You Asked Sherry: Irish Migration to Britain, by Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot

Emigration from Ireland to the United States, Canada, and Australia has received a lot of attention from historians and genealogists. Much less attention has been given to the Irish who moved to mainland Britain–England, Scotland, or Wales. This is surprising considering that Britain was the second most popular destination for Irish emigrants in the nineteenth century and the most popular destination in the twentieth century. Overall, next to the United States, Britain has received the second highest number of Irish immigrants.

The lack of information on these emigrations has a direct bearing on genealogical research. It can be a challenge to find the origins of ancestors who crossed the Irish Sea.

Lack of Historical Data
There is less information about migration from Ireland to Britain because such moves were regarded as internal, within the same country. Before 1922, anyone going from Ireland to Britain was simply changing counties and no one saw any need to record the migrants. As a result, historians have found it difficult to come up with numbers.

Census returns are the best sources of data because from the first nominal census in 1841 everyone was required to provide information about their birthplace. For those born in Ireland, there was never a requirement to record anything more than “Ireland” as the birthplace, although some enumerators added the county name in 1851 and later returns.

The statistics of the census returns reveal that highest numbers of Irish-born in Britain were recorded in 1861 in the post-famine period and larger numbers in 1951 and 1971. Scotland remained a popular choice up to the 1930s attracting nearly a third of the Irish who moved to mainland Britain, but Scotland was much less popular after the Second World War. In Glasgow the Irish-born population swelled from 10 percent in 1819 to 25 percent in 1845. This number became even higher as a result of the famine.

There is almost no information about the religious persuasion of Irish immigrants to England, Scotland, and Wales. The common assumption is that most were Catholic, but in his book, “The Irish Diaspora,” Donald Akenson argues that as many as twenty to thirty percent were not; numbers varied with the time period.

A Short, Inexpensive Voyage
At the closest point, the distance across the Irish Sea is thirteen miles. The main ports of entry into Britain were Liverpool, Bristol, and Glasgow. By 1830, nine different vessels were making trips from Glasgow to several Irish ports up to four times every week (Belfast, Londonderry, Newry, Dublin, Cork). It cost ten pence for steerage and three pence for deck passage. By comparison, a voyage to North America cost five pounds. (There were 12 pence to the shilling, 20 shillings to the pound.)

Many Irish were migrant laborers before they made their move to England, Scotland, or Wales permanent. They worked as agricultural laborers and in the construction of canals and railways. When they settled permanently many worked in the mills. They came because there was work, and although their wages in Britain were low, wages were many times what they could make in Ireland.

Research Advice
Chances of finding origins depend on when your ancestors moved and whether or not their surname was common. It may also depend on where they settled.

Those of you who have ancestors who went to Scotland and had one or more events recorded in civil registration there have the best chance of success. The records begin in 1855 and may reveal vital facts, including date and place of marriage in Ireland, names of parents, and place of origin. The civil registration records of England and Wales are not so informative. A marriage record provides the names of the fathers of the bride and groom but offers no information about marriage place. Birth and death records are not much help either, the most helpful detail being the maiden name of the mother on a child’s birth certificate.

Census records should be examined and, if you are lucky, an enumerator will have recorded the county of birth in Ireland. Registers of the Catholic Church may offer facts about family members and origins but best of all are the Glasgow Poor Law records. Considerable detail was recorded for every individual who received relief. In addition, these records have been indexed.

It is important that you read about the records of the area of settlement in England or Scotland or Wales. Also, that you know about Irish records so you can make the move from facts and records in one country to facts and records in Ireland. Helpful books and websites are listed below:

Further Reading and Websites
Akenson, Donald A. The Irish Diaspora. Belfast: Queen’s University, 1996.
Ouimette, Dave. Finding Your Irish Ancestors. Ancestry, 2005.
Irvine, Sherry. Scottish Ancestry: Research Methods for Family Historians. Ancestry, 2003
Irvine, Sherry. Your English Ancestry. Ancestry, 1998.

Moving Here–Irish Migration

BBC History–The Census as Source Material

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Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot, is an author, teacher, and lecturer specializing in English, Scottish, and Irish family history. She is the author of “Your English Ancestry” (2d ed., 1998 and “Scottish Ancestry” (2003) (, and she is a contributor to several publications. Since 1996, she has been a study tour leader, course coordinator, and instructor for the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University. Recently she served a two-year term as president of the Association of Professional Genealogists.

Online Classes
Sherry Irvine is among the instructors for a series of online family history courses at PharosTutors. For more information, visit their website:

7 thoughts on “You Asked Sherry: Irish Migration to Britain, by Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot

  1. Hi Sherry,

    If my Anglo-Irish ancestors are any indication, they left Ireland for England not only for better economic prospects, but also because they just couldn’t stand it any more, particularly those who left in the 20th century. They were Church of Ireland. Knowing Co. Kerry and particularly Tralee, as I now do a bit better, almost no Protestants remain. I have two distant cousins who left Tralee in 1962 in part because “they would never be able to marry” if they stayed. Co. Kerry is now 98% Catholic.

  2. The volume of migrants are also recorded in the WW1 battalions. Of my Irish ancestors who arrived c 1848 and came to Tyneside – Elswick in Newcastle, one served in the third Tyneside Irish battalion – a measure of the numbers! Most of the battalion, despite the name, were Durham miners. I am advised by those who are experts in linquistics that the Durham ex pit villages still reflect their Irish or Welsh ancestry in the dialects.

    I gather that the Irish were generally disapproved of and certainly I never heard anyone talk about the Irish background of my greatgrandfather on my mother’s side Patrick Davy who was a miner.

    However the Finlays – my grandmother – paternal side – were part of a very active catholic population on Tyneside – reflected too in th ecatholic burials. This pert of the family, whilst surviving the worst of the famine, were tradesmen – the initial migrant, James Finlay was a carpenter, the son of a cooper from Monagahan – near Shercock in Co Cavan. He married in Shercock but his wife, Ann Callaghan was given as already residing in Newcastle but coming from Cavan.

    Hope this helps! Interestingly during the troubles, Tyneside was mercifully free of Orange lodge activity, unlike Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow perhaps reflecting the catholic make up of the population in Newcastle.

    Best wishes, Liz
    PS as your article suggested I also traced the Finleys via the census and followed it up with trips to Dublin where I searched BMDs and then the terriers – land rental books.

  3. I read lots on Irish to Britain. How about British to Ireland. My g-g-grandfather, Thomas Hobbins (born about 1779), probably born in England because Hobbins is English, married an Irish lass named Bridget Boylan. They produced children in Tipperary, the first being James (born about 1815), who married Bridget Scully, and eventually moved to the United States, settling in Wisconsin.
    Does anyone have any data on why an Englishman would move to Ireland in the early 1880’s. Was there an insurrection taking place around then? Can anyone comment?

  4. My Irish ancestor, at least we believe he was Irish, was a Bolger (sometimes spelled Bulger in the US Census records, who was living in central Pennsylvania as early as 1790. He was probably born around 1750. Are there any records as to why someone might have come from Ireland that early?

  5. Thanks for your work. Is there any research publicly available for Irish emigration to England in the 16th & 17th centuries? I know records are hard to come by in Ireland in those years, but England may have more. The chaos that arose from the crimes of Cromwell the Usurper may have resulted in an almost total loss of records and organization, except for some parish documents.

  6. William Johnson (also spelled Johnston) born in Belfast 1837.
    Father Irish, Mother born in Scotland
    Came to America by way of Australia in 1860
    Married in California
    Died in Oregon

    Any clue on how to research this man before coming to America and parents would be appreciated.

  7. My comment is really for Angelia Alexander on why an Irishman might have come to America so early. My ancester, William Smith Bryan his wife and 11 sons and three daughters, were exiled to America. I understand that WS tried to set himself up as King of Ireland! That would surely upset the British crown. Perhaps your ancester did something to upset the crown, too.

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