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A Nation of Emigrants or Immigrants?
The Challenge of Integration in Ireland and Portugal

By Claire Healy


Portugal and Ireland are often overlooked in the search for international best practice in migration policy. Both situated at the Western Atlantic periphery of the European Union, the two countries have experienced distinct historical trajectories. In the past, Ireland was settled, conquered and governed through various means by its larger neighbour. Portugal, on the other hand, despite its small size, presided over an international trade and colonisation network that spanned the globe, encompassing at various times islands in the Atlantic Ocean, parts of South America, West Africa, India and Southeast Asia (Oliveira e Costa & Lacerda 2007). Today, both Portugal and Ireland are experiencing unprecedented levels of inward migration. While the economic and social reality of immigration is a fait accompli, the transition in identity from countries of emigration to countries of immigration is far more fraught. 

During the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was a significant level of migratory movement between Portugal and Ireland, largely related to trade networks and fishing enterprises. In present times, travel between the two countries is characterised by the settlement of Portuguese migrant workers in Northern Ireland, commencing around 2000 (Holder & Lanao 2005), and by Irish tourists returning year after year to holiday resorts in the Algarve. This article does not seek to examine movements between the two countries, but rather to compare the recent immigration histories of Ireland and Portugal. 

The heady days of the mass trans-Atlantic migration of the nineteenth century left their mark on Portugal and Ireland (see, for example, O’Sullivan 1992-97; Garcia et al. 1998). There are significant Portuguese and Irish communities in the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa, among other destinations, whose origins date back to Europe’s ‘age of migration’ in the nineteenth century (Bade 2000). Portuguese migrants in the nineteenth century often followed the pattern of colonisation, settling in Angola, Mozambique and the Atlantic Islands, as well as in Brazil. Irish migration generally followed in the wake of British colonisation, with Irish migrants showing a preference for Anglophone countries such as Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain itself.

The twentieth century saw a marked shift in migratory flows from Portugal and Ireland, which - particularly from the 1950s onwards - were directed to more prosperous countries within Europe. Portuguese migrant workers moved to Germany, France and Belgium, while Irish emigrants made the short trip to the industrial cities of Great Britain. Regardless of their destination, however, the experience of emigration was associated in the national imagination with heartbreak, exile and saudade (roughly translated as homesickness), and was expressed in cultural forms such as fado songs in Portugal and sean-nós songs in Ireland. The demographic watershed in the 1990s, when the two countries began to experience a sustained period of positive net migration, required therefore a dramatic reinterpretation of national identities and government policies alike. 

Mass emigration from Ireland and Portugal continued until the 1980s. In an actual as well as an emotional sense, the experience of emigration has been hugely significant to the histories of Portugal and Ireland, and to contemporary perceptions of identity. Remittances sent back by migrants, as well as skills acquired by returning emigrants, have been hugely significant to the Portuguese and Irish economies. The Portuguese economic recovery has been more gradual than the Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy of the 1990s and 2000s, yet the salience of inward migration in both cases should not be under-estimated. 

In terms of the contemporary immigration experience, the two countries share many similarities, and even the most cursory examination of their immigration and integration policies demonstrates the potential for mutual learning. Portugal and Ireland experienced the transition from net emigration to net immigration in 1993 and 1996 respectively, and were the last of the fifteen pre-2004 European Union member states to do so. The immigration policies - and to a lesser extent, integration policies - of both countries are significantly influenced by those of their larger neighbours, Spain and Great Britain, with which they share land borders. 

The populations of the two countries are small by Western European standards, though the population of Portugal - 10.6 million - is over twice that of the population of the Republic of Ireland - 4.2 million. Together with emigration, the Roman Catholic religion has played and continues to play an important role in both Portuguese and Irish society, with about 90% of the populations of each country classifying themselves as Roman Catholic - though less than a third attend mass regularly in both cases.

Yet in some significant respects, there is a divergence in the histories and current situations of Portugal and Ireland. Contemporary immigration to Portugal, like historical emigration from Portugal, is to some extent conditioned by the country’s colonial past, with a significant proportion of immigrants hailing from Brazil, Angola, Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde islands. Portugal’s immigration history was indelibly marked by the collapse of the European colonial powers in Africa in the mid-1970s, leading to a mass migration phenomenon known in Portugal as ‘the Return of the Caravels.’ This was fictionalised within the magic realism tradition by the acclaimed writer António Lobo Altunes (Altunes 2000 & 2002).

Table 1. Foreign-Born Populations in Europe (EU/EEA and Switzerland), 2005
Country Size of foreign-born population, 2005 (thousands) Foreign-born as share of total population, 2005 (percent) Share of foreign-born with citizenship of country of residence, 2000-04 (percent)*
Austria 1,234 15.1 41
Belgium 719 6.9 41
Cyprus** 116 13.9  
Czech Republic 453 4.4 80
Denmark 388 7.2 40
Estonia 202 15.2  
Finland 156 3.0 42
France 6,471 10.7 53
Germany 10,144 12.3 46
Greece 974 8.8 42
Hungary 316 3.1 71
Ireland 585 14.1 45
Italy 2,519 4.3  
Latvia 449 19.5  
Lithuania 165 4.8  
Luxembourg 177 37.4 13
Malta 11 2.7 65
Netherlands 1,638 10.1  
Poland 703 1.8 96
Portugal 764 7.3 66
Slovakia 124 2.3 84
Slovenia 167 8.5  
Spain 4,790 8.5 31
Sweden 1,117 12.4 63
UK 5,408 9.1  
Subtotal 39,790 8.6  
Other EEA and Switzerland
Iceland 23 7.3  
Liechtenstein 12 33.9  
Norway 334 7.4 48
Switzerland 1,660 22.9 29
Total 41,829 8.9  

Note: * Latest available year (2000-2004). ** Greek part of Cyprus only.
Source: OECD Database, UN Migration Database (2005)



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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 7 September 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Healy, Claire, 'A Nation of Emigrants or Immigrants?: The Challenge of Integration in Ireland and Portugal' in Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, 5:2 (July 2007), pp. 117-120. (www.irlandeses.org), accessed .


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