The story of Mayo is in many ways a story of emigration. The 3.5 million people worldwide who can claim connection with the county are the product of that phenomenon, of the countless thousands who took the hard choice to make a long journey and create a new life.
Emigration from Mayo is most associated with the United States and Britain but emigrants have gone everywhere – with large communities to be found in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa among others.
In this increasingly globalised world the number and geographical range of emigrants from Mayo is growing – so in the Arabian Gulf, China, Russia, Brazil, India, or wherever you might be, you will find people with Mayo connections.
The Famine did not create emigration from Mayo as voluntary emigration had been a phenomenon for at least a century before. Seasonal workers heading for the farms of England and Scotland was an old and persistent custom all along the west coast. And involuntary emigration (essentially slavery) from Ireland and Mayo is as old as time itself.
The catastrophe of the Great Famine of 1845-50 transformed the situation however in terms of the numbers impacted – and the burden fell heaviest on those living on the west coast, including Mayo.
Emigration from Ireland is often described as happening in ‘waves’ and these have ebbed and flowed since the Famine. In recent times, the wave of the 1980s was stemmed in the 90s until the economic recession from 2008 on, when a new generation of Mayo people (the Skype Emigrants) followed the pattern of their ancestors and once more headed off around the world.
Many of our emigrants eventually returned and enriched the county with the skills, experiences and hard-earned money they brought back with them.
Mayo people felt it was especially appropriate when Ballina-born Mary Robinson President of Ireland 1990-97, lit a light in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin to remember the diaspora.
It was done for those from all of Ireland – but it had a special meaning in Mayo.
Many of our emigrants have done great things around the world.
Many, perhaps more simply, but no less importantly, built new lives and opportunities and provided for their loved ones.
Many, unfortunately, fell on hard times and struggled in an alien world where chances became fewer and hardships only increased.
The famous song, the Boys of the County Mayo, tells much of the story – and speaks of the pride, and the sometimes necessary defiance, of those who left.
University College Cork has developed a wonderful resource concerning Irish songs about emigration, including the Boys of the County Mayo.
The Mayo County Library has a wealth of resources about emigration – which will provide a great starting point for your research.
RTÉ also has a wealth of resources about emigration in its archives – including this amazing piece from the 1960s about emigration from Killasser.
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