The CSO has just issued its annual Population and Migration Estimates for 2021, and 5+ million is the headline figure. That’s the estimated population of the Republic of Ireland – the first time the population has been this high since 1851. It’s an important milestone.

There’s another important story in the estimates, though. This is what has happened to migration patterns in the past year. The 2020 estimates covered the period to the end of April 2020, just as Covid was beginning to make its presence felt. The 2021 estimates cover the period from May 2020 to April 2021, and give the first indication of how Covid has affected migration to and from Ireland.

The first important point to note is that immigration to Ireland has dropped by around 24%: from 85,400 in 2020 to 65,200 in 2021. The last time immigration levels were this low was in 2013. While there have been falls across all immigrant groups, there’s a particularly marked fall in immigrants with a nationality other than UK or EU. This figure was 30,400 in 2020: it has more than halved, to 14,100, in 2021. This is probably largely connected to student visa holders: with the move to online teaching, students were no longer required to move to Ireland.

The second important point to note is that the level of emigration from Ireland remained relatively stable: 54,000 in 2021, compared to 56,500 in 2020. However, the proportion of Irish nationals emigrating has dropped to 42.2% in 2021, the lowest in a number of years. In contrast, the proportion of emigrants with a nationality other than UK or EU has increased, from 12.6% in 2015 to 28.5% in 2021: this is likely to include students, workers, and their families.

There have also been changes in where emigrants are going. In 2021, 33% of all emigrants (18,200) went to the UK. In 2020, that proportion was 17.6%. In contrast, 12.6% of all emigrants went to Australia, Canada or the US in 2021, compared with 27% in 2020. There’s a long tradition of people moving from Ireland to the UK at times of crisis. Most recently, the numbers emigrating to the UK jumped from 7,600 in the year to April 2008, just before the period of austerity, to 20,000 just three years later, in the year to April 2011. Writing in 2008, geographer Bronwen Walter described:

“the ongoing need for Britain to provide a ‘safety-valve’ for vulnerable Irish people”

Bronwen Walter, 2008

This is evident in these Population and Migration Estimates, with Britain again becoming a significant destination for emigrants from Ireland.

The impact of the fall in immigration levels in particular, coupled with the increase in emigration of ‘Rest of World’ nationals (those with a nationality other than UK or EU), is beginning to be felt across Ireland. In the recent past, jobs in sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing and services were often taken by immigrants. These are sectors that are now reporting labour shortages (see Irish Times, Dáil Debates, Irish Examiner, and Farmers Journal).

As we emerge from Covid restrictions, it’s unclear what will happen to migration patterns in the near future, and what this will mean for Irish society. However, we do need to pay attention to what this CSO publication shows us: ongoing high levels of emigration, the continued significance of Britain as an emigrant destination (even with Brexit), and the important – if often hidden – role that migrants play in key sectors of the Irish economy and society.

Mary Gilmartin


New NIRSA Working Paper by Mary Gilmartin: The changing landscape of Irish migration, 2000-2012

Abstract: At the start of the twenty-first century there have been significant changes in patterns of migration to and from Ireland.  This paper provides a comprehensive account of available statistics on these migration patterns, and assesses the quality of this information, highlighting issues with the measurement of migrant flow in particular. The paper also provides information on migrant stock in Ireland, drawing on detailed information from the 2002, 2006 and 2011 Censuses.

Access PDF here

According to the CSO, just over 76,000 people migrated from Ireland in the year to April 2011. Almost 38,000 were female, which means that the gender breakdown was more equal than in 2010. The largest group of migrants was Irish men, at 23,100 (ca 30%), followed by Irish women, at 17,100 (ca 22%). Overall, though, there was a 4% drop in the number of migrant men, and a 51% increase in the number of migrant women, from the year to April 2010.

There was also an increase in the number of people moving to Ireland during the year. Just over 42,000 migrated to Ireland in the year to April 2011, an increase of over a third from the previous year. The largest increase is in the number of Irish people returning to Ireland, up from 13,300 to 17,100. There has also been a large increase (from 5,800 to 9,000) in EU12 nationals moving to Ireland, but this remains significantly lower than the peak year, 2007, when over 50,ooo EU12 nationals moved to Ireland.  Slightly more women than men moved to Ireland in the year to April 2011.

The ‘Rest of World’ remains the most significant destination for migrants from Ireland, with over 30,000 (ca 40%) people moving to places outside the EU and the USA. However, the UK has increased in importance as a destination, accounting for almost 19,000 (ca 25%) of all outward migration.

As in the case in previous years, a significant majority of migrants from Ireland fall into the 15-24 and 25-44 age categories (accounting for 43% and 45% respectively). However, the number of outward migrants in the age category 65 and over has doubled in the last year.

Mary Gilmartin

The CSO has just reported that net emigration from Ireland, in the year to April 2010, was 34,500 – the highest level of net emigration since 1989. Overall, around 65,300 people emigrated from Ireland: of these, 27,700 (42.4%) were Irish, and 40,400 (61.8%) were men. The two largest migrant groups, as reported by the CSO, were Irish men (15,800, or 24.1%) and men from the EU-12 (13,500, or 20.7%). The main destinations for emigrants were the UK (14,400, or 22%) and ‘Rest of World’ (23,300, or 35.7%). Levels of immigration to Ireland – particularly from the EU-12 – have decreased. However, around 30,800 people moved to Ireland in the year to April 2010: of these, 13,300 (43.2%) were Irish.

The CSO report is a snapshot and an estimate, but it does highlight three important trends. First is that the level of emigration of people with nationalities other than Irish has decreased, thus casting doubt on the idea of an ‘immigrant exodus‘. Second is the extent to which emigration is gendered: men – particularly with Irish and EU-12 nationalities – are emigrating at a much higher rate than women. This is notable in the 25-44 age group: 20,200 men who emigrated were in this age group, compared to 9,700 women. Third is that immigration to Ireland is continuing, though it is once again dominated by returning Irish nationals.

These figures are, as the CSO points out, estimates, but they are the best available information about migration to and from Ireland. They paint a more complex story than recent newspaper headlines, showing that emigration of Irish nationals has not yet come close to the levels of the 1980s, and that many recent immigrants to Ireland remain in the country. And they raise new questions that we urgently need to address, most importantly about the extent of male migration from Ireland and its impacts on communities across the country.

Mary Gilmartin