‘Mass emigration is not so bad after all? I disagree’
Characterising emigration as a form of career tourism lets those responsible for causing the crisis off the hook, writes Enda Delaney
Last Monday after the All-Ireland, Mayo people were making their way through Dublin Airport. Among them were people of all ages en route back to London, Birmingham, Glasgow and other English and Scottish cities. One wonders what they would make of Trinity academic James Wickham’s view that it is “astonishing” that the rhetoric of Irish emigration from Ireland had not changed despite many Irish emigrants now returning home after a few years abroad.
And, for that matter, one wonders what they might make of Jennifer O’Connell’s surmise in The Irish Times that the young Irish in Sydney don’t see themselves as “victims” but rather as part of a new wave of ambitious and educated self-starters, some of whom could have found work in Ireland.
Is it time we dispensed with the traditional “rhetoric” on emigration and began to see it as something good, something to be encouraged, a sign of national vitality and cultural sophistication?
Discussion of this issue often turns on the emigration of graduates, well positioned to take advantage of opportunities in the English-speaking labour markets of the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. Graduate emigration certainly attracts a great deal of media attention, due in part to a predominantly middle-class audience being interested in it.
However, graduate emigration is not typical of the Irish experience over the past 200 years. In 1950, 0.23 per cent of the Irish population attended university. And it is only since the late 1960s that children from urban working class and small farming families have gone to second-level education in any great numbers.
Of course, even if graduates do see their own departure as merely a temporary measure, they are still joining the ranks of millions of people who have left Ireland since the Famine, many of whom also left with a hope of return. Some will return; others will not.
And in that they bear comparison with other generations of less-advantaged emigrants. When the people in the “lost” generation of the 1940s and 1950s were asked if they intended to return to live in Ireland, the answer was often yes. But circumstances in Ireland and the countries of settlement often conspired to make this redemptive return impossible. After a few years overseas, children starting school and parents integrating into new communities and enjoying a standard living above that of their peers at home made a return difficult. And, for many, the lack of employment opportunities in Ireland made it next to impossible.
Doubtless the options for well-heeled graduates, who can rely on parental resources for financial support, are very different to those of humbler background without third-level qualifications. But we should avoid normalising “graduate emigration”. Most obviously, characterising emigration as a form of career tourism, with an inevitable return home, lets the political and financial establishment whose recklessness, greed and corruption destined this generation—graduates and those who never went to college—to a life overseas off the hook. They should be reminded at every opportunity of the human cost of their actions.
Only one thing is certain. Emigrants, graduates and non-graduates, can expect very little support from the establishment responsible for the mess that has caused the current outflow. Emigrants don’t vote, and every politician knows it.
Enda Delaney is associate director of the Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He has written two previous articles for Generation Emigration, Spare a thought for those who can’t leave and Traditions of emigration: The Irish habit of going away. His book, The Irish in Post-War Britain (Oxford University Press) will be published in paperback this week.