Ireland, land of opportunity?
Ireland was not just a land of emigration, but, in the course of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, it welcomed a great number of immigrants from different countries. At the end of the 17th century, whole families arrived from Holland, the West of England, and from France. These migrants were principally economically motivated (doc. A, p. 10-11). In the 18th century, a large number of Scots settled in Ireland to develop the textile trade. At the same time, Huguenots, escaping persecution in France, found refuge in Ireland.
The American dream…
During the 17th century, Ireland constituted a reserve workforce for the colonies when the English source dried up, mainly due to improvements in living conditions following improved harvests, higher wages and a certain degree of political stability. It was Ireland which then provided the colonies with indentured workers.
… or American nightmare ?
However, during the 18th century, over 100 000 Scotch-Irish left Ireland for the continental North American colonies, emptying the Irish countryside of its inhabitants, who hoped to find better living conditions on the other side of the Atlantic.
The attraction of the British colonies in North America and the West Indies was emptying Ireland of its inhabitants. During the debates in the Old and New World on the advantages and disadvantages of granting independence to the Thirteen North-American Colonies, the question of emigration from England and Ireland to these colonies was central: if England let the colonies go, then the population would no longer undertake the journey. “What remedy do you propose for curing the people of that madness which has seized them for emigrations? I answer …A total separation from North America. For most certain it is, that as soon as such a separation shall take place, a residence in the colonies will be no longer a desirable situation.” (doc. B, p. 67)
To which others replied that unless living conditions in Ireland were improved, emigration would continue untrammeled: “Why do such numbers of them quit the country ? (…) if they had a prospect of living comfortably at home, and had no dread of falling into the same Extremities of Want they see others laboring under, they would rather stay in their native Country, among their Relations, their Friends, and Acquaintances, than expose themselves to the Hazards of long and dangerous Voyages, to begin the World as it were a-new, in a different Climate: exposed in many Places, to Savages, and at all Adventures to very great Hardships. Men do not wantonly run these Risques, or subject themselves to these Inconveniencies. It is the prospect of Gain, or to escue greater Evils, that prompts them to these hazardous Tryals of Fortune. And unless the Conditon of the common People is better’d by affording them Means of providing for themselves and their Families, it is vain to hope that any Restraints will keep them in a Country they see on the Brink of Ruin” (doc. C, p. 10-11 ; doc. D, p. 42-43).
In a similar vein, Arthur Young, in his Tour in Ireland (1775-1777) considers the ‘Emigrations’ in detail (doc. E, p. 85-87), generally regretting that poverty drove many to leave the country.