‘I’ve felt the effects of emigration my entire life’
As the child of Irish emigrant parents living in America, I have witnessed the homecomings and farewells and the longing for home that has plagued them since they left Ireland, writes Damien Fox
I recently turned 23 years old.
The same age at which my mother and father left Ireland on what they anticipated to be a temporary, economically-driven relocation to the United States.
28 years, three kids, and one mortgage later, they are still in America.
I can only wonder how their 23-year-old, bright-eyed, ambitious selves would have reacted to knowing that when they stepped on their Northwest Orient flight at Shannon Airport on that afternoon in April 1985, they would never return to live at home in Ireland again, despite all their hopes and dreams to do so.
I have often asked myself if I could do the same – could I leave everything and everyone I know behind and embark on a new life in an unfamiliar new world? I have never been able to answer that question, and luckily – due to my parents’ emigration from Ireland years ago – I will not have to. Yet, that is not the case for those my age in Ireland, for whom emigration and the decision of where and when to go has become an unwelcome reality within their young lives in the past few years.
On a visit to Ireland this past Christmas, I came across a particularly sobering article in the Irish Independent on the eve of the New Year reporting on the issue of a new, millennial Irish diaspora. This new diaspora has reached a more developed, educated Irish nation– a player in a modernized global world. Yet, despite the globalization and modernization of Ireland during the Celtic Tiger, this millennial chapter of emigration has reached “famine levels”. Each day, 200 people depart a country that has raised, educated, and ultimately failed them, leaving behind heartbroken friends and family. Once again, Ireland must brace for another, all too familiar “brain drain”, depleting the country of its most valuable resource – its young people.
As a first generation American who has always self-identified as being “Irish”, I’ve been privy to the effects of emigration my entire life. I’ve gone as far as to define myself as an “indirect emigrant” – one who did not directly make the choice to emigrate, yet who deeply feels the effects of that emigration in both positive and negative ways.
I have been present for both the trials and tribulations of an emigrant’s life. I’ve experienced the jubilant homecomings and devastating farewells to Ireland. Although technology has made great strides in the methods of communication which connect the Irish abroad with Ireland, no amount of Skype calls and Facebook photographs can make up for the family and occasions missed back home. That impassioned longing for home, long recorded in Irish song and recitation, is what connects emigrants flying away today with those who sailed off in coffin ships centuries ago.
My parents often speak of their own emigration, over a quarter of a century since their departure from Ireland in 1985. In speaking of the topic with family friends this past Thanksgiving, my mother referred to herself as a “displaced citizen”, one forever in limbo between two different worlds. She recognizes that Ireland is no longer her home and America will never truly be her home in the same sense that Ireland once was. While she feels at home both with her sisters in Ireland and her husband and children in the United States, the true essence of “home” in Ireland was sacrificed upon her emigration years ago through the changes which occurred in her absence, such as the deaths of her parents and the closing up of the family home.
As such, my heart breaks for those who have been and will continue to be compelled to leave Ireland – for those young people who take hold of their boarding pass not long after taking hold of their diploma. While some individuals will always feel the air of adventure draw them from Ireland, it is devastating that the vast majority of those departing daily are not doing so for the thrill of the unknown, but rather choosing the next best option to the weekly dole queue.
But while emigration has flooded the hearts and minds of Ireland’s youth in generations past and present, those who do leave do so with bravery, perseverance and the ethic to work hard – the same qualities which have built the cities and nations of the world in years past – qualities which, throughout history, have worked to break the stereotypes and raise the reputations of Irish people around the world.
President Michael D Higgins was once quoted as saying, “Given that no people can ever fully exist from within, exile is indeed the cradle of nationality”. With that said, in leaving Ireland in pursuit of new and foreign worlds comes a unique opportunity for Ireland’s sons and daughters to learn and appreciate what it truly means to be Irish.