Head to head: Emigration

“The idea that every Irish person will get work in Ireland is deluded.”

By Freya Foster

When the word “emigration” is used in this country, it conjures up bad memories for the Irish people: memories of the Great Famine and of the mass exodus of young people in the 70s and 80s. One has only to look at the SU’s recent use of the slogan “education not emigration” to see how politics uses emigration to portray something in a negative light. Emigration is seen as a problem as bad as unemployment, and the thought of all the “poor young wans” having to leave the Green Isle and go off to strange and foreign lands is the stuff of nightmares. Obviously.

Once it is examined though, it becomes all too clear that, in today’s world, emigration is no longer the foreboding, one-way street that it used to be. With cheap flights available at the click of a button or the swipe of a credit card, people hoping for better prospects in the “New World” no longer have to board a coffin ship and never see their loved ones again. Even since the 1980s, technology has advanced so that we can see and talk to people across the world over the internet. With e-mail, news takes seconds rather than weeks to reach its recipient. So all this begs the question, why are we still so afraid of emigration?

The idea that every Irish person will be able to live and work in the 26 counties that make up the Republic of Ireland is, quite frankly, deluded. The reality is that we are a small island nation, with a small, struggling economy. It is simply not feasible for the entire of our rapidly increasing population (our economic boom is over, but the baby boom has just begun) to remain here living and working, or not working as the case may be.

A common argument thrown out against emigration is the loss of tax revenue to the Government, but this loss is small when compared to the costs of keeping an unemployed person on benefits.

The likelihood is that the vast majority of young people, including university graduates, will simply have to emigrate in the next five to ten years in order to find work, with the US, Canada, Britain and Australia being the most likely destinations. Being the young, internationally minded, adventurous generation that we are, we should be looking to grasp the opportunity with both hands. It should be seen as a chance to learn new skills and open our minds to new possibilities. And when I say new possibilities, I am not talking cultural or spiritual, I’m talking business.

The Celtic Tiger was, in essence, fuelled by the return of those people who had left Ireland to seek work in the 1980s. These ambitious young Irish people went abroad and worked, and they worked hard. They gained experience, developed new ideas and, most importantly, they earned money.

Clearly, emigration is not something to be afraid of, yet it is still flaunted by politicians as something bad, something to be avoided and something that no young person wants to do, and, judging from the “education not emigration” slogan chanted at the protest two weeks ago, it seems that a lot of young people agree.

Why is this? It’s simple – we are the Celtic Tiger generation. We were never told that we might actually have to work for a good career, let alone leave the country. Many young people have been brought up to believe that they would go to third level education, waltz straight out of their graduation ceremony and into a cushy job without ever having to set foot in the departure lounge, except for regular holidays to Marbella or Thailand paid for out of a big fat corporate salary.

The belief that a generation of young people can be employed in our ever-shrinking economy is completely unrealistic. Emigration should not be seen as a last resort. Rather, we should view it as an opportunity to go and earn a wealth of knowledge and expertise which can eventually be brought back to Ireland to spark off a new boom for the next generation.

“Emigration is a difficult and lonely process. It is not a cakewalk.”

By Alannah Nic Phaidin

Ireland has a reputation abroad for many things, including literature, music, good times, and emigration.

One of Ireland’s greatest exports over the centuries has been its people. We send them all over the world. Many of these emigrants have been highly successful in their adopted countries, to include writers, academicians, musicians, athletes, inventors. One glance at US history will showcase the success of the Irish, most notably the Kennedy family, who reached the zenith of power in the US.

Recently Ireland went through a time of unprecedented prosperity, so much so that previous emigrants came back to Ireland, because they felt that there were opportunities and it was a chance to be reunited with their families. Yet here we are again, with our people leaving our shores because there is a lack of opportunity to succeed here.

This new decade has, once again, become a time of heart-wrenching instability in Ireland, both as a nation and amongst families. Emigration has crippled the Irish in the past, divided families, and hurt the country as a whole. Many of our best and brightest are emigrating because their prospects for entering their areas of expertise are extremely limited in the ongoing economic recession.

Our greatest asset, our people, is once again our greatest export. Although emigration is taking place from every segment of Irish life, our most highly educated are also emigrating by the thousand, which will inevitably have long-term ramifications for our country. Ireland is unable to take advantage of its vast expenditure in educating these highly motivated people.

On an individual level, emigration can be even more heart-breaking. Emigration is rarely temporary. It is not about “going away for a year or two” to get experience. That in many instances is an extended holiday. Emigration is substantially a permanent phenomenon for the Irish. Its social repercussions for families, and society in general, are difficult and destructive.

Emigration is a difficult and lonely process. I know, I emigrated to the US when I was aged nine. Even though there is the perception of moving to an English-speaking country, the language is quite different, as are the cultural and social mores. It was not a cakewalk.
Most countries have a command of the English language. In that the Irish have an advantage. They are also advantaged, particularly in the US, by a huge Diaspora and, generally speaking, of being well-liked. The open racism of the 1800s is gone. However, there is still a certain amount of resentment against immigrants who are seen as taking the “natives” jobs. Those who emigrate, especially during economically difficult times, will face at least some of these accusations. Unfortunately, the Irish have been accused of making similar finger-pointing against its recent immigrants.

The level of isolation and homesickness suffered by emigrants has been well documented. There are however, other alienating factors which effect today’s emigrants. Never having faced the crushing poverty of previous generations, today’s Irish emigrants are perceived as “wealthy”. This lack of understanding has an even more isolating effect on the new Irish emigrant, as this perception of being wealthy, well-educated and capable of finding work easily is not necessarily reflective of the facts. The economic climate world-wide is not as helpful to the Irish as it had been formerly. Whilst it is possible to love your adopted country, it is always difficult and complex to leave family, friends and culture behind. Adapting to a new environment is always difficult; but it is compounded for the new Irish emigrants by the perceptions of the “Celtic Tiger” era.

It is possible to succeed when someone emigrates, but generally it is a long, slow, somewhat painful, and often lonely process. Although forced emigration is always a hardship, and many original emigrants live difficult and stressful lives, it is often the second generation of immigrant families who succeed.

The great legacy of emigration from Ireland is the strong bonds that exist between the Irish Diaspora and the “homeland”, which is a powerful tool that can and should be used to enhance Ireland’s economic and political leverage into the future.