Tallying the Irish in Britain Over the Past Two Centuries

Although the first census of the United Kingdom was held in 1801, it was not until the 1841 census that respondents were asked to state their country of birth, thereby enabling us to see the size of the Irish population in Britain. We cannot, therefore, accurately judge how many Irish refugees had flooded into England, Scotland and Wales in the wake of the dreadful famine of 1741, which killed between 250,000-400,000 people and was known to the Irish as “The Year of the Slaughter,” nor from the lesser famines of 1755 and 1766.

(Left: Irish immigrants leaving their home on the mail coach from Cahirciveen, County Kerry, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 20, 1866.)

The 1841 census conveniently allows us to assess how the Irish in Britain stood on the eve of The Great Hunger and before their numbers were swollen by the tide of ‘famine’ refugees. The census shows us that there were 419,256 Irish settlers living in Britain, a figure that represented 2.2% of the British population. It should be noted that many of these immigrants had themselves fled Ireland after the economic slump that followed the Napoleonic Wars and a series of partial and complete famines, the worst of which, in 1816-17, killed 65,000 people.

The census also shows the uneven distribution of the Irish immigrants, with the greatest concentrations outside London being found in the major industrial cities and ports of northern England and along the valley of the Clyde in Scotland.


Total population

Irish born

% of total













Middlesex (including most of London)




Lancashire (including Liverpool & Manchester)








Lanarkshire (including Glasgow)









(The combined total number of Irish listed above is 415,725 whereas the census states that there were actually 419,256 Irish living in Britain. The difference between the numbers is explained by the inclusion of those Irish living in the ‘Islands in the British Seas,’ e.g., Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey etc, in the larger total)

The corresponding 1841 census taken in Ireland reveals that the population stood at an all-time high of 8,196,597, which represented 30.7% of the UK total. By the time of the next census in 1851 the effects of the so-called potato famine had dramatically reduced the population to only 6,547,278 with at least 1 million people having died from starvation, or famine fever. Those peasants who could raise sufficient funds to flee overseas were obliged to sail to Britain, from whose major ports they could embark for destinations abroad. The majority entered Britain through Liverpool – a port which had considerable experience in shipping human cargo to North America dating back to its shameful participation in the slave trade. During 1846, some 280,000 Irish refugees arrived in Liverpool, while in 1847 the Liverpool Magistrate, Edward Rushton, reported that 296,331 Irish entered the city during the 11 months from 13 January until 13 December.

It is estimated that less than half of these Irish would eventually sail away from Britain. Most were too destitute to afford the passage across the Atlantic and had only managed to come to Britain because landlords and their agents had taken advantage of the famine to clear their lands and had paid their fare. This is reflected in the increase of Irish listed in the 1851 census as living in England and Wales, which had risen by more than 230,000 to 519,959.

Number of Irish in Britain nearly rivals that in America by 1851

Scotland, too, had witnessed a significant influx of Irish, with famine refugees, primarily from north-east Ireland, causing its Irish-born population to increase by more than 80,000 to 207,367, or 7.2% of Scotland’s total population of 2,888,742. Once again, most of these Irish settled in the industrial centres of the Clyde valley with 29% of all Irish in Scotland living in Glasgow, while 35.8% of the population of Coatbridge was Irish born.

The combined total of Irish living in Britain at the time of the 1851 census was therefore 727,326, which was not too far behind the number of Irish enumerated in the United States at the time of the 1850 census, which stood at 961,719. This gap widened in succeeding decades, in large part because those who had established themselves in America were able to send money home to Ireland to enable other family members to make the trans-Atlantic crossing.

Census Year

United States

Census Year

England & Wales























The extent of the exodus from Ireland can be judged by the fact that between 1841 and 1881 the country’s population fell by 3,021,761, or 36.9%, to only 5,174,836, while between 1851 and 1881 2,628,858 Irish emigrants left Britain and Ireland for destinations beyond Europe. Within England and Wales the proportion of Irish there compared with the number of Irish in Ireland had dramatically increased. In 1841 there were 36 Irish in England and Wales to every 1,000 in Ireland, in 1851 there were 80, in 1861 there were 105, in 1871 there were 107, in 1881 there were 111. During the same time period the population of Ireland as a percentage of the United Kingdom population fell from 30.7% to only 14.8%.

The 1861 census is probably the most interesting of those above as it shows the peak total of Irish in Britain during the 19th century. It also reveals that these people were still flocking to the same centres of industrial employment to which their fellow countrymen had been drawn in previous decades.

1861 Census


Total population


% of total


















Irish serving in the British military at the time of the 1881 Census:

British Army total strength: 186,428
Irish Officers: 1,906
NCOs & Men: 37,565

British Army serving abroad total strength: 94,251
Irish: 20,959

Royal Navy serving abroad total strength: 21,493
Irish: 1,697

Royal Marines serving abroad total strength: 3,612
Irish: 241

Between the census of 1891 and the census of 1901, 465,232 Irish emigrants left home for overseas destinations whereas the number of Irish immigrants to Britain had dropped to fewer than 4,000 annually. Without a fresh infusion of young immigrants to replenish Britain’s aging Irish community, the number of Irish in Britain began to decline.

1901 Census

Total population

Irish born










Combined total




This trend continued during the next three decades:

1911 Census

Total population

Irish born

England & Wales






Combined total




1921 Census

Total population

Irish born

England & Wales






Combined total




The 1921 census was the first which revealed whether an Irish person was from the 26 counties of Southern Ireland, or the six counties of Northern Ireland. Of the 159,020 Irish-born people living in Scotland it was not surprising, given the proximity that more than half, 88,397, were born in the Six Counties. In England and Wales 65,491 were born in the Six Counties, 281,190 were born in Southern Ireland and 18,066 were not defined.

1931 Census

Total population

Irish born

England & Wales






Combined total




An initial glance at the 1931 census would appear to confirm the irreversible decline of the Irish immigrant population. The statistics show, however, that although there had been a further drop of 18,382, this decrease of Irish born was largely confined to Scotland and reflected the decline in many of Scotland’s traditionally labour intensive industries. Scotland’s Irish population had fallen by 34,724, or 21.8%, compared with the 1921 census, while the Irish born in Glasgow now only represented 4.8% of that city’s total population compared with the peak high of 15.8% in 1861. Irish culture remained strong, however, amongst 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation Irish in Scotland, as it still is today, and anti-Irish prejudice remained equally strong, as can be seen from the following quote from a 1923 publication called ‘The Menace of the Irish Race to Our Scottish Nationality’, which stated that the Irish, “…cannot be assimilated and absorbed into the Scottish race. They remain a people by themselves, segregated by reason of their race, their customs, their traditions and above all, by their loyalty to their church.”

In contrast with the falling Irish population in Scotland, in England and Wales, there were signs that the population was starting to recover, with 16,342 more Irish people being registered in the 1931 census than in 1921. The number of Irish arriving was actually greater than this modest increase suggests with the true amount being masked by the deaths of many of the aging Irish who had migrated to Britain in the latter decades of the 19th century. It is noticeable, too, that the Irish were beginning to settle away from away from their traditional strongholds, in towns and cities such as Birmingham in Warwickshire and its neighbour, Coventry, which was developing into the centre of the UK’s automobile industry.

Between 1945 and 1951, 100,000 Irish emigrate to assist in the massive reconstruction of Britain

There were several reasons why Irish immigration to Britain had increased. Despite the establishment of the Irish Free State in Ireland’s southern 26 counties, many people had become disenchanted with the economic and social conditions there. Due to the lack of employment opportunities, particularly for women and the unskilled, the lack of job security and the lack of marriage prospects, emigration once again seemed to be the best option for young Irish people. The opportunity to make a new life in the United States had, however, been severely curtailed by the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 which had introduced a strict quota system to limit immigration. There were still good jobs and good pay to be had in Britain, though, which made the thought of moving there more attractive. The fact that most Irish people already had family members living there and the close proximity of the two countries, made the break seem far less complete and traumatic than emigration across the Atlantic.

Between 1924 and 1937, 232,911 people left Ireland in search of work in Britain. This steady migration was brought to a temporary halt by the outbreak of war in 1939, as people who were concerned about the possibility of Luftwaffe bombing raids, or the likelihood of being conscripted into Britain’s armed forces, returned to the relative safety of neutral Ireland. Before long, however, migration resumed, aided by a growing manpower shortage that threatened British war production and forced the government to begin recruiting workers in Ireland.

Although no census was taken in 1941 and no immigration figures were recorded for the duration of the war, an idea of the numbers of Irish who availed themselves of the opportunity to work in Britain can be judged from the 198,537 travel permits issued by the Dublin-based United Kingdom Permit Office between 1940 and 1945. Some of these workers were assigned by government departments to munitions or aircraft factories, while a smaller number worked in agriculture but most were assigned to the role of the traditional Irish navvy in major civil engineering projects and in making safe many of Britain’s bomb-damaged buildings.

The end of the war in 1945 brought about the lifting of travel restrictions and emigration from Ireland to Britain resumed at pre-war levels. The Irish Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems estimated that between 1945 and 1951, 100,000 Irish people had emigrated in search of the high wages being paid to those who were participating in the massive reconstruction of Britain and the security offered by the welfare state.

The 1951 census shows the extent to which the Irish community had grown since the previous census of 1931.

1951 Census

Total pop.

Irish born

1951 census

Irish born

1931 census

Increase/decrease compared with 1931

England & Wales










Great Britain

Combined Total






The Irish continued to turn their backs on the less secure jobs in the cotton mills, coalfields and shipyards of northern England and Scotland and instead chose to settle in the towns of the English midlands and south-east which were less reliant on traditional heavy industry and offered greater prospects. Coventry, Britain’s ‘Motor City’, now had the highest proportion of Irish of any city in Britain, with 291.5 per 10,000 people being from the Irish Republic, compared with 240 per 10,000 in Birmingham, 222 per 10,000 in Manchester and only 172.5 per 10,000 in Liverpool.

Throughout the 1950s, Britain witnessed an influx of Irish immigration at levels not seen since the Famine. Between 1950 and 1961, 399,987 people left the Irish Republic and by the time of the 1961 census their numbers in Britain had reached 950,978, exceeding even the post-Famine peak of 1861. Of this total 870,445 were living in England and Wales, while 80,533 were living in Scotland. The Irish community in Britain now formed the largest concentration of Irish-born people living outside Ireland and was almost three times greater than the 338,722 Irish-born people living in the United States at the time of the 1960 US census.

Although Irish immigration began to tail off during the 1960s, it was not until the early 1970s that the Irish population in Britain reached its highest ever total. The 1971 census showed that the combined total of migrants from Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic was 957,830, which was roughly equal to a third of the population of the Irish Republic, or nearly a quarter of the population of the whole of Ireland.

The following decade saw the Irish community decline by roughly 100,000 as many of the post-WW2 immigrants who had reached retirement age took advantage of inexpensive property prices in Ireland and returned ‘home.’

1981 Census

Total pop.

Irish Rep.

Northern Irl.

Irish not stated

All Irish

England & Wales












Combined total







During the 1980s, the reverse flow of aging migrants continued, while many other elderly migrants began to die, yet the 1991 census showed only a slight reduction in Britain’s Irish population which stood at 837,464. The reason for this was the poor performance of the Irish economy, which resulted in net emigration of 157,000 people during the decade, two thirds of whom settled in Britain.

1991 Census

Total pop.

Irish Rep.

Northern Irl.

Irish not stated

All Irish



















Combined total







This latest influx of immigrants differed from their predecessors in that they were mostly very young and highly educated, but like the 1950s migrants, they continued the drift away from the cities of Scotland and northern England towards better paid jobs in the midlands and southeast.


Total population

Irish born

% of total

Greater London




West Midlands




Greater Manchester




Yorkshire & Humberside




Tyne and Wear








Glasgow City









By the time of the 2001 census, Ireland’s so-called Celtic Tiger economy had resulted in many recent Irish migrants returning home, actively encouraged by jobs fares held by Irish-based companies, which recruited amongst the exiled community in England. These departures, combined with an increase in deaths amongst the aging ‘50s generation, caused the Irish population in Britain to fall by nearly 90,000 compared with the 1991 census.

The 2001 census was the first time that Irish people could record their Irish ethnicity, yet, in a gross display of ethnic discrimination, the only category box provided was ‘White Irish’ as though white Irish people are the only authentic Irish. There was no option for the growing number of Black Irish, Asian Irish, Mixed-Race Irish to record their Irish ethnicity. This has caused some confusion regarding the true size of the Irish community, with many commentators stating that the total number of Irish living in England and Wales was 691,232, which is actually only the number of ‘White Irish.’ In reality, there were 20,569 Irish born people living in Wales and 674,786 in England, giving a combined total of 695,355. Published 2001 census statistics for Scotland also provided just the ‘White Irish’ option but further complicated matters by rounding up to the nearest thousand rather than giving precise numbers. The 55,000 Irish purportedly living in Scotland brought the total Irish population within Britain up to 750,355. The Irish community was still, therefore, the largest foreign born population living in Britain (as it been for 200 years) despite decades of immigration from Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the West Indies.

The Irish community no longer forms the largest immigrant bloc

Although by 2001 the number of Irish-born people living in Britain was declining, the number of people in Britain with Irish heritage was shown to be exceptionally high. A 2001 ICM survey estimated that as many as 14,000,000 people – roughly 25% of Britain’s population – had up to 25% Irish ancestry. A 2006 report in The Guardian newspaper stated that 6 million people in Britain had at least one Irish grandparent and were therefore entitled to an Irish passport.

The initial releases of data from the 2011 census show that there were 214,988 people from Northern Ireland and 407,357 from the Irish Republic living in England and Wales. The combined total of 622,345 is 73,010 fewer than the 2001 figure. The Scottish 2011 census reported that there were 36,655 people from Northern Ireland and 22,952 from the Irish Republic living in Scotland giving a combined total of 59,607, which means that there were 681,952 Irish living in Britain.

For the first time, the Irish community no longer formed the largest foreign-born group and had fallen into third place behind those from India and Poland. The Irish-born population will continue to fall rapidly given that their median age is 61.7, the oldest of any ethnic group, and that 1 in 3 Irish people is over 65, compared with only 1 in 6 for the general population. These figures would be even worse were it not for the recent arrival of a fresh wave of Irish migrants in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. In the five years after the Irish economic collapse, from 2008 until 2013, more than 200,000 Irish people emigrated. Of these, 68,500 went to Australia, 26,500 to the United States, 13,900 to Canada, but 89,400 crossed the sea to Ireland’s nearest neighbour, Britain. One reason for this is the lack of visa restrictions to Britain compared with other destinations, and also the highly paid jobs on offer in the English southeast where the new generation of highly educated and mobile Irish are more likely to be managing construction projects and serving as engineers and architects, than digging holes and carrying bricks. 12.8% of Britain’s Irish community are now employed as managers, directors and senior officials, and 27.5% are in professional occupations. There is another reason, too, why the latest Irish migrants have chosen to settle in Britain and it is one of the reasons why previous generations also settled there -- the proximity to family, friends and 'home.'

Views: 2622

Tags: 19th Century, Immigration, Irish in Britain

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on March 24, 2016 at 7:16am

Thank you Kiron Punch for all of these statistics -- I could have done with these when I was writing my Grandmothers story -- That's Just How It Was. They will certainly come in handy for referencing my next installment of her life .

Comment by T.S.Flynn on March 25, 2016 at 2:14am

Great article Kieran, especially the statistics for the British Army, I would suspect that if one included the sons of Irish who had enlisted in their father's regiments, the number of Irishmen would be much higher.

Comment by Kieron Punch on March 30, 2016 at 4:44pm

Many sons would have been born to Irish soldiers who were stationed in India and may have enlisted as boy soldiers in their father's regiments. It is not surprising that Kimball O'Hara, the titular character of Rudyard Kipling's novel, 'Kim', was the orphaned son of an Irish soldier.


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