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From The Gathering to The Vanishing


Illustration by Jim Cogan

Illustration by Jim Cogan

Illustration by Jim Cogan

The news that there are 200,000 fewer twentysomethings in Ireland now, than there were five years ago is, of course, astounding. Or at least it would be in any vaguely normal country.

A similar statistic in the UK would mean that roughly 2.5m young people had somehow wandered off, never to be seen again. You'd need a world war at least to get anywhere close to such a number, such a phenomenon.

But here, we just regard it as part of the rhythm of life.

Indeed we have known about it for some time - while some of that 200,000 might be attributed to the birth rate, we recall a startling estimate during the recession that 1,000 young people were leaving the country every week.

So that would be about 50,000 a year, and after a few years of that, you'd get a number adjacent to 200,000.

Not that all that emigration is necessarily a bad thing in every case. It's a bit more complicated than it used to be, the old emigration.

So we are not here today to reflect on the plight of those who have left the country, more to reflect on the plight of the country they have left, on Paddy's inexhaustible capacity for self-delusion.

These numbers tell us that many things we have been told, and that we have told ourselves about the present state of Ireland, are wrong. Or at least they would be, in any of those normal countries to which we alluded at the start - "normal" in this case being loosely defined as "a country whose citizens actually live there, for most of their lives, without disappearing in their hundreds of thousands whenever the need arises."

In most of those countries, for example, when they're compiling their unemployment figures, clearly they have to include this large chunk of the population which is most vulnerable in this area, people in their twenties who have had their lives destroyed by the doctrine of austerity.

In Ireland, we don't have to include those people, because they're gone. We can just give ourselves a write-down on that deal.

So now we're telling ourselves that unemployment has dropped below 10 per cent, which implies that whatever hocus-pocus has been going on with our economy must have some merit.

And yet those unemployment percentages will always start to look quite healthy if the unemployed, as such, are lining up every day in large numbers at the Departure Gates.

For some time now, the great minds of the age have been baffled in a pleasant sense, at the way that Ireland seems to be coming through the austerity a bit better than Portugal or Greece. Is this on account of our obedient nature? Our feelings of guilt and shame for enjoying ourselves too much when we had money?

Or is it possible.... is there any chance at all....that this could in any way be related to the fact that so many of Ireland's young people have indeed found jobs, albeit not in Ireland?

Aye, there could be something in that. And on the obedience issue, perhaps the mystery of Ireland's passivity in those times of torment may somehow be connected to the fact that many of the people who would have the energy for protesting and for rioting and that sort of thing, have gone to Australia.

That vast write-down of twentysomethings helps to distort other "key indicators" too, such as consumer confidence. Since most of the people who had no money and who couldn't buy anything have vanished, their lack of consumer confidence has gone unnoticed.

Likewise, when we are told that we don't have enough skilled people to supply the high-tech multinationals , the truth is that in theory at least we do - it's just that they've all gone to the moon. Or to London or New York City, or anywhere that is hooked up to the internet and that is not Ireland.

But there is genius in it too, and it's not just that ancient gift of ours for magicking away our people. It must also be recalled that at the height of this mass movement out of our country, this exodus, we staged a great national celebration.

We called it The Gathering, a celebration not of our people going away in large numbers, but of our people coming home - with the catch that the latter were only coming home for a few days, whereas the former were going away for a lot longer, and maybe not coming back at all.

"Hey you...don't watch that... watch this!", seemed to be the idea, a line taken from a song performed - appropriately enough - by Madness.

When all the action was at the Departure Lounge, Paddy was misdirected towards the Arrivals area, and that was the story we told ourselves - the people are coming back.

In truth, they were going away, but we preferred to hear whatever is the opposite of that. When the history of bullshit in Ireland is written, there will be a special chapter devoted to this episode in which the guts of a generation left the country, and the country hardly noticed.

We were too busy making up a different narrative, making up a lot of things. In that frame of mind, the loss of 200,000 of Paddy's finest doesn't seem like a catastrophe, more a lucky break.

Sunday Independent