to 2301.  In 1841 the natives of Scotland were 809 and in 1881 it was 1,333.[35]  When one considers the mass emigration during this period these figures are surprising.   Could these immigrants have been associated with industrial expansion?


The industrial revolution brought urbanisation, which helped change the complete structure of 19th century society.  Farm labourers moved to towns, small farmers became more important, landlords declined due to legislation and those that could afford to, emigrated.  In many ways the structure of today’s modern society was formed in the latter decades of the 19th century with emigration helping in many ways to stabilise the economy.  


The 20th century marked an improved economy in Ulster.  Belfast’s industries of linen manufacture, ropeworks, shipyards, and engineering works attracted workers from rural Ireland and skilled workers from Britain.[36]  Away from the cities there was little work available other than farm labouring leading to continued stream of immigrants with sometimes up to five liners waiting in Cobh.  Then in the 1930s the main destination became England due to the U.S. recession.[37] 


 Interestingly, unlike other Europeans, women emigrants became a majority in Ireland. This trend had a detrimental effect on Ireland’s social system as many bachelors were abandoned to a life of loneliness.  In the 1970s I chatted with the local district nurse in Castletownbere, County Cork.  She told me that in one valley, on her rounds, 27 bachelors, all aged over 70, lived alone.  Most of them had inherited their family farms in their 50s and 60s.  Due to this and the departure of many females in the 1950s they were eliminated from the marriage stakes. Many of them resorted to the columns of ‘Ireland’s Own’ and an annual trip to Lisdoonvarnagh  in the forlorn hope of finding a ‘stray’.  I met one of them that day and he told me his sad tale.  He laboured for farmers all his life for a pittance and little food.  His greatest regret was not to have gone to England and worked on the building sites, especially after the Second World-War, when work was plentiful.  Instead he worked hard for a small farmer, couldn’t afford to marry, and was seldom further than 10 miles from his parish.  When I consider the many men that came to Belfast from rural areas, in the 1950’s, I can fully understand his plight. 


Most of them left school at 15, were intelligent, and would have benefited greatly from further education but could not afford it.  Generally their employment was confined to menial jobs on building sites or as barmen.  Yet most worked hard and eventually prospered.  They married country girls who were nurses, teachers, and domestics whom they met in Belfast dancehalls during the show-band era.   Today they are grandparents and their offspring have become prominent members of society.  Sons and grandsons are judges, barristers, doctors, dentists, accountants, professors, lecturers, councillors, and hotel and pub owners.  This is evidence that post-war internal migration and urbanisation played an important role in the development of modern society.


The 60s was a time of economic growth, throughout Ireland.  Sean Lemass, with the help of T.K. Whittaker’s Programme for Economic Expansion, combined to change a stagnant government policy.[38]  Thereby foreign investment was encouraged, which in turn created more jobs, and reduced emigration dramatically.  Also of great benefit to the economy at this time was return migration, when many ex-patriots returned during the 60’s and 70’s with useful skills and business acumen.[39]


There is evidence to suggest that women continued to be a disadvantaged sector as they still outnumbered male migrants.  The reasons for this were economic, freedom and social standpoints, which have been investigated by several authors.  For women the introduction of the national-health service in England was a godsend.  More hospital beds meant more jobs for nurses and ancillary workers.  More money was also ploughed into education, which enhanced job opportunities for teachers.  Even today job opportunities for women are still better abroad than at home.


In 1961, I dined in the first and newly opened Chinese restaurant in Belfast’s Royal Avenue.  Since then this community of immigrants has expanded to every town in Ireland.  Today there are 36 Chinese premises on the Lisburn Road, Belfast, alone.  Other communities who found niches in the Irish market are the Indian and Pakistani communities.  In 1960 the Tohani family travelled the roads around Magherafelt on bicycles selling drapery.  Since then they have expanded and today they have large retail outlets, wholesale premises and several factories.  Through hard work these three communities have not only prospered but also helped the local economy. 


The 1990’s saw the arrival of asylum seekers and economic migrants to Ireland.

In the first three years of the 1990’s only 160 people applied for to the Irish authorities for asylum.  By 2002 the average was over 1,000 per month.[40]  Why the rapid increase in numbers?  The answer is twofold.  Ireland’s robust economy made world headlines and Mary Robinson, Ireland’s late President, got piles of media attention due to her role as U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights.[41]  The result was a boom in the number seeking ‘political asylum’.  So what will happen to the large numbers of people descending on Ireland’s shores?


Many will no doubt spend years in legal limbo while their applications are decided.  Ireland is under no obligation to allow economic migrants to stay, and any of those who cannot make a case, regarding human rights abuses in their native lands, will be deported.  Their presence is sure to further change the make-up of Ireland’s modern society.  Those that have found work legally or illegally are employed mainly in the service industries.  In 2001 over 30,000 non-E.U. nationals received work permits in Ireland.[42]


The local press and CMS class members have provided valuable information on the recent immigration of non-nationals.  In Dungannon around 700 Portuguese are employed in the meat industry: in Roscommon 600 Brazilians are employed in the meat industry; in Kilnaleck 300 (30% of the population) are Ukranian employed in the mushroom industry; in Lisnaskea around 50 are employed in the fish industry; in Belfast hospitals there is an abundance of Phillipino nurses. This rapid influx must create enormous social problems related to culture, religion and education, 


Many of these immigrants are well educated and overly qualified for the service industry sector.  However the wages they receive in Ireland are generally many times greater than in their homelands.  Furthermore, in some towns they have created a gender imbalance.  For instance, in Kilnaleck the vast majority of the 300 immigrants are women.  Will this create problems in time to come?  This remains to be seen. Furthermore some Dublin schools now have 10% foreign nationals and some ethnic minorities such as Muslims now insist on having separate schools.  The press give a very mixed reaction to foreign nationals, with some reports bordering on incitement.  Could discrimination in housing and jobs be a future problem?  Already some employers have taken advantage of illegal immigrants having paid wages below the legal threshold and provided unsatisfactory accommodation. 


Many may grumble about the coming of foreign nationals but I consider this to be a selfish and unfair attitude.  Most are found to be pleasantly disposed and eager to earn their keep. In the long term they could help boost Ireland’s economy. What is the Government policy to Asylum seekers?  In a recent consultation exercise conducted by the Department of Justice, consensus between employer and employee interests view immigration as a productive economic factor.[43] Against this, over 10,000 are failed asylum seekers and liable for deportation.  The only way of overcoming current difficulties is by regularising (temporarily or otherwise) those currently in the system.      


Recessions, depressions and government legislation were always key factors in migration.   During the era of the Celtic Tiger (1995-2000) Ireland received 123,100 migrants in total, which included 50% return migrants.[44]  Over two thirds of these return migrants were from the U.K. This inflow of migrants was greater than the outflow – certain proof of economic expansion.


Henry Hallam’s assertion, as mentioned in the introduction, was accurate.   Knock-on-effects from the Reign of James I not only existed during his lifetime, but are also part of modern society.  Not least of these, but often overlooked, are the number of Irish who became military migrants. During the 19th century the English army had around 30% Irish, although this dropped to around 5% in 1925.[45]  From the reign of James I, many Irish families throughout Ireland formed a tradition of service in the English army, which still prevails. 


Another concept often overlooked when considering aspects of modern society is internal migration. This was most prevalent during the 17th and 18th centuries when large tracts of Irish-owned land were attainted.  The outcome was, entire communities of native Irish were compelled to relocate.  For instance: during the Nine Years War, Ralph Lane declared that he had moved the entire O’Moore sept from Laois to Kerry[46]; after Kinsale many who fought with O’Neill remained in Cork and Kerry; in 1692 the entire Catholic parish of Kilcoo in County Down fled to Ossory[47]; during the Crowwellian settlement entire communities were moved from Ulster to Connaught; and in 1595-96 thousands fled from Armagh to Connaught.  County Mayo provides a good example of the occurrence of internal migration and its noticeable impact on modern society there.  Shop fronts in the towns of Castlebar and Ballina  are inundated with Ulster names such as: McCabe, McCartan, Maguire, O’Donnell, McCullagh and Shiels. 


Surnames of course do not always be an accurate guide to a person’s background, county of origin, religious persuasion or political affiliation.  Such assumptions should be treated as guesswork, when the occurrence of inter-county, inter-national and inter-religious marriages should be taken into account.


In 1847, William Thackery journeyed up the Antrim coast where he visited his cousins, the Higginsons at Nappin.[48]  Early in the last century, John Masefield sent a stone from Ossin’s grave, near Cushendall, to Lady Gregory and her band of poets[49] and writers in Coole Park, County Galway.  Add to these other notables such as Oliver Goldsmith, the Bronte sisters, Jonathon Swift, Maria Edgeworth Yeats etc and consider their impact on present-day education and society.  Their literary influence on modern society is indeed a consequence of migration.


Whilst military migration removed many of Irelands male population, the onset of popular holiday resorts helped rectify the imbalance between the sexes. With the coming of the railways and better roads during the 19th and 20th centuries, resorts such as Portrush, Bangor, Newcastle, Kilkee, Salthill, Tramore, Bray, and Bundoran thrived with day-trippers and holidaymakers. Many couples met on holiday, got married and one or other often became a migrant.  Northumberland and Durham and Geordie holidaymakers came to Newcastle and Warrenpoint, County Down, Glaswegians came to Buncrana and the Inishowen Peninsula, Ayr and Dunfermline people came to Larne and Whitehead and so on.  Many of today’s population throughout Ireland owe their existence to migration which had its origin in  a holiday encounter.          


Each day we all encounter various aspects of modern society in Ireland.  Language, sport, human behaviour, music, wall murals, slogans, dancing, politics, work, religion and lifestyle, all tell us a much.  From these the casual observer can safely conclude that Ireland is now more multi-cultural than ever before.  Undoubtedly, modern society is indeed a product of 400 years of migration. 



Society is built on many people hurting many people, it is just who does the hurting, which is forever in dispute.

Norman Mailer 1923 - Miami and the siege of Chicago (1968)





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[1] Hallam, H. A View of the State of Europe in the Middle Ages. London (1860) p86

[2] McGurk, J. The Elizabethan Conquest of Ulster. Manchester (1997) p75

[3] Bardon, J. A History of Ulster. Belfast (1992) p115

[4] Hayes McCoy, G.A. Scots Mercenary Forces in Ireland. Dublin (1937) p329

[5] Sharpe, R & McAllister, C. A Glimpse of Glenariff. Ballycastle (1997) p 46

[6] Burke. Irish Family Records, vol 2. London. (1976) p590

[7] Keane, M. Molly Keane’s Ireland. London (1993)

[8] Burke. Irish Family Records, vol 2  London. (1976) p1145

[9] Burke. Irish Family Records.  London. (1976)

[10] Bardon, J. A History of Ulster. Belfast (1992) p68

[11] Perceval-Maxwell, M. The Scottish Migration to Ulster in the Reign of James I. London (1973) p138

[12] Perceval-Maxwell, M. The Scottish Migration to Ulster in the Reign of James I. London (1973) p91

[13] Hamilton, E. Elizabethan Ulster. London (nd) p293

[14] Bell, Robert. The Book of Ulster Surnames. Belfast (1998)

[15] Bardon, J. A History of Ulster. Belfast (1992) p115

[16] Bardon, J. A History of Ulster. Belfast (1992) p309

[17] Bardon, J. A History of Ulster. Belfast (1992) p124

[18] Fitzpatrick, T. The Bloody Bridge. New York (1970) p250

[19] Becket, Mathew. Sir George Rawdon. A sketch of his life and times. Belfast (1935) p92

[20] Simington, Robert. The Transplantation to Connaught 1654-58. Dublin 1970 p112

[21] Perceval-Maxwell, M. The Scottish Migration to Ulster in the Reign of James I. London (1973) p91

[22] Linen Hall Library. Blackwood Mss. Book3 Belfast 

[23] Linen Hall Library. Blackwood Mss. Book3 Belfast 

[24] O’Harte, J. Irish Landed Gentry. Dublin (1887) p372

[25] Bardon, J. A History of Ulster. Belfast (1992) p174

[29]  Moravian Church

[30] Bardon, J. A History of Ulster. Belfast (1992) p168

[31] Hogan, P. The Migration of Ulster Catholics to Connaught, 1795-6. Ballinrobe (1985)

[32] Bardon, J. A History of Ulster. Belfast (1992) p223

[33] MacEinri, Piaras. Irish Emigration – Past and Present. McGlinchey Summer School. Clonmany (1901) p7

[34] Bassett, G.H. County Antrim, A Guide and Directory 1888. Belfast (1989) p13

[35] Bassett, G.H. County Down, A Guide and Directory 1886. Belfast (1988) p9

[36] Bardon, J. A History of Ulster. Belfast (1992) pp334-9

[37] Lee, J.J. Ireland 1912-1985. Cambridge (1989) p217

[38] Lee, J.J. Ireland 1912-1985. Cambridge (1989) p279

[39] Lee, J.J. Ireland 1912-1985. Cambridge (1989) p458

[40] Dept Equality Justice and Reform.

[41] O’Connell, Donncha. Politics of Immigration in Ireland. Merriman Summer School 2002

[42] Fitzgerald, P. Lecture 9 CMS Omagh (2003)

[43] O’Connell, Donncha. Politics of Immigration in Ireland. Merriman Summer School 2002

[44] Fitzgerald, P. Lecture 9 CMS Omagh (2003)

[45] Lynch, J. CMS Lecture 7 Omagh (2003)

[46] Hamilton, H.C. Calendar of State Papers, Ireland Elizabeth I, 1574-85. London (1867) p494 

[47] O’Laverty, J. A History of the Diocese of Down and Connor. Belfast (1980)

[48] Thackery, W. The Irish Sketchbook. London (1870)

[49] Thackery, W. The Irish Sketchbook. London (1870) p43