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The great escape: an eye-opening anthology of Irish emigration

History: The Irish Diaspora

Edited by John Gibney

Pen & Sword, 154 pages, hardback €19.29; Kindle £7.19

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Brave new world: Irish emigrants on one of the 'coffin ships' crossing the Atlantic during the Great Famine

Brave new world: Irish emigrants on one of the 'coffin ships' crossing the Atlantic during the Great Famine

The Irish Diaspora, edited by John Gibney

The Irish Diaspora, edited by John Gibney

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Brave new world: Irish emigrants on one of the 'coffin ships' crossing the Atlantic during the Great Famine

In February 1995, President Mary Robinson exercised her constitutional right to address both Houses of the Oireachtas on "a matter of national or public importance". The title of her speech was 'Cherishing the Irish Diaspora', which some advisers in Áras an Uachtaráin thought sounded too obscure. "I sounded out my father," Robinson recalled in her autobiography Everybody Matters. "'Definitely use the word diaspora Mary,' he said, 'the Irish love new words'."

A quarter of a century later, it's clear that Dr Aubrey Bourke's judgement was right. The Irish diaspora is now widely recognised as a constituency of about 70 million people to be honoured, memorialised and occasionally milked for hard cash. Leo Varadkar did his career no harm at all when, as Minister for Tourism, he invited anyone with Irish ancestry home for The Gathering in 2013 - even if the actor Gabriel Byrne dubbed the initiative "a scam" and "a shakedown". As John Gibney writes in his introduction to this impressively diverse collection of essays first published in History Ireland magazine, Irish people have been leaving these shores ever since boats were invented. To quote just some of the more startling statistics, about eight million departed between the Act of Union in 1801 and the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921.

When Queen Victoria came to the throne, almost 43pc of her army was Irish, while by the end of the Great Famine, New York had more Irish residents than Dublin. Independence did not stem the tide and in 1931 one out of every four people born here was living abroad.