It’s a strange feeling when you just find out that someone you were friendly with back in the day died years ago and you never even knew.
It’s happened to me a few times lately. I’m in my 50s, I’ve met lots of people in my life. Some friends stay and some fade out as we move jobs, relocate, have families and whatnot.
But mine was an emigration generation. Most of us moved abroad after school and college and many never came home again.
We might ask someone we haven’t seen in a while: “So what about so and so? Do you ever hear from them these days?” And the answer you get is : “Didn’t you hear...?”
This week I learned that a real live wire I went to school with back in the day, had died way back in 2006 in his late 30s.
Curious about where he ended up, I Googled his name and got his death notice. The internet helped patch up the bits I never knew about his life.
With no jobs here, he moved to San Francisco in his 20s and became involved in running a once legendary Irish ‘dive’ bar which had been a big part of that city’s cultural scene since the 1960s. It was a favoured hangout of Hunter S Thompson among others.
He reinvigorated that bar and local media would interview him regularly, particularly on St Patrick’s Day when they did stories about him refusing to serve “one pull” Guinness or to put green dye in the beer. Also his ban on pinching people in the pub who didn’t wear green (a very American tradition for March 17). All in the quest to keep his Irish bar as authentic as possible. It worked.
There’s a Facebook picture of him stood behind the counter, a face full of mischievous intelligent energy. And later, newspaper photos of him in a suit, smoking anxiously outside a court house. It was snapped as he awaited a verdict to save the bar from closure for redevelopment.
San Francisco was then beginning to gentrify on the back of Big Tech jobs with older buildings like pubs and bars pulled down to build expensive accommodation for techies.
He lost the case. But later cuttings tell how he was successful in reincarnating that bar elsewhere in San Francisco. It was reborn. Then he got cancer and it killed him. One of our emigration generation who never came home.
I left school in 1986. Most of my classmates went on to do some sort of third level course. But four years after leaving school, four fifths were gone from Ireland. Most didn’t come back until the Tiger and some never did.
BComm graduates I knew, some of whom are big shots in the finance sector today, were flipping burgers in McDonald’s in New York because that made more money than an apprentice accountant’s role in Dublin (just a bit more than the dole). American Big Macs made enough to have a life of sorts.
In 1986 unemployment stood at 17pc. But for guys like us under the age of 25 it was 27.3pc. The jobs you could get were unstable and ridiculously low paid.
In that dole climate, you could get homes aplenty. Values hadn’t increased in a decade, a year’s average salary bought a house (now it’s a multiple of 10 or 11) and a flat rented for €20 a week in Rathmines.
Today it’s the other way around. Lots of jobs, no affordable homes. There’s no data on it so far, but now it looks like the emigration of our younger people is starting once again, this time driven by the need to have a home somewhere.
In tandem, high paid people are constantly arriving from abroad to work in Ireland’s still growing tech sectors. Tik Tok is the latest — it recently announced 1,000 more jobs for Dublin. Likely well paid positions, but a good many will be filled by foreign nationals moving here, as with Facebook, Google and the others.
So like San Francisco in the 2000s, Dublin is fast becoming an elite international colony of techies. And as the globe’s tech elite land, it is ironic that Ireland’s younger people are once again being pushed out to live elsewhere on the planet thanks this time, to the long running housing crisis.
There are no studies on it, but we are getting the gist of it more and more.
This week the Irish Independent/REA Average House Price Index threw up some interesting comments from estate agents. In Tallaght, one of Dublin’s most affordable enclaves, local agent Anthony McGee says 30pc of his vendors are now private landlords selling up.
Across our big cities, these are being pushed out by the state-favoured build-to-let funds who get preferential tax rates and fast track planning. At the same time, rent caps and high taxes are levelled on smaller landlords who provide the cheaper rental accommodation in Dublin.
As average home prices in Dublin head for €500,000 for a family three-bed semi, McGee observes that locals are emigrating: “We have people leaving the country because they cannot find accommodation when their landlord decides to sell, and this will affect the available workforce in the long-term.”
Except for tech that is.
It started four years ago where interviews popped up in magazines, newspapers and web sites, with artists and musicians who might previously head to Leitrim or Donegal for affordable homes.
But in 2017, reports started to appear about them moving abroad althogether. For homes. Recently, the departure from the market of smaller landlords en masse (now making for a third of sales in some locations) has caused their tenants to realise they just can’t find another place to live. And so they’re heading somewhere where the rent won’t eat 80pc of their earnings. A friend who was in London recently says there’s a renewed and growing young Irish community again in places like Hackney. And it really says something when people are moving to London in search of affordable accommodation.
A report published this week showed just how universities are milking the crisis. The NUI Galway study flagged Irish on-campus accommodation as considerably more expensive than in the UK, with UCD charging up to €11,000 for 37 weeks in a single ensuite bedroom. We’ve been hearing about student accommodation problems for years. But now it hits home years after leaving college.
This week I spoke to a Dublin mother whose son is a secondary school teacher. “He did six years in college because you need a masters these days to get a teaching job. Since then he’s been three years in temporary low paid positions. He’s in his thirties and he makes €300 a week. He has no chance of buying a home or even renting one.
“My daughter, also a professional, says she’ll never have a home in Ireland and therefore, she won’t have children.”
And so they are starting to leave again. This time in an era of full Irish employment. They’re older than we were back in the 1980’s.
Many of them won’t be home again.