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David Robbins: Emigration once again? I'm happy at home, thanks

Professor Richard Tol is what an older generation might call a quare genius. Prof Tol, who has just departed these shores after a stint as a researcher with the ESRI, proved a rather divisive figure during his time among us.

He was a great man to post his thoughts on the topics of the day -- usually to do with green issues -- on websites such as www.irisheconomy.ie and www.politics.ie.

Although a self-professed supporter of environmental causes, he often doubted the efficacy of any environmental measures proposed by the authorities. He even wondered if cycling was really worth it in environmental terms.

I first came across the good professor through his online polemics. I imagined an austere academic whose personal eccentricities would not go much further than having leather patches on his elbows.

Imagine my surprise when I actually caught sight of Prof Tol. He has a luxuriant beard and plentiful hair arranged in a striking "up-do" -- as someone with very little hair, I tend to notice these things.

The photo accompanied an interview with the 42-year-old Dutchman in which he spoke about his feelings on the eve of his departure to Sussex University, which is ranked joint-197th in the world.

Controversial to the end, Prof Tol recommended that anyone with a young family should emigrate immediately. It was a would-the-last-person-to-leave-Ireland-please-switch-off-the-lights valediction.

I have a young family (well, a six-year-old daughter and a year-old dog). I began to wonder what I would miss if I took Prof Tol's advice.

My first contact with an Irish emigrant community came in the mid-1990s when I visited my ex-wife's uncles in Queens, New York.

They ran a carpet company that had the contract for the Seagram Building in Manhattan. It was the Forth Bridge of the carpet world: as soon as they had finished replacing the carpets on the top floor, it was time to start at the bottom again.

They had created a little piece of Mayo over there. They drank in an Irish bar. Footage of Mayo's GAA matches was flown over late on a Sunday night and shown on a Monday to a packed pub.

They listened to an Irish radio station broadcast from Fordham University. They went to Mass said by an Irish-American priest. Their children learned Irish dancing.

They had a strong identity of which I was slightly envious at the time. Somehow, my own "Irishness" didn't seem as real, or as visceral, as theirs.

Since then, I have visited friends and relatives who have emigrated all over the place: London, Denmark, France, Germany.

The visits follow a certain pattern. In the first day or two, my hosts are full of enthusiasm about their new home. They drive me around, providing a running commentary on how great things are.

By day three, when they think they have established beyond all doubt that Denmark/England/ Germany/France is the best-run and most enlightened country in the world, they begin to talk of home.

The thing they miss most -- and the one I think I would also miss -- is that simple sense of being at home, of knowing how things work, of being familiar with the system, the historical, social and political context.

They often cite the example of something bad happening, an accident or an emergency of some sort. At home, you know who to call and what to expect.

When help arrives, you know the people, or you know people like them, and they know you, or people like you. You know, in every sense, where you are.

Of course, they mention other things first: Barry's tea, Tayto crisps, Hick's sausages, that second pint of Guinness as you settle into a pub, the human scale of Ireland, the idea that you are a person rather than a face among countless millions.

A friend living in London speaks about the feeling he has when he goes anywhere -- a restaurant, a family outing -- of being "processed", of being fed in one end of a process and spat out the other. You don't feel like that in Ireland, he says.

But it is the idea of home that resonates most. Certainly, we have made a mess of many things in our country, but it is our mess and we know our way around it.

I do not think I will be following Prof Tol's advice -- on emigration or on cycling. I plan to stick it out. At home.

drobbins@independent.ie

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