Wednesday 22 January 2020

Alison O’Connor: Those emigrating today, who lived and worked through the boom, would have imagined Ireland would always provide

Alison O’Connor

It's not often the main evening news makes me cry but tears were certainly lurking on Wednesday night while watching a man who had slept overnight in his car to be at the top of the queue for an overseas jobs fair in Cork.

Unemployed John Daly, a construction worker, told of how he had worked since he was 16 years old. The Limerick man's emotions threatened to overcome him as he said he would "do anything to get a bit of work and make a few pound".

His story was desperately sad, as were the other scenes in the news report with the queues of people snaking around the conference centre where the 5,000 or so waited to gain entrance with the hope that it would give them a swift exit from Ireland.

Emigration is the curse of the Irish. Here we are again throwing ourselves at the tender mercies of other countries. People are leaving for the prospect of new lives with well-paying jobs, as well as the chance to get through an entire day without hearing phrases such as "negative equity", "burning bondholders" or how vitally important it is that we separate ourselves from the Greeks.

It seems now as if that boom period when Ireland was the destination of choice for people looking for a better future was just a temporary blip in our blighted Irish destiny. We're back, it seems, to where we are always destined to be.

You don't have to delve too far into the psyche of an Irish person for a famine ship to surface, or the memory of hearing of their mother's eight brothers and sisters who left for America in the 1950s and never managed to make it back to the aul' sod. The trauma runs deep and with good reason. Emigration has been a torment. But it has also always been an option, a pressure valve, an escape route.

My own experience of emigration 1980s' style -- observed from a small town in west Cork -- was that many people grew up with the expectation that they would be emigrating for a better quality of life brought about by earning more money than they would ever manage to at home.

But in the 1980s when someone emigrated there was no knowing when you might see them again. Most were headed (illegally) for the US, with Boston being the big favourite. This was a time when transatlantic phone calls cost a fortune and email hadn't even been heard of. It was always particularly sad to attend a local funeral and hear that a family member had been unable to make it home because of fears of being caught trying to re-enter the US illegally.

Those who left, even if they did have the qualifications, did not find employment in highly skilled jobs -- after all, they didn't have the appropriate visas. However, they got work on building sites, child minding, in the catering industries and other relatively low-skilled sectors. What I remember of those who did get to return home for holidays was the air of money about them -- not loaded, mind you, but just a sense that they had far more cash at their disposal than those who had stayed behind.

And just as well they did -- after all, was that not the compensation for being forced to live abroad?

But those who are leaving today, the ones who lived and worked through the recent boom, would have had wildly different expectations. With good reason they imagined that Ireland would always provide for them. They expected that when they were using their passports it would only be for holidays. They did not expect that Facebook and Twitter and all the rest would turn from fun ways to keep in contact, into vital links with what is going on back home.

After the subject of abortion, emigration is probably the least preferred subject of an Irish politician, as Michael Noonan discovered recently when he portrayed it as an option rather than a necessity for some people.

He was right, of course, but expressed it rather baldly. The point being that for tens of thousands on the emigration trail, especially those without qualifications, there is no choice involved. They leave the country feeling angry that they must do so, and often leave a devastated wider family circle behind them. But that is not to say that there are some who are indeed leaving Ireland as a lifestyle choice.

Last weekend, I heard of a young professional guy who had a choice of two jobs here but decided to leave Ireland because he finds it such a negative place to be. This is a reason you do hear anecdotally to explain why young, well educated professionals are choosing to move abroad.

People are also making decisions on the basis of how much they wish to be paid for their work. I heard Declan Murphy, vice-president of Dundalk Chamber of Commerce, who is also CEO of recruitment company Servisource Recruitment, say he found it difficult to get people to work. He has 50 jobs to offer immediately, for €10/€11 an hour, but cannot get people to fill them. Those who are offered the posts say it is not worth their while going into work for that amount of money, given what they get on the dole. Choices are being made.

This current wave of Irish people heading out into the world are far more confident than their emigrant predecessors. As well as heavy suitcases, that crop of emigrants also carried their national inferiority complex. This time, at the risk of sounding trite, they often come with impressive CV in hand, rather than cap.

Much as we'd all prefer it to be otherwise, emigration is a part of our lives at present, but hopefully it isn't exclusively negative.

Irish Independent

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