Thursday 23 May 2019

'I can't think of two reasons to stay, but I've got lots to go . . .'

It's a return to the 1980s in one Irish village as its young natives emigrate Down Under. Anita Guidera reports

Twenty-year-old Sarah Carroll is having the time of her life. She emigrated to Australia more than a month ago and her best friend Jamie Monaghan (22) is now counting down the days until she joins her in Brisbane. The two pals hope to go travelling, with no plans to return to Ireland in the foreseeable future.

Three weeks ago, another pal, Adam Finan (23), who had been out of work for three months, left for Perth and what he said would be "the long haul".

They are just three of a rising number of young people leaving the surfing haven of Strandhill, Co Sligo, where, in the words of a local businessman, "survival is the new success".

In the past year, at least 15 young people between the ages of 18 and 25 have left this tiny village -- with a population of less than 2,000 -- for Australia. A further seven are expected to follow by the summer.

All are being lured by the promise of work and a quality of life they no longer believe Ireland can offer. The number of Irish people getting a one-year working-holiday visa to Australia rose by a third last year to 22,788.

Nestled between the Atlantic ocean and the mystical slopes of Knocknarea mountain, Strandhill is, in so many ways, a young person's paradise.

The village, eight kilometres west of Sligo, boasts five surfing schools, seaweed baths, thriving GAA and soccer clubs, golf and tennis clubs, as well as six bars and four restaurants.

When Westlife's Kian Egan, an enthusiastic surfer, opened a juice bar on the sea front three years ago, Strandhill's reputation as a cool, laid-back surfers' destination was sealed.

But nowhere has remained immune from the ravages of economic recession. In last November alone, no less than 450 jobs were lost in Sligo.

When Strandhill native Adam Finan held his going-away party before leaving for Freemantle, Perth, three weeks ago, the turnout was small because most of his friends had already left.

"It's strange being here when there's nobody around," he said.

"Everyone who is left is in bad form. You end up just sitting around waiting for your dole cheque. It's no way to live.

"I have a lot more aspirations for my life than sitting waiting for a hand-out from the Government every week."

A graduate in business with bar management from the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology, he tried unsuccessfully to find work in New York, before returning home at Christmas.

Adam admitted he would have been happy to remain in Ireland but the best work he could find was three nights a week in a nightclub in town.

"I'm definitely planning on going for the long haul. If you asked me to come up with two reasons to stay, I would be under pressure -- but I could think of plenty of reasons to go," he said on the day before departing.

His father, Ray, who left Ireland in the dark days of 1980s, believes history is now repeating itself. "The brain drain, as it used to be called, is happening again," he said. "The amount of talent that is disappearing is unreal. They reckon that by June there will be something like 23 or 24 young people from this village alone gone out to Australia."

Ray's delight that his son has seized the opportunity to make a better life for himself is tinged with sadness.

"Adam will be 24 this year. I won't be able to meet him and have a chat and a pint. That is all gone now and it could be years before he is back."

Sarah Carroll had a number of waitressing jobs before leaving for Sydney a month ago. Her Dad, Paul, also left Irish shores in the 1980s, returning 12 years later. "Sarah went straight into work after school but the jobs were running out fast for her," said Paul.

"The place where she'd been working closed down and she ended up with two part-time jobs that kept her going for a few months. Then she left." Sarah, who has since moved to Brisbane, is keen to travel, but Paul is not confident that they will all come home.

"Virtually her entire age group have gone from the village. They are not all going out with the sole purpose of finding work but when you get 20 people leaving from a small village like ours, the prospect of them all coming back is fairly slim.

"If half of them come back, that will be about the height of it." Jamie Monaghan says she is counting down the days until she completes her course in Enniskillen and leaves to join Sarah in Brisbane.

"I'm heading off at the end of May and I can't wait. The time is dragging now. I spoke to Sarah last night and she is having the time of her life," she said.

Jamie says the only thing she will miss about home is family. "I think because there are so many of my friends out there that I have said goodbye to here already. Everyone is just thinking of being out there and being together again.

"Basically, I am going for a better life. I have always wanted to travel but I will miss my family. My sister had a baby recently, so that will be hard.

"This is something my mum and dad would have loved to do but they never got the chance. They are going to miss me but they are all telling me it will be a good opportunity."

Brothers and former world surfing champions, Neil, John and Johnston Byrne, who run the popular Strand Bar with its breathtaking views of the Atlantic, remained home to work in the family business when their pals were all leaving in the 1980s. Neil recalled one night when he was 18 or 19 and looking for a friend to go out to have a pint with.

"There wasn't one person I could ring. I was the only one left," he said.

"The biggest threat to the recovery here and to Ireland's long-term prospects is emigration."

Neil said that a lot of people from the locality, including couples with young families, were "slipping away quietly" to Australia or Canada.

"This region is devastated with unemployment. Unfortunately, many talented well-educated people are leaving. We are losing our best."

He added that his office was piled high with CVs from people looking for work and everyone was finding it hard to make a living. "We are working harder now than we have ever worked before in our lives for less money. The new success is survival. If you can survive, you are successful."

An Australian, Mark Ballantine, who runs the Belavista restaurant next door, is the son of Sligo emigrants. He came back to visit family, fell in love with Strandhill and never left.

"The general consensus among everyone is doom and gloom at the moment," he said.

"A lot of young people ask me about Australia and the state of the economy there.

"The older guys who are going over have worked in the building trade but there is absolutely nothing happening here for them. The kids are different. They are going for the adventure."

Irish Independent

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