Irish Diaspora in the 1980s – Rachel McGovern & Dalton Kelley

The Irish have had a long-standing history of emigration, which can be seen through the millions of American claiming Irish heritage. The most notable Irish diaspora was in the 1830s during the potato famine, but there has been a steady flow of native Irish since. One of the increases of emigration was during the 1980s, during the most extreme economic crisis in the country’s history. The era held a time of extreme political and economic corruption that produced massive amount of borrowing and inflationary tax. These Irish were facing anti-Catholic discrimination, poverty-stricken wages and untrustworthy government officials. They looked to the United States on the hope of an American Dream and the mythology of hard working Irishmen raising to power like John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Ireland has had intermittent economic crisis’ through the past century, but the extreme borrowing and spending of the seventies resulted in the generation entering the workforce facing a barren job field. Before the “Celtic Tiger” became a well-known phrase during the 1990s, the Irish government had implemented a wide range of policies that helped to foster improvements in productivity. The 1960s saw a move away from protectionist trade policies and set Ireland on the path to EU membership in 1973. Industrial policies focused successfully on encouraging export-oriented foreign direct investment.  There was also a gradual improvement in educational standards as policies to provide universal secondary education in the 1960s were subsequently followed by a large expansion of the third-level sector.As a result of these policies, Irish productivity growth consistently outpaced other advanced economies from the early 1970s onwards. While Ireland’s pre-Tiger supply-side policies may have been good ones, its macroeconomic stabilization policies were not always so good. Ireland reacted to the global slowdown of the 1970s by running very large fiscal deficits, which accumulated in a debt crisis in the 1980s. At the same time, the traditional currency link with sterling was dropped in 1979 in favor of membership of the European Monetary System, which provided an unstable monetary regime featuring regular devaluations. By the mid-1980s, Ireland had a public debt-GDP ratio over 110% and was paying out almost 10% of GDP per year in interest payments on this debt. Tax rates had been raised to punitive levels in a series of failed attempts to stabilize the deficit and growth had stagnated. The increase in taxes and the failing economy was matched by the large amount of young people entering into the workforce. Ireland failed to produce enough jobs which inevitably became the final push for Irish migration. This problem was exacerbated during the 1980-85 recession when the number of employed declined by 76,000 while the total labor force grew by 58,000. As a result, unemployment rose from 7.3% to 17.3%.

This stagnated growth birthed a generation of educated and skilled Irish facing a country that was unable to pay their people. The Irish migrating to the United States tended to be highly skilled through apprenticeships and technical schools, as well as traditional university degrees. The underkilled were even more at a disadvantage, with a highly competitive job field the uneducated were leaving the country at a rapid rate.  At the time of Ireland’s crumbling economy, the United States was facing a giant boom that appeared to be the light at the end of the tunnel. The young Irish adults started lining up at visa offices to punch a ticket to the U.S. Many Irish came over on J1 tourist or F1 student visas with the intention to outstay the expiration and later applying for a green card with fairly relaxed American immigration laws. The Irish have a long history of immigrating to the U.S., meaning most immigrants already had ties to people across the sea making it easy to find connection once they arrived.

When people from Ireland immigrated to the United States they found jobs with ease, mainly because the unemployment rate in the U.S. was one third of that in Ireland at 5.5%. Because of the need for more workers, Irish immigrants would help their family members move to the U.S. to fill job openings that were unavailable in Ireland. According to A.P. Lobo and J.J. Salvo people that were looking for jobs were not the only ones to leave Ireland during this economic downturn, even people who were employed left because of the advancement opportunities offered in the U.S. that are were not offered in Ireland. These low skilled and lower educated workers were not the only ones to leave Ireland during the 1980’s however, many highly skilled and educated members of the Irish community left Ireland for the more promising markets of Chicago and New York.

Immigration to the United State from Ireland has been prominent for the past two centuries. In the mid-19th century this was due to the Great Famine of the 1840’s that impacted the people and economy of Ireland in near immeasurable ways. This massive economic hit forced many of the people of Ireland to flee to an area that was less economically strapped. The United States received many low skilled and lower educated members of the Irish community who served in low wage jobs, where it was hard to make a living in the cities of New York and Boston where most of them moved to. Because of this these low paid immigrants from Ireland fell into the traps of the easy money in theft and prostitution. This reputation furthered the hatred for Irish in the United States and fanned the flames of anti-Catholic sentiment. When the Irish immigrant populations in urban areas began to impact the voting of these areas, getting them jobs for the promise of a vote became a priority. Irish American men were given jobs as police officers and recruiting their friends to join the force. This began in cities such as Boston and New York and has been a continued trend in law enforcement ever since. The tradition of Irish police officers in places like New York City runs so deep that the NYPD flag has green stripes representing the Irish-American officers and the stars on the banner form a Shamrock.  Irish police officers have become very common in recent years including the last three Police Commissioners of the NYPD.

Immigration from Ireland has and will continue to be a part of American history. From low skilled to high skilled workers and from trouble makers to cops all have played a vital role in shaping the world, wherever they wanted to live. While only 5 million people live on Ireland, over 80 million claim Irish heritage and that connection will continue to reach far beyond the small island.














-Rachel McGovern & Dalton Kelley


Works Cited