Volume 8 1945~1948

Doc No.

No. 461 NAI DT S11582B

Memorandum for Éamon de Valera (Dublin) by the Department of External Affairs with covering note from Frederick H. Boland to Kathleen O'Connell (Dublin)
(Very Urgent)

Dublin, 30 December 1947

Dear Miss O'Connell,
This is a memorandum on emigration which the Taoiseach asked us to prepare.1

Perhaps you could get it to him before he goes away because I think he wants to take it with him.2

Yours sincerely,
[signed] F. H. Boland

  1. Emigration is a great national problem. It is grievous to every one of us. As a matter of national sentiment, we hate to see so many of our young people leaving the country. From the purely material point of view, we deplore the loss to the country of the young productive energies which every year, for so long, have sought their outlet overseas.

Approach to the problem

  1. Those are natural and understandable reactions. The trouble is that so many people are content simply to exploit the sentimental feeling about emigration which we all share, without making any effort to analyse the problem or make constructive suggestions for its solution. Obviously, that doesn't get us anywhere. The essential thing about this, as about other national problems, is that we should try calmly and clearly to 'think our way' through it. It is only by analysing the root causes, segregating the essential facts, and, in that way, understanding the true nature of the problem, that we can come to any sound and wise conclusions as to how best to deal with it.

How it originates

  1. Let us take some essential facts first. We all know that the bulk of the emigration from this country originates in the rural areas. The urban population of the country shows no tendency to decline. It is higher today by 4.7% than it was ten years ago. But the rural population is 3.4% lower. Whereas the population of Leinster has increased by 60,000 people since 1936, that of Munster has fallen by 25,000 and that of Connaught by 32,000. We will not be on the wrong lines, then, if we go first to the rural parts of the country to find the root causes of the problem we are investigating.

Natural increase in rural areas

  1. Now, we all know that the number of people in this country dependent on agriculture is about one and a half millions, or roughly half the population. The statisticians tell us that the number of births required each year to keep that population at its present level would be about 22,000. Actually, the annual number of births in the country as a whole over the last ten years has varied between about 58,000 and 66,000, and roughly half of these would be attributable to the portion of the population directly dependent on agriculture. In other words, although the number of births required to keep the agricultural population at its present level would be about 22,000 a year, the actual number varies between 29,000 and 33,000. From that plain and indisputable fact flows the inescapable conclusion that either between 7,000 and 11,000 additional people must find opportunities of full and remunerative employment on the land each year or that number of people must leave the rural areas every year and find employment elsewhere. In actual fact, as we all know, the number of persons gainfully occupied in agriculture, far from increasing, shows some tendency to decline; so that every year we have a flow of people off the land consisting not merely of the 7,000-11,000 people representing the natural increase of the agricultural population, but of 5,000 or 6,000 people as well, that being the yearly average of the ten-year rural-urban drift revealed by the 1946 census.

Can agriculture absorb the natural increase?

  1. Now, let us consider first the possibilities of the land itself being able to absorb the natural increase of the agricultural population and see what the prospects are of putting an end to the present migration from the rural districts in that way. Probably everyone would agree that that would be the ideal solution. The question is what - on a sober assessment - are the chances of realizing it. Once again, let us start with what may be the generally accepted facts. In the first place, over two-thirds of the people who are emigrating are young girls, and, as we all know, the employment openings for girls in agriculture are limited and the marriage rate is low. (How wrong the people were who sneered at some of the factories established in the early stages of the industrial drive on the ground that the employment they created was mostly for women!). A second fact we must face is that it is the universal experience of white countries that, with the improvement in farming conditions and agricultural techniques and the rise of standards of living in rural areas, the agricultural population, instead of increasing, tends to decline. Denmark, for example, has an agriculture developed to the highest pitch of efficiency, including an extensive degree of tillage. Yet, its rural population has not increased but, like ours, has suffered a steady drift off the land. Today, in fact, Danish agriculture supports only about the same number of people per acre in the rural areas as we have here. Finally, we must reckon with that psychological urge towards migration from the rural to the urban areas which is the outstanding social phenomenon of every country in Europe today. It exists both where there are large estates and where the land has been divided into economic holdings. It is just as marked in areas of high agricultural capitalization, such as those of Denmark, Holland and Switzerland, as it is in areas of primitive agriculture with defective technique and little capital. It is no less prevalent in areas of high per capita productivity than of low, in areas where the returns from agriculture are relatively great than in areas where they are small. The fact is that rural-urban migration is a phenomenon of every economically developed country today and that its roots lie in factors of a cultural, social and psychological nature which probably operate with varying degrees of strength in different places but which have yet to be fully analysed and understood.

Can land division end emigration?

  1. Those are factors which must be taken into account. Any anticipations of increasing the rural population, which failed to reckon with them, would court disappointment. It may be said, however, that these unfavourable factors could be combated here by a more vigorous policy of land division. It might be argued, for example, that, inasmuch as the bulk of the men who leave the rural areas are uneconomic smallholders or agricultural labourers, much could be done to end emigration by a policy of land division designed to put the agricultural resources of the country into the hands of those able to exploit them to the best advantage. Let us look at that argument for a moment.
  2. As we all know, there are about ten million acres of arable land in this country. Suppose for a moment, we had all that divided up into farms of an average size of twenty-five acres. That would give us 400,000 holdings affording an approximately uniform standard of living, as compared to the 382,000 holdings of varying sizes which we have today. There would be obvious gains. We would certainly have a more just, and therefore a more stable, social structure. Particularly if we could at the same time increase the marriage rate, we might expect an initial increase in the rural population and a larger number of people supported on the land. But, would we have put a permanent end to emigration? It is to be feared that we would not. Because the inescapable fact is that, no matter how many children each landholder had, only one of the boys could get the place. Suppose that that boy married a local girl, that would mean that one member of the family of a neighbouring farm would find her permanent home also in the same place. But that is as far as you could go. Even under a system under which all the arable land of Ireland was divided up in the way indicated, only two members of the rural community - that is two members on the average of each family - could hope to find a permanent home on each holding in each generation. Unless you were to allow sub-division of holdings and run the risk of turning whole areas of the country into agricultural slums, the other members of each family would have to go away. There is no blinking that fact. A rise in the marriage rate might check the flow temporarily, and increased employment outlets in non-agricultural occupations in the rural areas would reduce it permanently as far as they went. But, no matter how you look at it, the point would have come in every family when, once it had been decided which boy was to have the place, the other children would have to look elsewhere for their livelihoods. Whatever happens, therefore, you are going to have a certain degree of migration from the land. The question is whether that migration need become emigration from the country itself; and the answer to that depends entirely on the rate at which new employment openings can be created in the country in occupations other than agriculture.

How else can emigration be reduced?

  1. Now, that being so, it is a fair question to ask what has the Government done to increase alternative employment in the country? For the answer, let us go to the figures. In 1931, there were 110,588 persons engaged in industry in this country. In 1938, the figure had risen to 166,107* (*Estimated at 180,000 today) - an aggregate increase of 55,919, or over 50%. That was a not inconsiderable achievement. It meant that, in every year throughout that period, 7,000 new jobs were created in industry, and that over 55,000 people who might otherwise have emigrated from the country were enabled to remain here. That was the position so far as industry is concerned. The available figures as regards commerce, the distributive trades and other non-agricultural employment not covered by the Census of Production tell a similar story. The estimated average number of insured persons actually at work was 342,000 in 1931 and 416,000 in 1938 - an increase of 74,000. This increased employment had at least something to say to the fact that net emigration, which averaged 16,675 a year in the ten years period prior to 1936, averaged only 5,714 a year in the period 1936 to 1941. Unfortunately, the war intervened and industrial employment, which was over 168,000 in 1939, declined, owing to lack of raw materials, to something under 141,000 during the war years. Insured persons actually at work fell similarly from 417,000 in 1939 to 397,000 in 1943. These declines naturally contributed greatly to the increase of emigration which is now the subject of so much criticism. It should not be forgotten, however, that, prior to the war when new industrial jobs were being created at the rate of 7,000 a year, the attacks of the critics were directed not against emigration - which was still proceeding at a reduced rate at that time - but against the policy of industrial expansion which, as must be obvious from what has been said, affords in present circumstances the best chances of providing our surplus human energies with outlets in this country.
  2. This, therefore, is the picture we must have before us. As we know, the number of people gainfully occupied in agriculture in this country has declined. No doubt, part of the decline is no more than a process of 'taking-up' the slack of unemployment. But, broadly speaking, the trend is one which is operating in every European country. Everywhere improvements in agricultural technique and rising living standards are tending to reduce the number of people on the land rather than the contrary. In our case, where the rural population is not stationary, but increasing at the rate of between 7,000 and 11,000 a year, this must mean in practice a migration from the land comprising, not merely the amount of the annual increase, but also the amount of any absolute decline which the rural population suffers. That migration from the land will express itself in emigration from the country unless vigorous measures are taken to expand productive activity in the country in the industrial, commercial and other fields. That is the importance of industrial development here and of the programmes of development which have been undertaken in other fields such as those of civil aviation, shipping, tourism and so on. The essential truth which we must grasp is that courageous and well-considered programmes of investment in our own country offer, in present circumstances, the best and most hopeful means of checking the stream of emigration.

The rural-urban drift

  1. Incidentally, we often hear people deploring the drift from the country to the towns and talking about it as if it were a sign of national decline. We may not like it, but to think we are going to prevent it would be to expect that we will succeed in doing something which no other country in the world has been able to do. Nor is there any reason to regard it as a sign of national decline. Our rural population fell by 65,000 between 1936 and 1946, and our town population increased by 50,000 in the same period. But look at Denmark, for example. Greater Copenhagen gained 22,000 people from rural migration in the period 1921-1925, 39,000 in the period 1925-1930, and 80,000 in the period 1930-1935, and nobody would say that Denmark is in a state of decline. Though we may not like the rural-urban drift, what we must remember is that it represents for the most part increased employment for the sons and daughters of our farming population who might otherwise have to leave the country.

The present rate of emigration

  1. Let us now consider the present emigration from the country and the manner in which it is composed. Unfortunately, our emigration and immigration statistics are incomplete. For example, we know the number of people who get Travel Permits to go to work in England, but we don't know precisely how many of them return. Many of them do return, of course, because for one thing the travel permit figures include permits issued to people like seasonal workers who only go to England for a short period in each year. The travel permit totals are therefore obviously no indication as to what the extent of emigration in its real sense is. What is certain is that net emigration in the ten-year period 1936-1946 averaged 18,994 a year as compared with 16,675 a year in the ten-year period 1926-1936. We know, too, for certain that the vast bulk of this emigration took place during the war years, because, for the period 1936-1941, the net emigration from the country averaged only 5,714 a year. These, of course, are figures of net emigration - in other words, they represent the difference between the number of people going out of the country and the number of people coming in, who include, of course, people who went away to work and are now coming back. The gloomy fact has to be faced, however, that, even at present, the outward balance is of the order of 17,000 a year. That is the measure of the economic expansion which we have to achieve in this country if we are to end emigration.

Who are emigrating?

  1. It is important to bear in mind the kind of people who are leaving the country. Over two-thirds of the total are girls, and over 70% of the girls who go are under twenty-five years of age. The male emigration is not so serious. In spite of all the present difficulties in getting necessary raw materials, particularly in the building trades, the number of male emigrants is not seriously higher than the average net emigration of males in the period 1926-1936. What is serious is the emigration of the young girls. It is serious and sad from every point of view, and, if it continues at its present rate, a decline in the national population is to be feared even if present marriage and birth rates are maintained.

Is Government policy to blame?

  1. This brings us to the final question to what extent is the present emigration the fault of the present policy and what the Government should have done to prevent it which it has omitted to do. Let us recall again the extent of the problem. The population of this country increases every year by 17,000 people. Unless these people are to emigrate, 17,000 new employment outlets must be provided in this country every year. We have already discussed the possibilities of providing 17,000 new employment outlets each year on the land. We saw what the prospects are in that regard. We saw that, while you may succeed in getting the land to support more people than it does today, you cannot continue the process indefinitely. The larger the rural population is, the larger is the natural increase each year, and sooner or later you are brought back to the fact that, in each generation, only two members of each rural family can be supported for their lifetimes by each holding.
  2. That throws you back on the possibility of expanding employment outlets in occupations other than farming. Everything possible has been done in that regard. Prior to the war, industry was providing 7,000 new employment outlets each year. Employment in other fields was also expanding. There were 66,000 more insured people at work than there were in 1931. The war not only put a temporary stop to this development, but drastically reduced the employment in industry, building and other trades. The inevitable result was that, as soon as the ban on immigration into Britain came to an end, the emigration rate began to rise. Now employment is rising again. The estimated average number of people now at work as shown by contributions to the National Health Insurance Fund is 442,600 today, as compared with 417,200 - the highest figure in pre-war years. That is an increase of 25,400 on pre-war, and of 100,000 on 1931. A similar calculation, based on Unemployment Insurance contributions, shows the average number of people employed in this country as being 28,600 more today than it was in the best pre-war years. The other figures available with regard to non-agricultural occupations tell the same story - steadily mounting totals and rapid recovery of the ground lost owing to the lack of supplies of raw materials and equipment during the war years. If it is agreed that the solution of the emigration problem lies primarily in the constant creation of new employment outlets in industry, commerce and other fields of non-agricultural economic activity, what has been and is being done is as much - particularly having regard to the circumstances of the wars - as anyone could hope to do.
  3. Because we must remember the magnitude of the task. It is not enough to get employment back to the 1939 figures. The population has increased by 17,000 every year in the meantime. Emigration could only have been prevented, therefore, if the Government had succeeded not only in maintaining industrial and commercial employment at its pre-war level throughout the war years, but in increasing it over the period by creating 150,000 new employment outlets. To blame the Government for not having been able to do that during a period in which, as everybody knows, raw materials and equipment were virtually unprocurable, is, of course, ridiculous.

An example: civil aviation development

  1. Nor should people be allowed to get away with blaming the Government for emigration and at the same time criticising the schemes of capital development which help to stop it. Take, for example, our development in civil aviation. We hear people sneering at our purchase of Constellations3 and complaining about the money spent on airports and the operation losses which every new development incurs in the early stages. But they say nothing about the gains. It is not merely that our Irish airports and air services are recognised to be among the best in Europe and that, for the first time in our history, we are no longer an island beyond an island but have - or will soon have - our own direct travel communications not only to Europe but to the North American Continent as well. The point is that, in addition to these advantages, over 2,000 of our young people have been provided with careers in the Irish air concerns alone, and that doesn't take account of the Irish personnel employed by the American and other air companies which use our airports. That is merely one, and perhaps a relatively small, example; but it illustrates the point that, if we are to reduce emigration, we must have faith in ourselves; we mustn't be afraid to enlarge our horizons and to embark on bold, but carefully conceived, schemes of expansion in keeping with modern developments in other countries. The people who sneer at the Constellations and blame the Government for being too forward in that regard cannot in the same breath turn round and blame them for being too backward.

The Irish-British wage differential

  1. Then there are other people who say that it is our national wage level that is to blame - that the difference between wages here and in Britain is drawing people away. It may be that in some occupations - but by no means all - the present rates of money wages paid in Britain are higher than here. The labour shortage in Britain is acute. But what matters, on any rational view, is not money wages but real wages - not so much what a man gets into his hand as the standard of human welfare he can buy for himself with the money which he gets. There is room for a lot of argument about the wage differential between Ireland and Britain on this basis. But one thing is pretty certain. No impartial person, looking objectively at the facts, could possibly say conscientiously that, taking into account the relative living conditions, nutritional standards, social amenities, - in fact all the real things which go to make up human welfare - there is any such difference between the remuneration of labour here and in Britain as would justify the present rate of emigration. Unfortunately, what counts in practice is not so much the actual facts, but the subjective appreciation of the facts in the mind of the individual boy or girl considering whether to emigrate or not; and, from our point of view, the people who go on saying, against all the evidence, that people are a great deal better off if they are working in England than if they stay here, are only encouraging emigration instead of helping to reduce it. They would be better employed by helping to put a true picture of the difference between living conditions in the two countries before the eyes of young people in this country.

Non-economic causes of emigration

  1. What we are forced to recognise, however, is that emigration has many causes which are not of an economic nature at all. We had emigration here before the war when the Banking Commission4 told us that our wages were higher than the highest wages paid in Britain, and we have it today when other people tell us they are now much lower. The fact is that a lot of the emigration which takes place is quite unnecessary. In the old phrase, it is due to a 'pull' rather than a 'push'. It is simply an old and evil tradition in this country with its roots deep in our national history. Emigration, of course, is not without its positive aspects. We all remember what this country owes to the help and support it has received from the people of our race overseas. This country would probably count for far less than it does in the world today if it were not for the great spiritual empire made up of the people of Irish stock overseas whose outlook and ideals are still those of most of us here at home. Much as we dislike emigration, too, we cannot help but feel proud of the achievements of our race in other countries - of the work of our people in spreading the Faith, of the labours of our missionaries in Africa and the Far East, of the contributions which our people have made to the building up of great modern States overseas. But that very picture in which we all take legitimate pride merely helps to strengthen that 'pull' which is one of the strongest determinants in the emigration problem. What is certain is that no policy for ending emigration can succeed fully unless in some way or other it can manage to offset these obscure, traditional psychological factors in which it has its principal roots.

Should the Government ban emigration?

  1. It may be asked: if all this is so - if much of the emigration is unnecessary and due to psychological causes - why does the Government not take power, by refusing permits or passports, to restrict the number of people leaving the country. That is a big question of principle and the Government often considered it during the war years. Any such prohibition would be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce, because, unless you were to prevent people going abroad for visits, holidays, study and the like, you would have no assurance that people, who got passports or permits for such purposes, would not take up employment and stay abroad. But that is not the point. The question is not one of feasibility but of principle. It can be put in different ways. If people with money are free to invest it abroad in whatever foreign security they think will give them the best return, is it proper that the worker should be prevented from selling his labour in whatever market he considers - however erroneously - he can do so most satisfactorily to himself? Is any Government entitled - and, if so, in what circumstances - to tell a citizen that he must not leave the country but must remain at home to be available if his services are needed? No doubt, there are circumstances in which a Government would be justified in saying that. It could do it in time of war if men were required for the national defence. It could do it, for example, to prevent the fitting-out of expeditions contrary to neutrality. It could do it in individual cases to prevent the absconding of debtors or the desertion of children by their parents or the commission of crime. In our view, it can do it, too, in time of scarcity, to prevent people in key positions in production, by wantonly withdrawing their labour, causing widespread hardship and suffering to the community at large. But can you go further and, merely out of dislike for emigration and the dangers it involves, impose a general prohibition, saying to young people who are intent on emigrating, many of them for admittedly frivolous reasons: 'No, you must stay here. Emigration is a national evil. You have no good reason for going and you will have to face abroad conditions harmful to your moral and material welfare?' The point is one on which opinions may differ, but, to the mind of the Government, it admits of only one answer. We consider that no Government has such a right. Any such prohibition would involve an unjustifiable and dangerous infringement of the freedom of the individual. It would mean the Government substituting its own judgment for that of the individuals concerned and their parents. It would be an unwarranted invasion of human responsibility. It would lower national morale. Far from effectively counteracting the psychological causes of emigration, it would turn the country into a prisonhouse in the eyes of those who wanted to emigrate, making the far-off hills greener than ever.

1 It is not clear from the document and its context who in the Department of External Affairs wrote this memorandum.

2 Marginal annotation by Moynihan: 'Rúnaí Cúnta, Ba mhaith liom labhairt leat', MM, 31/12/47'.

3 In 1947 Aer Lingus bought five Lockheed L-749 Constellation long-range airliners for its transatlantic service. The service was scrapped before becoming operational and the Constellations were sold to BOAC.

4 The Banking Commission of 1934 to 1938, established to undertake a widespread review of the Irish banking system and to consider what changes were required or desirable to promote the social and economic welfare of the community and the interests of agriculture and industry.