Why don’t you live in Ireland?
It’s a straight forward question that isn’t easy to answer. Like most people, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with the place I’m from. Not quite love/hate, more can’t live there but would like to be there slightly more often.
I enjoy telling people how great a place to visit Ireland is- weather aside of course.
The culture, the landscape, the craic. There’s history, music, food, drink and fun. Beautiful countryside, great hiking, world class surfing. Drive the Wild Atlantic Way! And it’s true, Irish people really are friendly.
But no, I don’t want to live there. When I travel, people sometimes nod knowingly and mention the recession. But I didn’t leave Ireland for economic reasons.
I’m that curious thing, an emigrant by choice.
Which is a privilege, I’m aware. Years of economic mismanagement, political corruption and bad governance led Ireland into a devastating recession in 2008. Political policies in the following years did nothing to protect young people and their employment prospects. Successive governments protected pay and conditions of older teachers, leaving newly qualified teachers in a horrible cycle of insecure contracts. Junior doctors found their pay and conditions slashed again and again. Nurses too, were told they were needed by the State, but again, found themselves struggling to find positions with decent pay and prospects in a struggling health service. The property bubble completely burst leaving thousands of skilled and unskilled workers with no option but to leave the country for Australia, Canada, Dubai and elsewhere.
Those are the young people forced to leave because of little or no job prospects or terrible job conditions.
So why did I leave?
The usual reasons. Small town girl wanted to see the world. But why don’t I want to go back?
Mostly because it’s small. There are 5 million people in Ireland. Dublin, the capital and largest city, has a population of roughly 1 million. Dublin is a city I’ve warmed to in recent years; it’s far from my favourite destination but I’ve come to appreciate it’s gritty coolness, hipster restaurants and good pubs. But it’s still small and not so multicultural for a capital city.
I don’t want to live there but nor can I see myself settling in the West of Ireland either. So by a process of elimination, I guess I’m content to remain abroad.
I don’t think I could find work in Ireland if I wanted to, but that is also due to my education and professional choices.
Ireland is now, apparently, recovering from a recession. We are Europe’s much lauded poster child- the only country to successfully exit our bail out package. This Christmas, the Irish Government has decided to launch a campaign aimed at encouraging young emigrants to return home. The Department of Foreign Affairs website informs me Ireland is Europe’s fastest growing economy- a relative victory of course, given the economic state of much of Europe.
On a personal note, this campaign annoys me greatly. As a policy rule, an Irish citizen who has spent two of the previous 5 years working outside the EU is subject to international fees if they wish to study in Ireland. For example, I want to do a Masters next year. If I were to study in Ireland, even though I am an Irish citizen, I would be charged 20,000 Euro. So the Irish state literally is removing my right to access affordable education but then wants me to come home and share my skills?
I call bullshit.
Regardless of my personal annoyances, though the market is improving in general, for many professions, there are simply no new jobs being created and the simplest- or sometimes only- option is to emigrate. Modern young Irish emigrants differ from the generations forced abroad previously of course. We’re well-educated, urbane and connected.My friends did Erasmus in France, Spain, Norway; interned in New York and London; went to work in finance, governance and tech in Brussels, Singapore and LA. Irish emigration today consists of desert safaris in Dubai and instagramming brunches in Sydney.
Again, I’m aware this is a privilege. I know many slightly older emigrants who’ve had to leave spouses and children behind to work in another country to pay for mortgages. But I can only speak of my own experiences and that of those around me. I left school in 2008, as the bubble well and truly burst. My entire college experience consisted of lecturers telling us we wouldn’t get jobs we graduated. We expected to leave.
In 1995, then Irish President Mary Robinson gave a speech aimed at highlighting the existance of the Irish diaspora and the role it plays in modern Irish identity. She quoted from the poem The Emigrant Irish by Eavan Boland:
Like oil lamps, we put them out the back,
Of our houses, of our minds.
Twenty years after that speech, I don’t feel that is the case any longer. Modern technology and connectivity means emigration is different from how it once was- a person would leave to America or Australia and not return for many years, perhaps never returning. Lives would be built on different continents and families lost track of one another.
But now we skype and whatsapp and fly home for weekends, to attend family events or to vote in referendums, if we can. My sister knows what I’m making for dinner on any given day. I know how my nephew is doing at school. I use skype to show my parents around my new apartment, they fly out to Australia to meet their new grandchild, my nieces and nephews in Ireland and Australia play peek a boo together on skype.
That’s modern Irish family life in these times of emigration.
I don’t consider myself an emigrant, mostly because I haven’t settled in one place. I move around and return to Ireland for a month or two in between. That’s why I think of myself more as a modern nomad than an emigrant.
I don’t feel choice or necessity matters greatly in terms of the definition of emigration but I feel it matters to some people and that’s important. Someone forced to leave for economic reasons may not look kindly upon me claiming to be an ’emigrant’ when really, I choose to travel and move around as I please. Perhaps ‘Irish abroad’ with it’s looser meaning is an easier, more ambiguous term to use.
Because emigrants often settle in their new home which I have yet to do, I still consider myself a nomad or a wanderer. But always Irish, no matter where I am in the world.
For more on Irish emigration today, check out excellent Irish Time series Generation Emigration, featuring different voices and experiences from Irish around the world.