Tuesday 22 October 2019

Eamon Delaney: In our modern world, emigration doesn't have to mean isolation

Young Irish people jetting off in search of work has become a common sight
Young Irish people jetting off in search of work has become a common sight

According to a new survey for the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI), one in four people has seen a family member emigrate in the last two years.

It's a damning statistic on one level, but perhaps the more interesting statistic is that half of those still living in Ireland aged 18 to 24 have considered emigrating, while four in 10 adults aged 25 to 34 have thought about moving abroad.

This is not surprising. There is much more curiosity and knowledge now about the wider world, especially among the young, and emigration is not nearly as traumatic and final as it once was.

God be with the days when emigration was about taking the boat from Dun Laoghaire or Cobh, armed with a few addresses and a cardboard suitcase, and heading into the great unknown, where the only contact from home was a few letters, a 'trunk' phone call and the Irish provincial newspapers, bought in the specialist Irish shops of Camden, London or the Bronx and Brooklyn, New York.

So lonely were our emigrants that they clung to each other in ghetto communities, before assimilating into their host countries and reducing their nationality to annual turn-outs for the St Patrick's Day parade. Talk of the old country reduced and the trips home declined.

Now, it is completely different and, in an era of mobile phones, Skype and the internet, it is hard to imagine such isolation. There is also cheap travel: emigrants of the 1960s had to save all year to pay for the flight home, and there was no Ryanair.

Such communications have not just made contact with home easier, they have made the world more familiar and accessible.

We speak English, after all, are generally well-educated and are coming from a much more confident place than our forebears. Despite the recent downturn, Ireland is a much more modern and prosperous place than the backward place of yore.

It also helps that we already have a tradition of emigration, and the UK, US and Australia have all been well tramped by previous Irish migrants. And in a positive way, excepting those Irish backpackers barred from a few Aussie pubs!

Ireland is unusual in this regard. In most West European countries, people generally stay put during a downturn. Except the Portuguese, who, in an interesting process of 'reverse colonisation', are now fleeing their home country for thriving former Portuguese colonies, like Angola and Brazil.

Many of these will presumably then return to Portugal with new experience – and cash. It was the same with Poles who settled here and went back to a now-buoyant Poland.

For this is the other thing about emigration. It is not necessarily forever. Look at the amount of emigrants who returned to Ireland in the late '90s, fuelling the Celtic Tiger, and quite in contrast to the migrants of earlier eras who rarely ever returned.

All of this is not to diminish the upheaval of emigration or the pain that so many of us have had to leave again.

Much of it is also the cream of our youth, whom we have educated and raised and whom we expected to see us through a future where the State will have huge costs looking after its elderly.

Of the 308,000 people who left in the four years to April 2012, 41pc are in the 15-to-24 age bracket, which is extraordinary.

According to the NYCI survey, 83pc felt the Government should do more about youth unemployment, while 85pc felt that not enough was being done to tackle the problem of youth emigration.

The raw fact is that the overwhelming numbers leaving are doing so to find work, and not to find a better view or a warmer climate.

But, in reality, emigration is not nearly as bad as it was, nothing is forever and, in a world of increased communication and dissolving borders, most of us are only a phone call or computer click away from 'home'. This is quite in contrast to the emigrants of old, for whom home was a distant memory.

Irish Independent

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