Connectivity key to Ireland’s successful migration story

EU tax on aviation fuel will incentivise airlines to be more environmentally friendly while retaining links with families

Following the surge in post-Famine emigration, 3.3 million people, or almost 40 per cent of those born in Ireland, were living abroad by 1870. The US was by far the biggest destination (25 per cent), followed by Britain (10 per cent), and Canada or Australia (both 5 per cent).

Independent Ireland saw a continuing loss of young people, especially to Britain, peaking in the 1950s. By 1960, a quarter of the Irish-born population was living abroad. As the Irish economy began to prosper, emigration finally slowed, and many returned to live here.

Modern-day emigrants tend to be homing pigeons, particularly the higher-educated. Almost 20 per cent of Irish citizens in the 2022 Census were returned emigrants; among graduates this rose to 25 per cent. ESRI research shows that those who emigrate and return earn more than those who never leave: work experience abroad boosts earning power.

Immigration, previously a trickle, began to rise from the early 1990s. Most are well-educated – more than half who have come from Germany, France, Spain, North America, Australia or India have third-level qualifications. These highly-skilled workers have helped our economy expand rapidly, and sustained our health service.


A strong indication of their integration in Irish society is the number with Irish partners – in 2006 one in six children under five had one Irish parent and one who had been born abroad.

The experience of emigration has been central to Irish life for more than 200 years and this has been reflected in Irish literature and culture, as well as playing a central role in economic and social thinking since the foundation of the State. A legacy is the close interest and ties between Ireland, Britain and the US.

Emigration has touched every family. In my own, one grandfather grew up in London but lived most of his life in Ireland, while the other grew up in east Galway, but lived his adult life in Africa and the UK. My two grandmothers were temporary emigrants from the island, one to London and the other to Geneva, returning to spend the rest of their lives here.

My mother was born in Liverpool, and came to Ireland as a baby. Our three daughters currently live abroad, though two will return to Ireland this year.

Whether Irish-born or from elsewhere, most people living here have a similar family history of migration. There is hardly a family without cousins, siblings, children or parents living abroad. Our immigrant population retains close ties with family members around the globe.

Few of those who emigrated in the 19th century ever came back to visit. It was slow and expensive to return from the US or Australia, and most never saw their families again. For many of those who emigrated to Britain in the 1950s also, particularly those in low-paying jobs, visits home to family were few and far between. Long-distance calls were expensive, so up to the 1970s letters were the way to keep in touch.

From the 1970s on, communications became much easier as having a phone became universal, and call quality improved. In this century, video calls, WhatsApp and social media have transformed how we communicate across countries and continents.

However, none of these forms of communication can replace a good hug. Cheaper air fares opened the door to more frequent visits to and from loved ones and no one wants to revert to the time when in-person reunions were exceptional. Inward or outward visits are still vital in maintaining complex networks of family and friends.

In the late 1980s, Aer Lingus advertised heavily to persuade parents living in Ireland to travel to visit their emigrant children. It was estimated that each emigrant generated four or five journeys a year for Dublin Airport. Today, the number of people living in Ireland who have close family abroad has grown hugely. On past experience, a third of journeys through Dublin Airport could be for family reasons.

Flying does give rise to harmful emissions. However, rationing air travel for family reunions would be cruel. For many, sea travel is impractical, especially for those with parents in the Philippines, or a son in Australia.

Rather than capping journeys, the best solution to the climate issue is to impose an EU-wide tax on aviation fuel.

In the short run, this will make journeys more expensive, and reduce demand that way but the primary impact will be to drive research on how best to decarbonise aviation. A passenger cap may just divert air traffic from Dublin to Belfast or Manchester, with no impact on the environment.

A fuel surcharge will incentivise airlines and manufacturers of planes to find more environmentally-friendly ways to operate.