10 million of Ireland's citizens left. Here's why you should visit (2023)

(CNN) — With St. Patrick's Day a global phenomenon and Irish pubs found everywhere from Peru to Lanzarote, it can be easy to think you have a sense of Ireland without visiting, especially if you're one of the 70 million people worldwide who can claim Irish heritage.

However, to get a true feel for the modern energy of this little island nation, you need to visit, and most people start their journey on the streets of Dublin.

It's a compact, walkable capital city, its low-rise skyline and Georgian granite landmarks built on a human scale.

You can follow the River Liffey through the city center from Phoenix Park and Kilmainham Gaol in the west, past the Guinness Storehouse, Saint Patrick's Cathedral and Dublin Castle, out east to the newly rejuvenated Docklands.

Standing on Butt Bridge, you can see the old and new: traditional Dublin represented by the neoclassical Custom House, and beyond, the new towers of finance and the sweep of cranes, showing it getting even larger.

10 million of Ireland's citizens left. Here's why you should visit (1)

The River Liffey runs through the center of Dublin.

Courtesy Gareth McCormack

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On Custom House Quay sits one of the city's newest attractions: the EPIC Irish Emigration Museum, winner of Europe's Leading Tourist Attraction by the World Travel Awards for the past three years in a row.

Designed by the same award-winning team as Belfast's Titanic Museum, it tells the stories of 10 ten million or so people who have departed from Ireland over the centuries, for reasons ranging from famine to economic necessity to conflict to religious persecution.

They went to Britain, the United States, Australia and beyond, building railroads and farming frontier territory.

They brought their culture with them, storytelling ambassadors in their new nations, and created a new Irish mythology abroad. They and their descendants are the diaspora which museums such as EPIC wish to attract, and in 2013 an Irish tourism initiative, The Gathering, was dedicated to just this audience.

Tearful goodbyes and longed-for returns have become part of the national identity, the arrivals area at its airports filled with billboards aimed at homesick expats, hungry for Brennan's bread and Tayto crisps.

As then President Mary Robinson put it in 1996, "this great narrative of dispossession and belonging [...] has become, with a certain amount of historic irony, one of the treasures of our society." It's made the Irish an outward-looking people, strongly pro-European, and it's perhaps this legacy of hardship that makes it one of the world's most generous nations when it comes to charity donations.

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Music and dancing

10 million of Ireland's citizens left. Here's why you should visit (2)

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The Cobblestone in Smithfield is the city's top venue for live traditional music.


The best known of Ireland's cultural exports is, of course, the pub, but in pandemic-hit Ireland, many were forced to close for good.

CNN visited The Cobblestone, a north Dublin institution famed for its live traditional music that has just won a legal battle allowing it to survive.

"Believe it or not, this being the nation's capital, there's not many places that you can actually go and engage with that aspect of our culture here on a daily basis," said Tomás Mulligan, whose father Tom took over the Smithfield pub 30 years ago and turned it into the live music hub it is today.

The revival of Irish trad music went mainstream in the 1960s, emblematic of a new national pride in this still young nation, which this year marks 100 years of independence.

Tom Mulligan spoke recently on the Irish History Podcast about the global influences found in traditional Irish music and dancing, from Africa, Spain, America and beyond. "Ireland borrowed, certainly from being part of the British Empire and mainland Europe, they borrowed comings and goings," he said.

From "Danny Boy" (written by an Englishman) to "The Fields of Athenry," Ireland's most famous folk songs have been tales of exile and longing, while the now popular standard "She Moved Through the Fair" was a lost classic that only became popular again in Ireland after being rediscovered in America.

Similarly, country music is so popular in Ireland, it has its own subgenre: Country 'n' Irish. Riverdance also was an Irish-American global phenomenon born in Chicago.

The literary tradition

Modernity and transformation has altered much here, but it hasn't changed those parts of Dublin life that make this city what it is, and the institutions upon whose history it grew and still rests.

Trinity College, founded in 1592, is Ireland's oldest surviving university. The Brian Boru harp, Ireland's oldest, and the model for the country's insignia, is held in the spectacular Long Room library at Trinity College, also home to the ninth-century Gospel manuscript "The Book of Kells."

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CNN's Richard Quest suits up in full armor to experience some Irish pride and a part of the country's past.

Ireland prides itself on its storytelling traditions: it's birthed four Nobel Literary laureates -- W.B. Yeats, G. B. Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney -- although all but one reached the end of their lives on foreign shores.

Two of Ireland's most celebrated writers, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, were in their time pariahs and exiles, excoriated for outrages against what was then regarded as public decency.

The Anglo-Irish artist Francis Bacon, a trailblazing giant of contemporary art, left Ireland for England in his teens: An openly gay man at a time when it was illegal on both islands, he would not have been easily accepted in the society of his homeland for much of his life.

But as with Wilde and Joyce, he has been embraced posthumously. The entire contents of his artist's studio were acquired by Dublin's Hugh Lane gallery, where they have been reassembled just as they were when Bacon was creating his legendary artworks. It's one of the city's better-kept secrets, and best of all, entry is free.

Sea swimming

Although Joyce spent much of his life in mainland Europe, his greatest work, the modernist classic "Ulysses" -- which also celebrates its 100th anniversary this year -- is a love letter to his home city, an odyssey following one man, Leopold Bloom, on a day's journey around Dublin.

The novel's opening scenes take place at a Martello tower on the coastline in the southern suburb of Sandycove, now a James Joyce museum and pilgrimage site for the fans who each year celebrate Bloomsday on June 16.

The area is a popular site for bathers, with sea swimming becoming increasingly popular since Covid hit.

Celebrities are even getting involved. Harry Styles was spotted this week having a dip at nearby Vico Baths, following in the footsteps of Matt Damon who appeared there in 2020 after he and his family were in Covid lockdown in the area.

CNN joined local group The Ripple Effect for an early morning swim at the 40 Foot promontory.

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"During lockdown, a lot of people couldn't meet indoors, so a lot of people started connecting outside," explains member Katie Clark. "It was just a nice place to come and rediscover the sea."

As for the group's name, fellow member Mandy Lacey says, "Irish people love to help people! It's in our nature. I think The Ripple Effect is an Irish thing. It's part of our history. Whether we go through hard times, good times, everyone is there to really, really support each other."

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The ones who stayed, the ones who left

Earlier this year British filmmaker Kenneth Branagh won an Oscar for "Belfast," a semi-autobiographical film about his Northern Irish childhood before the 30-year conflict known as The Troubles forced his family to flee to England. It ends with the dedication: "For the ones who stayed. For the ones who left. And for all the ones who were lost."

But while in centuries past, leave-takings often meant permanent exile, it's now a door that swings both ways.

Many Irish expats, reassessing their priorities in the wake of the pandemic, have returned home for new lives with their young families. And as has always been the case, returnees bring the expertise and knowledge they've gained overseas, which can help their home country thrive.

In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote, and it's now far from being the homogenously Catholic country of popular imagination. This nation of emigrants has also been enriched in recent decades by inward migration. There's a new confidence in this modern, increasingly multicultural Ireland.

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Ireland has changed a lot since it was hailed at the turn of this century as the "Celtic Tiger." What followed was a decade or more of huge economic growth and great optimism. Now, like the rest of the world, Ireland is searching for its post-pandemic purpose.

But, as history has shown, this small, youthful nation can do it by looking first towards each other, then outwards to the world.


Why people are leaving Ireland? ›

WITH THE COST of living spiralling rapidly, many are considering leaving Ireland to find a more affordable place to live. Emigration has long served as a release valve for millions of Irish people in times of economic crisis.

What is Ireland's number 1 tourist attraction? ›

The Cliffs of Moher are Ireland's most popular tourist attraction, welcoming more than 1 million visitors each year. In fact, the cliffs are so popular that cities situated more than 100 miles away often offer daylong tours to the attraction.

Why you should visit Ireland? ›

10 Reasons Why You Should Visit Ireland
  • Jaw-dropping natural landscapes. When you think of Ireland, it may conjure up images of green rolling hills, rugged seaside cliffs, and windswept rock formations. ...
  • Music and festivals. ...
  • Regal castles. ...
  • Game of Thrones. ...
  • Scenic road trips. ...
  • Guinness and whiskey. ...
  • Irish locals. ...
  • Lively cities.

Where did the first Irish settlers come from? ›

Around 300BC, Iron Age warriors known as the Celts came to Ireland from mainland Europe. The Celts had a huge influence on Ireland.

Why would so many Irish come to America? ›

Between 1845 and 1855 more than 1.5 million adults and children left Ireland to seek refuge in America. Most were desperately poor, and many were suffering from starvation and disease. They left because disease had devastated Ireland's potato crops, leaving millions without food.

Why are there so many Irish in America? ›

Many Irish immigrants arrived on America's shores to escape the Great Famine, only to face discrimination, prejudice, and poverty.

Where in the US is most like Ireland? ›


With 60.3% of the population of Breezy Point, Queens claiming Irish ancestry, it's little surprise that this area (along with the surrounding Rockaways) has come to be known as the “Irish Riviera” of New York.

Are the Irish friendly to tourists? ›

Yes. They are friendly, polite, and always lend a helping hand to new people around them. They have a laid back attitude and are pretty funny and will always engage you with their small talks. They are always ready for drinks but feel disturbed if someone tries to enter their private space. .

What nationality visits Ireland the most? ›

Nearly 70% of all international tourists in Ireland are from the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany or France. Ireland receives the most tourists from Great Britain (42%), followed by the US (15%), Germany (7%), and France (5%).

What is so special about Ireland? ›

Ireland is famous for its scenic coastlines, towns, and villages along the shoreline. Most of these coastline towns are located in the west of Ireland, mainly in the province of Munster. That's where we live in Limerick! The most famous landmarks in Ireland are the Cliffs of Moher.

What makes the Irish so special? ›

The Irish are famous for Guinness, for rain and rich green landscapes, but above all, we're known for our warm welcome. It's celebrated by writers, musicians and critics around the world.

What are 3 important facts about Ireland? ›

Here's some fun trivia that reveals Ireland in all its uniqueness.
  • Ireland is the most successful country in the Eurovision Song Contest. ...
  • Halloween was invented in Ireland. ...
  • Ireland has the largest number of red-haired people of any country in the world.
Dec 14, 2022

What does black Irish mean? ›

Noun. black Irish (plural black Irish) An Irish person or person of Irish descent with dark hair, eyes, and skin, sometimes (derogatory, ethnic slur, dated) with disparaging racial overtones.

What race are the Irish? ›

Today, the majority of Irish people are from the Irish ethnic group and are white. Most are Roman Catholic, and nearly all of them speak English. About 40% of Irish people speak the language, Irish. There is a substantial minority of Irish who are of Scottish or English descent.

What is the oldest Irish surname? ›

The earliest known Irish surname is O'Clery (O Cleirigh); it's the earliest known because it was written that the lord of Aidhne, Tigherneach Ua Cleirigh, died in County Galway back in the year 916 A.D. In fact, that Irish name may actually be the earliest surname recorded in all of Europe.

Where is the largest Irish population in America? ›

However, when it comes to the states with the largest population of people identifying as being Irish (with single ancestry), New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania top the list. According to the most recent US census, this accounts for approximately 528,000 people.

What percentage of America is Irish? ›

Irish Americans or Hiberno-Americans (Irish: Gael-Mheiriceánaigh) are Americans who have full or partial ancestry from Ireland. About 32 million Americans — 9.7% of the total population — identified as being Irish in the 2020 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Where did most Irish settle in America? ›

Irish immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s settled mainly in coastal states such as New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, but also in western states such as Illinois and Ohio.

Which US city is the most Irish? ›

U.S. cities with large Irish American populations. The city with the highest Irish population is Boston, Massachusetts.

Which US state is the most Irish? ›

The most Irish state in the U.S. is New Hampshire, where 20.2% of the state's residents are Irish. The least Irish state in the U.S. is Hawaii, where only 4.3% of the state's residents are Irish. The most Irish city in the U.S. is Ocean City, NJ, which is 30.22% Irish.

Was America built by the Irish? ›

Irish immigrants built America: Across the 18th and 19th centuries, the Irish helped build America, both as a country and as an idea. Physically, from the skyscrapers of Manhattan to the mines of Montana, this nation's infrastructure bears an indelible Irish imprint.

Why are so many Irish people leaving Ireland? ›

And now, in recent years, the economic crash has seen people leave these shores in large numbers once more. And while economic pressures have always had a significant role to play in the phenomenon that is Irish emigration, many also decided to escape their lives in Ireland in search of adventure in other countries.

What are the disadvantages of moving to Ireland? ›

One potential disadvantage of moving to Ireland is the weather. The country experiences a lot of rainfall and can be quite cold, especially in the winter months. Additionally, the cost of living in Ireland is higher than in some other countries, such as Bulgaria or Romania.

Why is Ireland staying neutral? ›

De Valera stated in his wartime speeches that small states should stay out of the conflicts of big powers; hence Ireland's policy was officially "neutral", and the country did not publicly declare its support for either side.

Where are Irish people moving to? ›

10 Countries With the Most Irish Emigrants
CountryNumber of Irish migrantsPercent of Irish diaspora
6 more rows
Mar 17, 2016


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