New College of the Humanities

The Irish

In this article, Sheridan Gilley looks at the rich history surrounding Irish immigration abroad.

The crowds which packed the exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite painting in the Tate Gallery last year saw Walter Howell Deverell's picture of 1853-4, 'The Irish Vagrants ', showing a pauper family beside an English road. One man is asleep, a second is sunk in dejection, a sleeping infant clasps a woman impressive and impassive in despair, while two half-naked children stand, one of them pleading for alms from an unheeding lady riding by. The painting is a Christian Socialist comment on a great natural calamity, the Irish pauper influx into Britain in 1845-51 in the wake of the Irish Famine. Yet that fight from starvation only hastened an existing trend: Irish immigration was a trickle in 1790s, a stream in the 1820s, a river in the 1840s, and a flood from the late 1840s as the Irish-born population of England and Wales rose from 291,000 in 1841 to 520,000 in 1851, reached its peak of 602,000 in 1861, at about 3 per cent of the total population, and fell to 427,000 at the end of the century.

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