Irish emigration and its health consequence

Emigration has been a response to poverty, oppression and lack of opportunity for hundreds of years, among the Irish and many other communities. The simplest thing for Irish people to do, if they wanted to escape appalling conditions at home, was to head for England or Scotland. For many people, permanent emigration was just a change of emphasis in their previous annual migratory pattern of going back and forth to the UK, seeking work. Others made a more determined step into the unknown by heading for Australia, America or Canada. It’s difficult to know what  the members of the large scale emigrations were hoping for when they left – was it genuine equality or just a chance to escape to some sort of better life? What we do know is that a great deal of the outcomes they achieved were determined for them by their choice of destination.

By the 1970s, the US government’s socioeconomic profile had recognised the native born Irish  as a separate ethnic group in the Census.  By contrast, it was difficult to discover the fate of Irish nationals or people of Irish descent in Britain because they were not recognised as a distinct ethnic group in the Census until very recently. Now that they can be located, we know that the mortality rate for people of Irish descent in England, Scotland and Wales shows excess rates among the Irish for all causes of death (implying a shorter life span) but especially for coronary heart disease. In the second generation, this cannot be explained by lifestyle factors (e.g. type of housing, smoking habits).

Abbotts, Williams and Ford (2001), writing in the academic journal Social Science and Medicine, have conducted a longitudinal study of people of Irish descent in the West of Scotland, average age now 58. Being of Catholic background in Glasgow, as most people of Irish descent are, has historically been associated with sectarian hostility, anti-Catholic or anti-Irish discrimination. So far as the socioeconomic profile was concerned, even the second generation of Irish people in Britain were still very deprived compared to their peers. Abbott et al. found that, compared with nonCatholics, their respondents were more likely to be working class, get a pension as their main source of income, have no access to a car, rent their homes and have left school at 14 or younger.

When Abbott et al. turned to their health data, they found that the odds of a Catholic self-assessing as being in poor health over a non-Catholic,  was about two to one. Catholics also experienced more sadness or depression in the year before the interview (odds of about three to two). Did the poor economic circumstances cause the poorer health? Or did poor health mean that Catholics were less able to work and attain a higher social status? Abbotts et al. (2001) were able to show that poor health was not the explanation for poor economic circumstances.

The authors commented that while the dominant paradigm for investigating racial discrimination in England, Scotland and Wales was based on skin colour, there was mounting evidence that discrimination in the workplace plays an important role in the disadvantaged position of people of Irish origin. Abbott et al. remarked that ‘The invisibility of the Irish and of Catholics in the British Census hitherto contrasts with the relatively early use of an Irish category in the US census, and suggests differences in establishment attitudes towards minorities in the two countries, which need further investigation’. Invisibility, plus poor outcomes, make an ominous combination, although Abbott et al. carefully refrain from offering any explanation of possible causes of their findings.

While Irish immigration to the UK has not been an altogether healthy option for those who have chosen that particular path, the general impression one gets is that Irish migrants to both the USA and Australia thrive and prosper and are successful in their upwardly socially mobile journey.  Nevertheless, there is data on Irish ethnicity in the Census here, but no one has ever analysed it – a research opportunity going begging!


Felicity Allen.