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Ireland in a global world
Gilmartin, Mary and White, Allen (eds)


When the Central Statistics Office (CSO) published its 2010 Population and Migration Estimates in September 2010, showing the highest level of net emigration from Ireland since 1989, the media response followed quickly (CSO, 2010). The Irish Times described emigration as 'this social and economic scourge that ripped the heart out of communities and stifled devel­opment', adding that it must be 'confronted and defeated' (Irish Times, 2010). A day earlier, the Irish Examiner had described emigration as 'the eternal curse of the Irish', claiming that 'the floodgates are open again and tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee the land of their birth' (Irish Examiner, 2010). It is a far cry from the statement of then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, just three years earlier, when he declared that 'emigration from our shores, which drained our youth and our future, has ended' (Ahern, 2007: 9).

Migration to and from Ireland is often the subject of definitive claims. Kerby Miller, for example, characterized the history of migration from Ireland in the post-Famine era as one of exile, in contrast to the earlier voluntary 'emigration' (Miller, 1985). The 1950s, historian Diarmaid Ferriter wrote, 'was the decade in which emigration damaged the national psyche' (Ferriter, 2010). During the 1980s, migration from Ireland was most commonly described as a brain drain (King and Shuttleworth, 1995). Of the more general history of migration from Ireland, Jim MacLaughlin described the country as an emigrant nursery (MacLaughlin, 1994). In the period between 1996 and 2010, when Ireland experienced net in-migration on a sustained basis, this certainty disappeared. Instead, Ireland represented a modern miracle: a state that had banished the spectre of emigration for ever. Migration now meant immigration into the country, and the challenge of migration was now seen in terms of interculturalism and integration or, for some, a dilution of Irish identity. Writing in 2006, Kevin Whelan observed that Ireland's demographic balance sheet was a vital measure of national self-confidence (Whelan, 2006). These levels of self-confidence are reflected in debates about migration, which display a binary understanding of the process: either to or from Ireland, but never both at the same time.

 The academic study of migration to and from Ireland has a long history. Ravenstein's The Laws of Migration, the foundational text for migration studies in general, was based on a detailed analysis of movements of people within the United Kingdom, which at that time included Ireland (Ravenstein, 1885). In his analysis of movements of people, Ravenstein considered what he called currents and counter-currents (1885: 199): in looking at particular places, he was interested in the relationship between movements of people both to and from that place. His laws thus attempted to explain how these different directions of movement were interconnected: this complexity is often absent from subsequent studies of migration.

The story of migration to and from Ireland remains as complex as ever. Table 0.1 shows the intercensal figures for net migration from 1926-2011. These aggregated and net figures mask the extent to which people both move to and leave Ireland each year. For example, during the period from 1986-91, the last sustained period of net emigration, close to 135,000 people migrated to Ireland. In the period from 2002-06, when the percentage of people living in Ireland with a nationality other than Irish rose from 7.1 per cent to 11.2 per cent (from around 270,000 to 460,000), over 120,000 people migrated from Ireland. However, despite the constant flows and counterflows, academic studies tend to focus on just one direction of movement, reflecting dominant concerns at particular points in time. For many decades, the study of Ireland and migration was dominated by historical accounts of the process of emigra­tion. In this literature, Irish migration to North America has received a considerable amount of attention. This has included broad studies of the USA and Canada (Kenny, 2000; Miller, 1985), as well as more specific studies, either territorially based (for examples, see Akenson, 1999; Mannion, n.d) or focusing on particular groups of migrants, such as women (Diner, 1984; Nolan, 1989). There have also been historical studies of Irish migration to Britain, to places such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina, and to mainland Europe (see, for example, Bielenberg, 2000; Lyons and O'Connor, 2008; MacRaild, 2010; O'Farrell, 1986). More recently, sociologi­cal studies have focused attention on contemporary emigration. Examples include studies of Irish 'illegal' emigrants to the USA in the 1980s (Corcoran, 1993), and of Irish women migrants, in both the UK and in North America (Gray, 2004; Walter, 2001).