We need to study the impact of emigration on those who are being left behind

Opinion: those who go have no political influence but those who stay do

The departures area at Dublin Airport. Emigration is again having a dramatic economic and social impact. Photograph: Frank Miller

The departures area at Dublin Airport. Emigration is again having a dramatic economic and social impact. Photograph: Frank Miller


It had been an ambition of mine for some time to persuade RTÉ producer John O’Regan to come to the Kennedy Summer School to talk about making the phenomenally successful series Reeling in the Years.

Two weeks ago O’Regan gave the talk at St Michael’s Theatre, a historic theatre and cinema in New Ross. He began by discussing the programme that dealt with 1963 and which included coverage of John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland that June and of the aftermath of his assassination five months later. It was an obvious starting point for a discussion about the way television acts as a time capsule.

O’Regan identified recurring themes in Reeling in the Years – the five seasons of which to date covered the period between 1962 and 2009 – one of the most prominent of which was emigration.

The clip on emigration he chose to show was a 1986 news report by Tommie Gorman. It began with an interview with the Sligo GAA board chairman about how local teams had been devastated by emigration, and went on to show queues for visas outside the US embassy in Dublin.

Gorman asked some of those leaving whether they knew anyone at their destinations – mostly they did – and whether they had any skills, the replies to which were in the negative. The report followed some young emigrants as they took a bus from Sligo to Shannon Airport, and showed them downcast as they shuffled through the departure gate. The clip ended with a shot of their aircraft taking off.

‘Won’t you remember me?’
The background music O’Regan chose for the sequence was Mary Black’s version of Jimmy MacCarthy’s ballad As I Leave Behind Neidín. O’Regan told the audience that, while the ballad related to lovers parting, he felt its haunting chorus – “Won’t you remember me?” – was apt because it echoed the fear felt by emigrants of being forgotten. He also pointed out that he had made that programme in the late 1990s, when our attitudes to emigration had been tempered by the expectation that it was a thing of the past.

I spoke later to another television producer, who had watched O’Regan’s talk, who said the emigration sequence had been the most poignant moment of the weekend – no mean feat at a summer school with many elements focused on the history of the Kennedy family. Many of those at O’Regan’s talk spoke of how it was emotional because, like O’Regan, they had emigrated in the 1980s and had returned.

I watched the talk from the side of the stage and noticed many older people in the audience in tears as they watched the clips. Even in the darkened theatre one could see them weeping and shuffling for handkerchiefs, upset, it seemed to me, less because of the emigration trauma of the 1980s than because of what had happened since.

Having reared their children and educated them to a level never dreamed of by previous generations, they had come to presume that their families would live and work in Ireland. They dared to expect during the boom that in their golden years they would be surrounded by their children and grandchildren.

Skype grandparents
I would guess that many in that room have at least one family member living abroad. The Skype grandparents in particular, it seemed to me, wept as a release from the frustrating reality that, apart from text messaging, their relationship with at least some of their children and grandchildren depends on their broadband access or familiarity with social media.

I was reminded of these moments in St Michael’s Theatre when reading some of the detail of the report of the University College Cork Émigré Project published this week. This comprehensive report goes much of the way to addressing the need to study the impact recent emigration has had not only on those who have left but also on those left behind. It also says something about whether communications technology helps relieve the strain of displacement from family and local community that emigrants feel.

The report points out that half of those who left in 1980s returned during the boom but some have since left again.

The distress shown in New Ross by those traumatised by emigration was just a small depiction of the pain of those close to but separated from the 200,000 or so who have emigrated from Ireland during the current economic crisis.

Emigration is again having a dramatic economic and social impact. While those leaving have no weight in our political system, once gone they leave behind many who, bereaved by emigration, are likely to pack a significant political punch.

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