Different Europeans but the same? The Finns & the Irish



I mentioned this in our first class and I want you to see connections and differences between our Irish experience and a wider European one……to see where and how we are different and as well just how many shared points of commonality exist…if you look…..

Irish emigration to the USA is roughy estimated at a level of 5 million persons between 1820 and 1914. What many Irish and many Irish-Americans do not usually hear about is that this type of emigration was actually quite European and typical-although in scale probably it was relatively much larger. Nonetheless, we tend to forget that the Norwegians, Finns, Italians, Poles and Germans all had a huge emigration experience as well throughout the 19th century and again other waves during the inter-war depression and the post-WW2 time.

The Finns in particular have had a ‘national story’ quite like the Irish ones…albeit with some big differences…..


Finland was actually colonized by two separate neighbours.. Sweden and Russia…….which sounds weird but the same thing would have likely happened to us Irish as well if the French had ‘won’ during the invasion/rebellion of 1798!

The Swedes colonized much of Finland from the middle ages onwards, whereas the Russian were simply ‘given’ Finland in 1809 as part of the geopolitics of the Napoleonic wars period in Europe. To this day an ethnic Swedish speaking minority remain visible and important in Finnish culture, commerce and politics.


Their experience of emigration in the late 1880s was intense…although not as large and consistent as the Irish one. Moreover, the Finns tended to move to timber and mining jobs in the north west, mid west and north eastern USA, whereas the Irish mostly clustered in the cities of the North east.


The Finns like the Irish knew famine-a potato famine hit hard in the years 1866-68 and may have killed more than a quarter of a million people, which sounds much less than in Ireland  (where the death toll is estimated at 1 million) but at around 15% of the population it was seizable enough to enter folk memory and act as a push towards emigration-just like in Ireland.


The Finns also had a national cultural revival in the 19t century ……and a national liberation struggle…which like the Irish took place against the backdrop of the chaos of the first world war. By 1920 the Finns were an independent republic, just a few years before Ireland became a ‘free state’ in 1922. And a bit like Ireland….. their border with the former colonial empire was far from settled-in the Irish case the issue was the status of ‘Northern Ireland’, in the Finnish case their was the Karelia lands which remained inside Soviet Russian and which some Finnish patriots claimed as ethically Finnish. A few still do.


Like Ireland, the Finns had a vicious civil war, although it was different because of the sharp ideological  differences between ‘white’ and ‘red’ Finnish factions…..however there were many parallels. Finnish inter-war politics, 1921-1939 was marked by sharp divisions between civil war factions…divisions that sometimes cut across family lines……does that sound familiar to anyone Irish…?


We’ll mostly leave aside the unique experience of the Second World War, which for Finland started early in November 1939. Stalin’s Russia unilaterally invaded Finland after crushing Poland in tandem with Nazi Germany. The objective seems to have been to reclaim old historic Tsarist territory, which is what Finland was. Moreover, there may have been some logic in pre-empting a German attack on Soviet Russia, which Stalin suspected.

Ireland was not invaded during the second world war, but that was really only a matter of luck, expediency and geography. The Germans made detailed plans for invasion, as did the British to pre-empt such. Even the USA, in the run-up to D-Day was taking a very tough line with the Irish Free State and diplomatically threatening DeValera. An American occupation of Ireland was a real possibility throughout 1943-1944 (It was done in the case of Iceland, another European state which shares some features with Ireland). Finland was defeated in the Second World War (and had unwisely but expediently sided with Nazi Germany to boot). The Russians annexed much of Karelia and well over a quarter of a million Finnish Karelians simply had to leave their homes and farms and re-settle. They also demanded huge war reparations.

1950s Finland was a bleak place, where austerity was the norm and prosperity a distant dream. Many emigrated to Sweden, just like many Irish emigrated to England.

The point of all of this is not to suggest Finland and Ireland are identical …the significance of Catholicism in Ireland and Lutheranism in Finland are huge differences……but I want you to spot affinities and connections……the commonalities in the political story of Europe are important..we should be alert for common threads that weave their way out in the lives of real people…….a point I also made in the class….



2 thoughts on “Different Europeans but the same? The Finns & the Irish”

  1. Would Finland also be in a state of limbo during the early cold war period? The fact they were so close to Russia. Could an argument be made that not only austerity measures after WW 2 contributed to Finnish emigration, but also a sense of fear…maybe of the unknown?

  2. Yeah….TJ that would be right….many Finns were unsure just how much Russian influence would pervade. Those with ‘exotic’ pasts as regards the war against Russia and in some cases collaboration with Nazi Germany were probably thinking it was better to get away while the going was good. Russian influence remained subtle but pervasive……the understanding being that what they Finns did domestically was one thing….but what they did in foreign policy way another…the rule was no Russian hostile action could be made……you might say that was different from Ireland….but Ireland’s non participation in the second world war made us few friends in the 1950s…….and contributed a bit to the isolationism of the 1950s…….different but similar in ways to Finland…..


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