Emigration can be door to opportunity and adventure
Irish people get trapped in negative thoughts about departure. In the US, we are open to the lure of elsewhere, writes STEVE CORONELLA
IT’S NOW officially summer, the traditional season, together with Christmas, of the returning emigrant.
Over the next several weeks, Dublin Airport will provide the setting for many emotional reunions as men and women of every age, from every profession, touch down for a fortnight’s holiday in their economically strapped homeland.
Accompanying these scenes will be extensive media comment about Ireland’s inability to offer gainful employment to its talented young people. Likewise, stories will be told of countless men and women who have pulled their weight for years but now must leave in order to maintain their families. Indeed, this reputable journal has even developed an online outlet for ex-pats under the heading “Generation Emigration”.
Being an emigrant myself from the modestly-dubbed “Hub of the Universe”, Boston, Massachusetts, I have a different slant on this social phenomenon.
The notion of compulsory emigration is intricately woven into the Irish psyche. In the States, the opposite mentality is an animating force. As soon as you’re able, either circumstantially or financially, you’re expected to light out for the territories. This frontier-busting aspect of American life may be mythical in part, but to this day it remains a verifiable influence in determining population distribution in the US.
There are examples within my own limited social circle to bear out this position. My best man, whom I’ve known since the eighth grade, has been living in San Antonio, deep in the heart of Texas, for the past 25 years. He left recession-hit Boston in the late 1980s to pursue work.
Another childhood friend joined the US Air Force out of high school and settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as a American Airlines mechanic. Other high school acquaintances are dotted across the map, from Vermont to California to Virginia. Some of us strayed even further.
One friend entered the diplomatic corps after college and graduate school and is now US ambassador to Zambia. I don’t believe I am unusual in having these far-flung connections.
In 2011, to use the latest set of Central Statistics Office numbers, 76,300 people left Ireland. Twenty-five per cent of these folks went to the UK – which would be comparable in many ways to Bostonians leaving for New York or Chicago. Hardly a big culture shift there then.
The comparisons get a bit trickier when one takes into account the 22,900 people who left Ireland in 2011 for the two dozen or so other EU states. Of course, the language, customs and cuisine of, say, eastern Europe might prove challenging for new arrivals, but I would argue that my buddy Dan Creedon’s move from New England to Texas bridged as significant a cultural divide.
Meanwhile, 2011 immigration figures from Canada, the US and Australia indicate that a further 28,150 individuals departed Ireland for those countries – all English-speaking with a dominant and identifiable Anglo-American culture.
So if my maths are correct, that means a majority – 55 per cent – of Ireland’s 2011 emigrants left for the UK or continental Europe, while a further 37 per cent ended up in North America or Down Under, places not strikingly different from the land they left behind. The rest – a statistically scant 8 per cent – are scattered over the “Rest of the World”.Back in the 1980s, during another dreadful recession and period of high unemployment, Brian Lenihan snr made a famous observation about this country’s capacity to provide employment for its people. For all the stick he took at the time – and even posthumously – he may have had a point.
Like Boston, Ireland is tucked away in a remote corner of a much larger confederation of states. So perhaps “We can’t all live on a small island” – in Mr Lenihan’s words – and it is time to adjust the national psyche accordingly and embrace a more optimistic approach to emigration based on a sense of opportunity and adventure beyond these shores. In good times and bad, the grass can sometimes be greener elsewhere in the world.
Boston native Steve Coronella has lived in Ireland since 1992. He is the author of This Thought’s On Me: A Boston Guy Reflects on Leaving the Hub, Becoming a Dub Other Topics