Green and grey: Irish among oldest ethnicities in Britain, new figures show

Fresh census data for England and Wales shows Irish people and their descendants almost twice as likely to be pensioners as overall population

Ireland’s green army in Britain is going grey. People who identify as Irish are among the oldest ethnic groups in England and Wales and are almost twice as likely to be pensioners as the rest of the population, according to the UK’s latest census data.

Of the 507,465 people in England and Wales who officially identified as “White Irish” in its 2021 census, more than 32 per cent are aged over 65, according to figures released on Monday by the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) This compares to just 18.6 per cent of the overall population.

White Irish people are on average “substantially older” than almost every other ethnic group in England and Wales, the ONS says. The median average age of people who identify as “White Irish” was 54. Those who claimed a mixed ethnicity including Irish were on average aged far lower, at 25.

About three-quarters of the “White Irish” cohort were born in Ireland, with the rest descendants of Irish immigrants who still identify with their ancestors’ heritage.


Of the 287 ethnic groups analysed in the data, only “White Maltese”, with a median age of 56, and “Anglo Indians”, with a media of 65, are older than the Irish.

The figures also reveal that there are more older “White Irish” women than men, with more than 35 per cent of women in the category aged over 65, versus less than 29 per cent of men.

The ONS’s raw data also reveals there are 160 centenarians in England and Wales of Irish descent, including 135 women and 25 men. The proportion of Irish people who have reached 100-not-out is 1½ times higher than the rest of the population in England and Wales.

Meanwhile, there were no centenarians among the small cohort of people who officially identified as “gypsy or Irish Traveller”. Just 70 people who put themselves in this category had made it into their 90s, according to the ONS’s raw data.

The data brings statistical support to a trend that has been long observed in Britain: Irish immigrant communities are dwindling.

“There has been a sharp decline in recent decades in Irish immigration,” said Bronwen Walter, emerita professor of Irish diaspora studies at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge and one of the foremost British experts on Irish immigration.

“The biggest bulge of Irish immigration was in the 1950s and 1960s. There was another bulge in the 1980s but many of those people went back to Ireland,” she said.

Prof Walter said the numbers of people claiming Irish descent varied sharply across Britain, depending on how visible the Irish community was in their locality.

“In places where there were Catholic schools and more Irish music centres, for example, descendants of immigrants are more likely to see themselves as Irish.”

Traditional Irish heartlands such as Kilburn in northwest London are now less visited by more recent Irish arrivals in London, with Clapham in south London now a top location for the younger Irish.

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times