IN IRELAND, EMIGRATION is pretty universally regarded as A Bad Thing. (Attitudes to immigration are more ambivalent).
This attitude is generally, and with considerable justification, explained in terms of the 19th-century experience. Following the catastrophic Great Famine in the mid-1840s, during which a million died – the pre-Famine population was about eight million – millions left the country. At its lowest point, the island’s inhabitants numbered about four million, and the population remains below six million.
To put some context on this, the population of the neighbouring island of Great Britain increased from 19 million to nearly 60 million over the same period, despite wars and not insignificant emigration of its own to ‘the Colonies’ (yes – net immigration played a part too). Europe, despite the Holocaust and similar horrors, also trebled in population.
For me, someone who has lived in Ireland for over half a century, and thought that he was historically aware, just recalling these bare facts has taken me considerably aback. It is probably fair to say that for anyone attempting to understand the Irish, ignoring the Famine is as crass as ignoring the Holocaust when considering the Israelis.
Behind the Irish statistics lie a multitude of family separations, destruction of communities, economic stagnation and, generally, a world of hurt. Insofar as there is a collectively shared narrative of what emigration means, it is still stuck in that historical recollection.
I trust that it is clear that I have considerable sympathy for that on a sentimental level. However, although there is still some reality in it, I dissent from the national consensus which accepts it as a rational approach to the present.
A far-flung family
My view on emigration is, understandably, shaped by my experience. I was born in Canada, as was my eldest brother. Of the nine children produced by my four grandparents, not one spent their entire working life in the State, and three are permanently resident abroad. Of my seven siblings, only one has not lived and worked abroad, and two still do.
I have 34 first cousins living, of whom 25 were born in Ireland. Nineteen now live in Ireland, of whom three have returned after being located elsewhere.
I have three children. One lives in Dublin (at least three hours travelling time away). The other two live abroad.
I have eleven nephews and nieces, of whom six are foreign-born. Four – it will soon be six – live abroad.
To sum all this up: Emigration has always been part of the story of my family as I have known it. And my family, though not necessarily typical, is not unusual in this respect. It’s not exactly that it’s ‘no big deal’, as it were; it is more a case that this is life – if your desires, plans, ambitions, relationships or even – gosh! – a job require that you live a long way away from where you grew up, you do it. You do not wring your hands, and wish that it could be otherwise, and neither do those whom you are leaving behind. Or not for long, at least. There is some pain in separation, but it’s not the end of the world.
Of course, it is very important to this mindset that separation, albeit it may be prolonged over years, is not seen as permanent. For many Irish families, though not mine, the experience of emigration meant the departure of family members who were never seen or heard from again.
Unemployment is, in absolute terms, at an all-time high just now in the Republic of Ireland. While we have experienced higher rates of unemployment in the 1980s, the current number of nearly half a million jobless is a new record. I am confident that it will come down again, but the descent will be slower than the upward surge was.
Can we cut unemployment without emigration?
Does anyone think that even 300,000 jobs will be ‘created’ within, say, five years? There is no sign that even the most optimistic left-wing politician believes that this can be achieved.
This means that an awful lot of people are facing a long period of unemployment if they restrict themselves to the opportunities afforded by the Irish labour market. (And some will face it, anyway.) It is a sobering thought. It is not less sobering to note that the opportunities in the traditional English-speaking destinations for Irish job-seekers are perhaps not going to be as good as in the past. And, as noted above, our current temporary labour surplus has never been higher.
On the brighter side, the richer countries are pretty short of the kind of people of whom we now have a surplus, and also, over the last quarter-century it has been noticeable that Irish people have found opportunities all over the world, and not just in the traditional comfort zones.
Hysteria doesn’t help
The traditional cultural inclination, however, has been for Irish workers to wait and wait and… Emigration was slow to resume in the 1980s and only really got going after 1986. This was bad for the individuals concerned, and for society in general. It would be tragic if we let the same thing happen again.
I am not suggesting that everyone should, like our forbears, ‘take the boat’ and join the Cricklewood navvy gangs. (Even if there are any left.) We should though, I suggest, shake off at least a little of our instinctive emigration-averse acculturation and treat the Global Village as our oyster. (Which it is.) It does not provide an easy option for any but a lucky few, but for many others opportunities will present themselves if they decide, starting right now, to be open to them.
This is especially significant for the circa 80 per cent of the unemployed who are aged 25 or less. (The source for this staggering statistic is here). The rest of us, I would urge, should stop bewailing the return of ‘the spectre of emigration’. It does nothing positive for us, but helps to inhibit necessary action from being taken.
And remember: VOIP, especially with video, is a great thing, and medium/long-distance travel has never been quicker, easier or cheaper.
Fergus O’Rourke is a lawyer based in Cork. He writes at Of Laws And Men, where this article first appeared.