19th-century illustration of emigrants leaving Queenstown in Ireland
VoxEU Column Economic history Migration

The Irish in England

There is a pervasive sense that the hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants to Britain since the Industrial Revolution did not fare so well. This column compares the wealth at death and infant mortality of the Irish in England with the English average from 1838 to 2018. Throughout, the Irish in England persisted as an underclass, with little social mobility even in the 20th century. Much of this is attributable to the Irish experience in the North of England. The relentless addition of young, poorly educated immigrants to the stock of Irish in England may also be a factor.

The successful assimilation of ethnic minorities into Western economies is one of the biggest challenges facing the modern world (Mayda 2018, Fouka et al. 2020). The history of the Irish in England provides an important case study of such assimilation. Even before the Great Famine of the 1840s, the Industrial Revolution had attracted hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants to Britain.

While the literature on the Irish in Britain is voluminous and interdisciplinary, studies of how they fared in material terms are rather few. How long did it take them to converge with the rest of the population in terms of economic wellbeing and health? Or did they converge? There is a pervasive sense in the literature that, unlike their cousins who opted for emigration further afield, the stories of the Irish in Britain were not, by and large, ones of success (compare Anbinder et al. 2022).

In a new paper (Cummins and Ó Gráda 2022; compare Cummins 2019), we address these questions using the universe of probate and vital registers of births and deaths from England between 1838 and 2018. To assign ethnicity, we use the 36 million de-anonymised individual records from the special access version of the 1911 census to examine the distribution of place of birth for the over 500,000 surnames (Schurer and Higgs 2021). We define a surname as Irish if the proportion of surname holders born in Ireland of a given surname is above a threshold level in 1911. We measure the status of these Irish through wealth at death and infant mortality, relative to the English average. Thus, we capture ethnic inequality both at the start and end of life. The results are stark. From at least the mid-19th century the Irish in England have persisted as an underclass.

Figure 1 presents the pattern of wealth for the four home nationalities in England, from 1858 to 2018. Wealth is normalised so that the wealth of those with English names is set to one. The Scots are probated at a higher rate, are richer on average, and have 50% greater representation among the top 1% of wealth holders. This advantage has declined over time. By 1960, proportions probated and, by 1990, wealth are both approximately equal to that of the English. However, the top-1% Scottish effect is ever-present from 1858 to 1992. Throughout, the Welsh and the English have almost the same probate rate, but the Welsh are always poorer and have a lower probability of being in the top 1%. However, Welsh average wealth is close to the English by around 1990.

Figure 1 The wealth of the Irish and British, 1858–2018

Figure 1 The wealth of the Irish and British, 1858–2018

Notes: English surnames are set to one in all figures.

The Irish do not share in this convergence. Throughout, they have a lower probate rate, lower average wealth, and lower probabilities of being in the top 1%. Proportions probated are at least 20% lower than the English from 1858 to 1990. In 2019, they are 10% less. Average wealth for the Irish is about 75% that of the English throughout, and the Irish have about 75% of the English probability of being in the top 1%.

Using linked wealth-death data, we show that this Irish effect is robust to age controls. Thus this lower wealth is not an artefact of the return migration of richer, older Irish to Ireland. The Irish wealth penalty is not a result of older Irish leaving England. Nor is it a result of locational choice. We further show that these wealth and death penalties faced by the Irish in English are robust to alternative surname-based methods of ethnic classification.

Figure 2 presents the pattern of infant mortality for the four nationalities in England, from 1866 to 2007. In Figure 2(b) infant mortality is normalised so that of the English is set to one, as with wealth. English, Scottish, and Welsh ethnicities have broadly similar infant mortality rates from 1866 to 2007. The Irish register infant mortality rates were 20% to 25% higher than the English standard until the 1930s, with a slow convergence to the standard by the 1980s. Using linked birth-death data, we show that about 50% of the Irish infant-mortality effect is due to sorting between registration districts.

Figure 2 The infant mortality rate, major ethnicities, 1866–2007

Figure 2 The infant mortality rate, major ethnicities, 1866–2007

The Irish in England are significantly poorer at death and, until recently, faced higher mortality for their infants than the English. This penalty persists even when we control for geography. However, it is still possible that there are different levels and trends in Irish assimilation between the different regions of England. To investigate this, we split England into its historic North and South division. For the South, we separate out London.

Figure 3 reports the trend of wealth for British and Irish ethnicities from 1860 to 1992, by region. It is evident that the majority of Irish underperformance is attributable to the Irish experience in the North. In the South (excluding London), the Irish are richer at death than the English, between 1860 and 1940. After 1940 the Irish fall behind the English, but the scale of the wealth gap, at around 10%, is small relative to that observed in the North. In London, the Irish are always poorer than the English (apart from a brief period around 1920). But again this wealth gap is small (less than 10%), relative to that of the North.

Figure 3 Regional differences in the relative wealth of the Irish

Figure 3 Regional differences in the relative wealth of the Irish

Note: The English baseline is established by region. Ethnic classification is based on the 1911 census.

In the 19th century North, the Irish had 25% of the wealth of the English. This rose to about 70% by 1992. The scale of this wealth gap dwarfs that of the South and that of London. The infant mortality rates, reported in appendix figure, do not display the regional patterns of the wealth figures. We speculate that the urban penalty faced by migrants to both the North and South masks the status effect picked up by the wealth data. It is also worth noticing here that Scottish over-performance is not present in the North.

Figure 3 reveals that the overall Irish-in-England wealth ‘effect’ is driven mainly by a specific geographic penalty. It is not a simple interaction, however. It is not that the North is poorer and that this mechanically drives the observation of an Irish wealth penalty. For example, if the Irish disproportionally migrated to the poorer North, this could drive the appearance of a wealth penalty overall. The birth records reveal that the Irish did disproportionally migrate to the North, as reported in our paper. Before 1950 over 50% of Irish births were in the North compared to about 25% for the English. The Irish were also more likely to be found in London and have about half the likelihood of being found in the South. The Irish were twice as likely to be found in the poorer North than the native English.

Thus the North-South divide is an important element in the economic history of the Irish in England. But the underperformance of the Irish in England is not a result of disproportionate migration to the poorer North of England but rather underperformance driven by the experience of the Irish in the North of England.

To sum up, this Irish status effect could reflect poverty itself, discrimination, assimilation, or some mix of the three. By comparing the Irish in England to the poor English, we can explore this further. In a world where status, and wealth, persist across many generations, as claimed by Clark and Cummins (2015) for England over the sample period of this paper, the Irish ‘penalty’ could simply reflect the typical persistence of any identified poor group’s status.

To address this, we identify a set of poor and rich sub-groups of English and track their relative wealth over time. Starting with all ‘rare’ English surnames, defined as having between 3 and 200 holders dying 1866–1900, we calculate average wealth for every surname by combining the sum of probated wealth with the number of non-probated (whom we assume die with £1). We then compare these surname averages with the average for all English surnames over the same period. This gives us a snapshot of who was rich and who was poor, 1866–1900. We then define ‘super rich’ surnames as those that have wealth three times that of the average and ‘rich’ as above average. The ‘poor’ have wealth that is 10%–20% of average, and ‘super poor’ have wealth 10% of the average or less.

Figure 4 reports average wealth for these surnames during the period they were defined (1866–1900) and from 1900 to 1992. Notice that the regression to the mean is faster in the period immediately preceding the year the groups were defined. This is because some rare surnames will randomly have high wealth and some will randomly have low wealth. To measure social mobility we thus need to examine the wealth trajectories post-1900.

Figure 4 compares the Irish to this set of English wealth groups. The figure shows that the Irish, from 1858 to 1992, only very modestly regress towards English mean wealth but at a much slower rate than any of the English wealth groups. In fact, from 1920 to 1992, there is really no movement in the relative wealth of the Irish. Social mobility is not occurring for the Irish in England for most of the 20th century.

Figure 4 A distinctive Irish wealth pattern

Figure 4 A distinctive Irish wealth pattern

Notes: ‘Irish’ and ‘English’ are defined for a surname based on the distribution of holders’ locations of birth in the 1911 census. Taking rare English surnames with between 3 and 200 holders dying 1866–1900, we calculate average wealth by combining the sum of probated wealth with the number of non-probated, whom we assume die with £1. We then average wealth over each surname and compare it with the average for all English surnames. ‘Super rich’ surnames are those that have wealth three times that of the average and ‘rich’ are above average. ‘Poor’ have wealth that is 10–20% of the average, and ‘super poor’ have wealth 10% of the average or less. The figure shows that the Irish do not regress towards the mean 1920–92, and their wealth does not track that of the English ‘super poor’. Source: 100% Death Register and Probate Calendar Transcriptions.

Why the Irish persist as an underclass in England – poorer than even the English Victorian-defined ‘super poor’ in 1992 – remains somewhat of a puzzle. If it were a result of labour market discrimination against the Irish, then we would need to also explain why almost all other ethnicities over the sample period do not experience this (based on Cummins’ forthcoming work).

However, one possible mechanism could be the nature of the selectivity of migration from Ireland. The evidence presented here and in the wider literature is consistent with migration from Ireland to England being negatively selected. Perhaps the relentless addition of young, poorly educated immigrants to the stock of Irish in England helps to explain the persistence of Irish non-convergence, as in Figure 4.

By the same token, the scale of negatively selected migration from Ireland over most of the 20th century – by increasing human capital per capita in the sending economy – may have played some part in Ireland’s rapid economic growth towards the end of that century. A population consistently pruned of the bottom quartile of its human-capital distribution may find itself better primed for economic growth, once the right macro conditions are satisfied. The surprisingly rapid convergence of Irish and English living standards in the 1990s and 2000s may therefore be related to the issues discussed in this research.


Anbinder, T, C Ó Gráda and S Wegge (2022), “‘The best country in the world’: The surprising social mobility of New York’s Irish-Famine immigrants”, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 53(3): 1–32.

Clark, G, and N Cummins (2015), “Intergenerational wealth mobility in England, 1858–2012: Surnames and social mobility”, Economic Journal 125(582): 61–85.

Cummins, N (2019), “The missing English middle class: Evidence from 60 million death and probate records”, VoxEU.org, 24 February.

Cummins, N J, and C Ó Gráda (2022), “The Irish in England”, CEPR Discussion Paper 17439.

Fouka, V, S Mazumder and M Tabellini (2020), “From immigrants to Americans: Race and assimilation in the age of mass migration”, VoxEU.org, 27 March.

Mayda, A, G Peri and W Steingress (2018), “The political impact of immigration: Evidence from the US”, CEPR Press Discussion Paper 12848.

Schurer, K, and E Higgs (2021), “Integrated Census Microdata (I-CeM) names and addresses, 1851–1911: Special licence access [data collection]”, 2nd edition, UK Data Service, SN: 7856.