In the 1950s, a popular Irish song was Sigerson Clifford’s gently nostalgic ballad, ‘The boys of Barr na Sráide’. It recalls the author’s childhood friends in the Kerry town of Cahirsiveen and praises them as the ‘men who beat the Black and Tan’. Then, almost as a matter of course, it mentions that they are now scattered: ‘And now they toil on foreign soil, for they have gone their way / Deep in the heart of London town or over in Broadway’.
Emigration was one feature of Irish life largely unchanged by partition and independence. (Some of it was directly related to political turmoil: the Protestant population of the 26 counties declined by one-third between 1911 and 1926 and significant numbers of Catholics north of the border were displaced by violent attacks.) The Great Depression that began in 1929 limited the numbers going to the US; Britain, ironically, became the primary destination. The Second World War gave a large boost to migration to Britain—about 120,000 people from the island of Ireland joined the British armed forces; roughly 60,000 of those were from the south. Another 170,000 went from the south to take up jobs in the war economy. It was expected—and, by government ministers, feared—that many of these would return after the war.
Instead, more migrants left for Britain and elsewhere. Three out of every five of those who came of age in Ireland in the 1950s emigrated. Young men, typically with little more than primary education, left to work on building sites (plentiful during post-war reconstruction) and factories. Women worked in factories too, but they were also drawn by the possibilities of higher-status jobs as nurses, teachers and civil service clerks. The suitcase, often a shabby cardboard box with handles, was the most resonant Irish object of the time.
In spite of very high rates of fertility (helped by the banning of artificial contraceptives), the population of the 26 counties declined to a low of 2.8 million and Ireland was left with the lowest known marriage rate in Europe. One contemporary study, The vanishing Irish, claimed that ‘if this ominous trend continues, in another century, the Irish race will have vanished, much like the Mayans, leaving only their monuments behind them’.
It was impossible to avoid the sense that independent Ireland had failed. Its agricultural economy—largely characterised by small farms and labour-unintensive beef production—could not hold young people increasingly aware of the opportunities offered by urban, industrial life. A policy of protectionism was supposed to create thriving Irish industries but failed to do so. Mass emigration thus raised fundamental questions about the long-term viability of Ireland’s hard-won independence. If the break with Britain was not to be written off as a failed experiment, something had to change. In 1958, a white paper called ‘Programme for economic expansion’, written by the secretary of the Department of Finance, Kenneth Whitaker, called for the end of protectionism and the opening up of Ireland to foreign multinational investment. It would transform, not just economics, but every aspect of Irish life.