Large scale emigration from the Celtic nations has been going on for at least five hundred years. Driven by necessity - unemployment and even famine at home - or by economic opportunity abroad, Celts moved overseas in enormous numbers to start new lives.
There are more than 120 million people of Celtic descent in North and South America, Australasia, Africa and Europe. The largest single group is from Ireland, followed by Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. The United States was the primary destination for migrating Celts, and so is the home of the majority of those with Celtic ancestry today.
Celtic culture remains vibrant in these diaspora countries, reflected in the gigantic St Patrick’s Day parades in New York and Boston and in festivals of Celtic music and dance in Canada, the US and Australia. From the hundreds of Highland Games festivals to Welsh Eisteddfods in the remote Argentine province of Patagonia, people strive to keep their Celtic heritage alive and pass it on to the next generations.
Here we will document and celebrate Celts around the world, highlighting the organisations and events keeping the flame of the ‘old countries’ burning brightly in their new homes.
It used to be said that, ‘A mine is a hole anywhere in the world with at least one Cornishman at the bottom of it.’ A neat way of summing up the fact that many of those who emigrated from Cornwall were miners.
They were driven by the decline in the Cornish copper mining industry in the mid 19th century and lured by the opportunities afforded by the discovery around the same time of large copper deposits in the US, Australia and Canada. They also took their mining expertise to the gold fields of South Africa and the Mexican silver mines.
Around a quarter of a million Cornish migrated overseas between 1861 and 1901, an enormous number relative to the overall population of the Duchy. These ‘Cousin Jacks’, as they became known, took many of their home traditions with them, including Methodism, pasties, brass bands, rugby and wrestling.
The US has the largest concentration of people with Cornish ancestry – around 2 million. Copper Country in Michigan and the copper mining districts of Butte Montana were the favoured areas. In Canada, there were Cornish settlements on the northern shore of Newfoundland and on Prince Edward Island.
Australia was another important destination. The area around Moonta and Wallaroo near Adelaide in South Australia is known as the Copper Coast. Moonta itself, with its Cornish-style mine engine houses, has been called ‘Little Cornwall’. It’s here that, every two years, the largest Cornish festival in the world is held. Kernewek Lowender, in the ‘Copper Triangle towns of Moonta, Wallaroo and Kadina, receives 45,000 visitors.
Kernewek Lowender - https://www.kernewek.org/
Cornish overseas societies https://www.cornwalls.co.uk/history/industrial/diaspora.htm
The Irish make up by far the biggest proportion of overseas Celts. Up to 10 million people are estimated to have emigrated from Ireland and more than 70 million people around the world claim Irish descent – around 11 times the current population of the island of Ireland. It’s no surprise then that the constitution of the Republic of Ireland recognises the importance of the diaspora: ‘…the Irish Nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.’
Large-scale Irish emigration, Mainly to America, started in the 1740s. Departures were further boosted by The Great Famine of the mid 1840s as Irish families fled in search of a new life.
With around 5 million Irish people sailing across the Atlantic over the decades, the United States has the largest number of people claiming Irish ancestry – some 35 million. While there are Irish communities in all four corners of the country, the east coast is still where the main concentration can be found. 13% of New Yorkers and 20% of Bostonians are of Irish descent.
Irish emigrants also went further north, and Canada claims 4.6 million people of Irish descent. Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario (with 2 million of Irish descent) and Newfoundland (with 80% of Irish heritage) were the main destinations.
In Australia, 2 million people officially report Irish ancestry while the government estimates as many as 7 million (30% of the population) are of partial Irish ancestry.
Argentina (with 1 million of Irish descent), South Africa and New Zealand also have significant Irish heritage. And, of course, it shouldn’t be forgotten that there was mass emigration across the Irish Sea to mainland Britain, where there are estimated to be 6 million people with at least one Irish grandparent.
It goes without saying that Irish heritage is celebrated vigorously around the world, especially on St Patrick’s Day. New York’s annual parade is probably the largest of its kind in the world.
Scots are second only to the Irish in terms of the numbers who have left home for a new life elsewhere. Between 1821 and 1945, and in waves concentrated in the 1850s, 1870s, early 1900s and the interwar period, over two million migrants left Scotland. More than half to the USA with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand being other important destinations. It is estimated that there are now around 50 million people worldwide with Scottish ancestry.
The US has the largest Scottish diaspora with the latest survey identifying 9.4 million (6.3m as Scottish and 3m Scots-Irish) of Scottish descent. There are many clan societies and other heritage organizations, such as An Comunn Gaidhealach America and Slighe nan Gaidheal.
Across the northern border, according to the last census the number of Canadians claiming full or partial Scottish descent is 4.7 million, around 15% of the total population.
Over in Australia, 1.8 million people claim Scottish ancestry, around 9% of the nation’s total population. The strong Scottish cultural presence can be seen in the Highland games, dance, Tartan day celebrations, Clan and Gaelic speaking societies throughout the country.
Scottish Diaspora – Global Scots http://www.tartansauthority.com/global-scots
The American Scottish Gaelic Society http://www.acgamerica.org/
Slighe nan Gaidheal - https://www.slighe.org/
Welsh emigration has historically been on a smaller scale than that from Ireland and Scotland, with the overseas Welsh diaspora estimated at 3 million
As in Cornwall, the mining industry was a major driver of emigration. While Cornish miners were hard rock specialists (tin and copper) their Welsh counterparts came from a coal background, though they too had expertise in copper mining and smelting. They were also skilled engineers.
Around 1.8m people in the US consider themselves to be of Welsh extraction. The Welsh first settled in Pennsylvania. In the 19th century, more followed in the form of coal miners to the Pennsylvania coalfields and then to Ohio. Welsh migration also spread to the south (Tennessee) and the Californian gold fields.
There are about half a million people with Welsh ancestry in Canada and a quarter of a million in Australia.
One of the less well-known episodes in the Welsh emigration story relates to the arrival of 200 Welshmen in Argentina in 1865. More than 150 years later, in a small area of Patagonia, tea houses serve bara brith, rugby is played and Eisteddfod festivals take place on a regular basis. And Welsh was widely spoken as recently as the 1960s. Altogether there are some 50,000 Argentines of Welsh descent.
Global Welsh https://globalwelsh.com/