The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914 by Timothy W. Guinnane, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914

The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914

by Timothy W. Guinnane

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In the years between the Great Famine of the 1840s and the First World War, Ireland experienced a drastic drop in population: the percentage of adults who never married soared from 10 percent to 25 percent, while the overall population decreased by one third. What accounted for this? For many social analysts, the history of post-Famine Irish depopulation was a


In the years between the Great Famine of the 1840s and the First World War, Ireland experienced a drastic drop in population: the percentage of adults who never married soared from 10 percent to 25 percent, while the overall population decreased by one third. What accounted for this? For many social analysts, the history of post-Famine Irish depopulation was a Malthusian morality tale where declining living standards led young people to postpone marriage out of concern for their ability to support a family. The problem here, argues Timothy Guinnane, is that living standards in post-Famine Ireland did not decline. Rather, other, more subtle economic changes influenced the decision to delay marriage or not marry at all. In this engaging inquiry into the "vanishing Irish," Guinnane explores the options that presented themselves to Ireland's younger generations, taking into account household structure, inheritance, religion, cultural influences on marriage and family life, and especially emigration.Guinnane focuses on rural Ireland, where the population changes were most profound, and explores the way the demographic patterns reflect the rural Irish economy, Ireland's place as a small part in a much larger English- speaking world, and the influence of earlier Irish history and culture. Particular effort is made to compare Irish demographic behavior to similar patterns elsewhere in Europe, revealing an Ireland anchored in European tradition and yet a distinctive society in its own right.

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Winner of the 1998 Donald Murphy Prize for Best First Book in Irish Studies, American Conference for Irish Studies

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Princeton Economic History of the Western World Series
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The Vanishing Irish

Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914

By Timothy W. Guinnane


Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04307-4



I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land.

— Deuteronomy 4:26a

Many Countries in the modern world face or will soon face one of two population problems. Some countries' populations are growing so rapidly that sheer numbers will endanger their ability to provide schooling, employment, and basic social amenities to their people. The physical requirements of the human population may overwhelm the environment's ability to provide for both it and local nonhuman populations. Other countries face a situation nearly the opposite. Their population is either growing very slowly or, in some cases, already declining. When growth continues at a slow rate, older people make up an increasingly large share of the society and eventually the population's numbers may begin to shrink. Rapid population growth now seems confined to the poorest societies, slow growth or decline seems the fate of the wealthier. Ireland faced both of these population problems during the nineteenth century: prior to the Great Famine of the 1840s, Ireland's population grew at unprecedented rates, while for over a century after the Great Famine the population shrank continuously. Part of this population decline reflects mortality and emigration during the Famine, but much of the depopulation occurred between 1850 and the First World War, after famine conditions had all but disappeared from the island. Most of the Irish decline, that is, reflects voluntary actions — emigration, postponing or avoiding marriage — rather than famine.

This book tells the story of that depopulation and why it took the form it did. Throughout I focus on rural Ireland because depopulation in Ireland was confined to rural areas almost exclusively. The ways in which the Irish were vanishing may be more noteworthy than the depopulation itself. To many writers the difference between Irish and other demographic regimes at the turn of the twentieth century has seemed an interesting, if quaint, illustration of the variety of ways populations can adjust to economic and social conditions. Here I examine the demographic differences from another perspective. My purpose is to understand why young Irish people made the decisions about marriage, emigration, and childbearing that produced Ireland's distinctive demographic regime.

The Famine's direct role in Ireland's depopulation over this period is less than one might think. Figure 1.1 shows the populations of Ireland and England from the early eighteenth century through the mid-twentieth century. Less than half of the total depopulation in Ireland from 1841 to 1911 can be attributed to the Famine itself. After the Famine the population declined without cease; by 1911 Ireland contained about half as many people as had lived there in 1841. Sustained reversal came only in the 1960s, and population growth since then has been modest. Population decline in Ireland along with rapid growth in Great Britain altered the weight of Ireland's population in the United Kingdom over the nineteenth century. In 1841 the Irish represented about a third of the United Kingdom's entire population. By 1911 Ireland formed less than a tenth of that whole.

Depopulation in the late nineteenth century was not confined to Ireland. Agricultural transformation at home and the pull of higher wages in cities and abroad also reduced the rural population in several regions of Great Britain and other European countries. In most other countries, however, depopulation was limited to specific areas (usually those most agricultural) and specific periods. One striking example comes from the United States, a country whose nineteenth-century population growth rates were extremely rapid for the day. Rural depopulation was under way in New England as early as 1860: between that date and 1920 the states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont all experienced slow population growth overall coupled with an absolute loss of population in rural areas. Ogle (1889, table A) documents population declines in several of England's more agricultural counties for the interval 1851 to 1881. In his discussion of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Longstaff (1893, pp. 388-389) notes that only twelve of Scotland's thirty-three counties had experienced uninterrupted population growth since 1801. Nine counties had reached their maximum population (as of 1891) in 1851 or earlier. Depopulation continued in some areas into the twentieth century. Population growth in Scotland from 1861 to 1911 was largely confined to narrow areas around the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, and Aberdeen. Without rapid growth in these urbanized areas Scotland's overall population would have declined, just as in Ireland (Anderson and Morse 1993a, b). Longstaff thought that rural depopulation was under way or at least imminent not only in the United Kingdom but in France, Norway, Italy, and elsewhere (p. 411). Rural depopulation in England owed more to migration from agricultural districts than to the low birthrates so important in Ireland. Elsewhere, as in the northern Portuguese communities studied by O'Neill and Brettell, population declines followed from emigration and reduced marriage, the pattern in Ireland. Today the rural regions of industrial countries find it increasingly difficult to keep their population on the land. Between 1980 and 1990 in the United States, for example, the state of Iowa lost over 8 percent of its rural population.

Depopulation was thus not something specific to rural Ireland. The assertion or assumption of Ireland's uniqueness is, however, a quite general phenomenon. Rhodes (1992, p. xi), for example, begins her study of Irish women with the comment that "studies of Irish society show it to have characteristics which range from the unusual to the unique to the positively perverse." Every society is unique, almost by definition: no two societies share all the characteristics that define a group of people. As a literal description there is nothing harmful about claims of Irish uniqueness. Underlying the claim, however, is often an unstated assumption that we need not explain the demographic behavior of Ireland because, after all, it was populated by the Irish. Such an assertion, stated or not, is incorrect. Ireland's historical development was the result not of Hibernian perversity, but of the way the people there made their lives in often difficult circumstances.

The basic demographic facts at issue in Irish history are clear. Much of this study consists of looking more closely at details, or criticizing and reformulating explanations for those demographic facts. Since this process of refinement can become complicated, an overview of Ireland's demographic adjustment may help the reader keep basic issues in mind. Chapter 4 will return to nineteenth-century population history in a more detailed and systematic way.

Irish depopulation reflects the emergence after the Great Famine of a distinctive demographic regime. Western European populations always had relatively high ages at first marriage and a considerable proportion of adults who never married. In most of early-modern and modern western Europe marriage for women was rare before age 22 or so, and in each cohort some 10 to 20 percent of both sexes would never marry. The Irish took this western European marriage pattern to an extreme. Marriage had so declined in popularity that by 1911 about one-quarter of all adults in their fifties in Ireland had never married. This retreat from marriage may be the most famous element of Irish demographic behavior, and probably accounts for its unwarranted reputation as unique. A second feature of Ireland's distinctive demographic conditions reflects not change but a pace of change that was, relative to other European countries, very slow. The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed a dramatic fertility transition in most of western Europe. This transition, which refers to married couples' adoption of voluntary contraceptive practices, greatly reduced the number of children born to a typical marriage. Ireland's fertility transition was in comparison late and modest. The combination of large families but many unmarried adults gave Ireland a relatively low birthrate at the turn of the twentieth century, but this low birthrate was achieved in a way very different from the low birthrates obtaining in England, France, or Germany at the same time. Elsewhere more people married but had ever-smaller families; in Ireland families themselves became rarer, and their size declined more slowly. Another element of demographic systems in other countries, children born to unwed mothers, was very rare in Ireland. Finally, emigration from Ireland increased during the Famine and remained extensive afterward. The rate of emigration from Ireland was often higher than for any other European country during the second half of the nineteenth century. Though high by any standards, Ireland's emigration rates were very high for a country with such a low birthrate. Without emigration Ireland's population would have grown, albeit more slowly than many other places in Europe. But with such high emigration rates, the result was that in most years fewer Irish people were born than were lost to Ireland through death or through emigration.

None of the elements of this system — the rarity of marriage, large families, or extensive emigration — was unique to Ireland. As we shall see, one can always find counterparts to Ireland in each of these dimensions taken alone. Likewise, none of these elements represented any behaviors that were new or bizarre by European standards. The point warrants stressing because much of the historiography tries to find specifically Irish reasons for behaviors that were widespread. The only thing unique about Ireland's post-Famine demographic system was the combination of these three factors. And while the combination makes this period of Irish history fascinating, the fact that no single feature of Irish demographic behavior was unique undermines any case for Hibernian perversity and invites a more careful search for an explanation of Irish population trends.

Depopulation and Its Discontents

After decades of concern about the world's rapid population growth, we may find it difficult to comprehend why low birthrates and depopulation were viewed as cause for alarm. Low birthrates and concomitant or potential depopulation emerged as an important political and social issue in western Europe toward the end of the nineteenth century. Worried discussion of this possibility has continued off and on virtually ever since. In most cases the debate concerned slow population growth, rather than depopulation as in Ireland, but the issues are similar. The French became acutely aware during the late nineteenth century that their rate of population growth was much slower than that of their neighbors — and sometime enemies — the Germans and the English. In works with titles like Dépopulation et Civilisation writers such as the influential French demographer Arsene Dumont called attention to two deleterious consequences of a smaller population. One danger was military. Slow population growth endangered the chance that the increasingly out numbered French could ever enjoy their "hour of revenge" over the Germans (see Clement 1910, p. 46). Others argued from the position that a world with fewer French people was ipso facto a world less rich in cultural and scientific achievement. The historical demographer Herve Le Bras (1991, p. 12) notes that French fear of population decline remains strong today, long after any military threat from Germany or other neighbors has disappeared and at a time when France's birthrates are no lower than those elsewhere in Europe.

A strong element in these population debates in some countries was a social Darwinist fear that the "wrong" people were reproducing and that the "right" people were not. In the United States this view took the form of concern that the somewhat higher fertility of African-Americans would turn a minority into the majority. This sort of thinking reached its hideous climax in the works of Nazi "intellectuals" who wrote of a Geburtenkrieg (war of births) or claimed that the Germans were, because of their declining birthrates, a Volk in Gefahr (a people in danger) (Danzer 1943; Helmut 1939). Nazi propaganda stressed the higher birthrates of some peoples considered inferior to Germans or otherwise enemies of the Reich. One can easily mock the crude racial stereotypes of Nazis and their sympathizers, but to do so risks missing the deep intellectual and cultural wells from which their population ideology drew. By the late nineteenth century Germany had a well-developed, intellectually and socially respectable eugenics movement, complete with university professors and other members of the upper middle class. Discussions of "racial hygiene" enjoyed the respect of prominent academics such as Schmoller and Sombart. Germany was alone only in the horrifying consequences of this kind of thinking — not in the prevalence of the thinking.

Much of western Europe now has fertility patterns that imply eventual population decline (Bourgeois-Pichat 1986, table 1). Polish fertility, which so exercised Nazi propagandists, is nearing below-replacement levels, and recent projections assign Germany and Poland similar growth rates (UN Development Program 1994, table 45, p. 201). Concern over population decline today has somewhat different sources than in the nineteenth century. We worry less about military strength and more about the social and economic consequences of an older population. Reacting to possible depopulation, French demographers write of La tragedie de la France while Germans pose the question Sterben Wir Aus? (Are we dying out?). Yet the fact that population decline seems confined, at least now, to wealthy countries in Europe (or of European extraction)infuses even these discussions with overtones of racial or cultural chauvinism. One French writer, for example, claims that Europeans have a responsibility to themselves and to the world to produce more children. The loss of Germany would mean the loss "of the people who brought forth Luther, Gothe, Kant, Mozart, Planck, and Einstein" (Chaunu 1988, p. 147).

These population declines may well turn out to be small and temporary, and the histrionics surely reflect something other than serious fears of the disappearance of the Germans from central Europe. Yet underlying the melodrama are real issues concerning the implications of a declining population for social and economic conditions. A shrinking population will also become older. In 1980, half the population of the United States was 29 or older. According to one sober projection, if fertility rates persist at their current low levels, by the year 2100 half the U.S. population will be 50 or older (Coale 1986, table 2). The implications of this population aging for social insurance schemes is a topic of lively debate, one that is if anything too circumscribed. A population with this age structure calls into doubt the continued existence, at least in their current form, of many programs and institutions.

A few nineteenth-century Irish observers were concerned about the military implications of a smaller population. Irish soldiers had long been overrepresented in British armies, and Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century looked less peaceful to contemporaries than it does to us. The United States, moreover, its army swollen and confident after the defeat of the Confederacy, alarmed more than a few Europeans. The Ulster Examiner worried in 1874 that "[s]hould the Stars and Stripes ever appear in hostile form at Galway or Bearhaven," the graziers and bullocks who had displaced Ireland's people would be unable to defend the realm. Concern over depopulation in Ireland more often focused on its consequences for life in the countryside and what it said about the Irish as a people. Many drew attention to the effects of reduced populations on the ability to maintain churches and schools. Rural depopulation was a vicious circle. A smaller population made it more difficult for a remote area to maintain an attractive social and cultural life for its people, particularly its young people, which made emigration all the more likely. Rural Ireland had become in some eyes, at least by the mid-twentieth century, bleak: "We were impressed by the unanimity of views presented to us in the evidence on the relative loneliness, dullness, and general unattractive nature of life in many parts of rural Ireland at present" (Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems 1954, p. 175). A second theme is more specifically Irish. Irish leaders, including those of the Roman Catholic Church, displayed profound ambivalence about the emigration that was such an important cause of depopulation. Most leaders understood that emigrants were simply seeking a better life, and accepted the fact. At the same time, however, some ritual condemnation of the land-tenure system was heard, and the British government was widely viewed as the ultimate cause of Ireland's economic problems. Others viewed emigration in moral and religious terms. Anti-emigration propaganda stressed the moral dangers of a country such as the United States, with its large cities, anonymous society, and relatively small and uninfluential Catholic Church. If Ireland was holiest among nations then leaving it posed dangers for the soul. Schrier (1958, pp. 54-64) provides a good illustration of the ambivalence. He discusses the complicated view of emigration in the eyes of newspapers editors, politicians, and clergy. He also notes that newspapers often strongly opposed emigration but were happy to profit from carrying advertisements for ships that carried emigrants abroad (ibid., pp. 179-180, n. 1). Ryan (1955, p. 187) comments that even the Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems, writing in the 1950s, "had some difficulty in passing judgement on the desirability of emigration."


Excerpted from The Vanishing Irish by Timothy W. Guinnane. Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Timothy W. Guinnane is Associate Professor of Economics at Yale University.

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