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Sarah Carey: Emigration is still a vital investment in Ireland's future

A survey by the Higher Education Authority has revealed that almost in one in four honours graduates emigrate, prompting “brain drain” alarm.

All I can think was; “Is that all?”

I graduated in 1992 from Trinity College, Dublin. It was still a time when entire classes emigrated.

Every year there was what was called a “milk round” when big management consultancies, merchant banks, global conglomerates, or technology companies, set up stall in the universities and picked the cream of the crop.

They whisked the cleverest in every class off to the UK and US for glamorous careers. Mediocre arts graduates like me were the unattractive orphans left behind.

I remained unemployed for a year and hid out in a post-graduate course for another year. Eventually, with some family pull, I got a job doing data entry in the EBS for £8,000 – and considered myself lucky. I didn’t get a real job until 1995 when Denis O’Brien set up Esat Telecom.

When I look back at those who did emigrate, there is no doubt it was the making of them.

Dozens of my friends headed to America and England where they excelled in their careers.

They got education and experience they never would’ve gotten at home. It’s not just because Ireland was poor, but if you’re top in your class, there’s no point hanging around in the small pond that is Ireland.

You owe it to yourself to go to the Premier League in your field. The Irish horizons are broader and further than others. We were, and are, more open to new possibilities.

I always thought it was a huge advantage to Irish graduates that, unlike other insular countries, we genuinely saw the world as our oyster.

From a Government point of view there’s no doubt graduate emigration is something to worry about. We spend all this money educating young people who promptly take their skills elsewhere.

But there are two factors that should give them some comfort.

First, there is the Brian Lenihan Senior argument, which is both appalling and funny. He once said: “We’re a small little island – sure we can’t all live here.”

I smile when I remember it, but there is a point. Emigration has provided a vital safety valve.

From The Famine on, emigration means there’s something left for those of us who stay, be it potatoes or social welfare. Harsh but true I’m afraid.

But the other factor is more positive. It was hugely rewarding to see the emigrants of the 80s and 90s come back when the economy turned around again.

I saw executives who’d left Ireland in the poor times return with an entrepreneurial zeal to invest and create.

The experience they had abroad yielded returns here at home and the goodwill towards Ireland around the world.

So while it’s horrible now for parents to say goodbye to those one in four graduates, I would urge them to look forward five or ten years.

They’ll be back, with a bundle of work and life experience, ready to give something back to the country that educated           them.


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