The emigrants who came home

 

As thousands of young people pack their bags and head off in search of better opportunities overseas, why are thousands of others returning to a country racked by high unemployment, asks CIARA KENNY

LAST JUNE, Peter McEneaney contacted the Tubridy Showon RTÉ Radio 1 looking for advice. He had emigrated to Australia with his girlfriend Eilish McGlone six months previously after both of them had lost their jobs in Dublin.

They had found work in Perth and were enjoying the lifestyle. The problem was that Peter was homesick and wanted to return, but his friends and family were telling him to stay put, that Ireland had nothing to offer him. He wanted to know, should he stay there or should he go home?

During the Celtic Tiger years, prosperity lured emigrants back to Ireland in their hundreds of thousands, while recent figures show that the pull to the homeland remains strong, despite the recession. According to the Central Statistics Office, more than 13,000 Irish people came back to live here last year. But why are they returning when so many others are leaving?

“The majority of people who decide to move back to Ireland do so for personal and family reasons,” says Dr Caitríona Ní Laoire, migration researcher at University College Cork. “They are not motivated so much by economics, but by a desire to be closer to elderly parents, to bring their children up here, by a relationship break-up or a longing to return to the community that they grew up in themselves.”

Almost one in 10 Irish people in the Republic has spent some time living abroad. Some do it out of necessity and others go for the adventure, but most of them intend to return eventually, according to Ní Laoire.

“Just because the economic context has changed in the past few years doesn’t mean that people’s personal desires have changed. It is certainly more difficult for them to come back now, but they still have the same motivations, and many are managing it,” she says.

Marian Finnegan, chief economist with Sherry FitzGerald, says there has been a notable rise in the number of returning emigrants on its books in recent years. During the property boom, many people were priced out of the market and could not afford to move back to Ireland. But the recent fall in house prices means that many emigrants can sell up abroad and find a reasonably priced property here.

With unemployment at 13.4 per cent, now may not seem like the best time to be looking for a job here. There are opportunities for those returning from abroad, however, if they are willing to be flexible, according to Eugenie Houston, barrister and author of Working and Living in Ireland.

“They are competing with many more people in the jobs’ market now, so they need to stress the value of their overseas experience,” she says.

Houston also advises keeping an open mind when looking for work. “A detour can be a way into a very successful career,” she says.

Unlike in the 1980s, however, this economic downturn is a global one, and some emigrants who were happy overseas have been forced to come back because they have lost their jobs and exhausted their savings abroad.

For those who do not have a job lined up, getting social welfare payments can be difficult as the Department of Social Protection insists on proof of your connection to Ireland if you have been living away for more than two years. Last year 650 Irish citizens were denied social welfare under the habitual residence condition.

Amy Tyndall of Crosscare, an information and advocacy service offering support to returning emigrants, says it can take months for the paperwork to be processed. “People need to factor this in before they come back, and try to have some savings put aside to tide them over until payments come through,” she says.

While living abroad, many people develop a nostalgic view of Ireland, she says, but it is important to do some research and make the decision to come back based on fact, rather than a romanticised memory of how things used to be.

It is equally important to prepare children for that change, according to play therapist Anne Brennan. “When children come back to Ireland on holidays, there are parties, visits to the seaside, and shopping trips,” she says. “But when they come here to live, life’s not like that every day. One child I worked with thought that his granny and granddad just didn’t like him anymore. You need to prepare them for the fact that Ireland will not be like it is on holidays.”

No matter what age you are, friends will have grown older, their priorities may have changed and the social scene will not be the same as it was before you left. A fulfilling social life can help to make readjustment easier, according to Noreen Bowden of globalirish.ie, an online resource for the Irish diaspora. But blending back in with the same crowd can be hard, no matter how prepared you think you are.

“There’s something a little special about being Irish abroad,” says Bowden. “Friends look out for each other that little bit more because everyone is far from family, for example. When you come home, that changes – and that takes some getting used to,” says Bowden. “Migration of any sort is unsettling. Once you move, you take away the notion that there’s a place where you naturally belong because it’s where you’ve always lived. There are those who fit right in again, but for many it takes about a year to start feeling at home again, and some people never settle.”

For most of those who leave, however, Ireland will always be home. Peter McEneaney, who wrote to the Tubridy Showdecided against spending a second year in Australia, declining the offer of sponsorship from the company he was working for. He and McGlone returned to live in Armagh before Christmas, and he now commutes daily to Dublin where he works for an IT company. “It was hard to get on the plane back to Ireland, back to the gloom and doom,” he says. “We made friends in Australia and we know life Down Under is very easy, but we also know Ireland is home.”

MEABH DURAND (41)

WHEN HER 16-year relationship with her French partner ended last June, Meabh Durand returned to Ireland with her two daughters. Durand, who had spent seven years in the south of France, had to prove her connection to Ireland and her intention to stay here before she was granted social welfare support because she had been living outside the country for the previous two years. “It was very stressful, knowing that there was a possibility I wouldn’t be entitled to anything,” she says.

Durand found a part-time job teaching English a few weeks after she returned. “If you are adaptable, there is some work to be found,” she says. Her youngest daughter is settling well into playschool here, but her teenager is finding the adjustment more difficult.

“I love to travel, and I love living abroad, but I think it will be just for a month or two at a time in the future. My goal now is to buy a house. I would have found it very boring to have that goal when I was 20. I couldn’t understand people settling down and getting married, but now I realise they didn’t have to go through all the stress and the madness that I had to go through, because they had stability. I learned the hard way.”

She says the complacency towards the current economic situation came as a shock. “No one was out on the streets when the IMF came. I couldn’t believe it. It was cold on the day of the march so people just went back to bed. It is just not in our culture to demonstrate in Ireland, but in France, everyone goes out marching. We give out on the radio here, that’s our way of protesting, but is that enough?”

PAT QUIGLEY (39)

Pat Quigley left Ireland in 1994, the day after he finished his final exams in English and psychology at University College Cork. He stayed away until 2008, teaching English in Japan, Taiwan, Africa, Saudi Arabia and India.

“The country had changed drastically. People’s values and consumerism and materialism had gone crazy, so that was a bit of a shock,” he says. “Everybody was running around attached to mobile phones, working and stressing all the time.”

Quigley is now studying Chinese medicine. He also runs his own business growing and selling sprouts at farmers’ markets in Cork. He says Ireland’s economic misfortunes have had a positive impact on the country.

“The recession is definitely helping to put things back into perspective,” he says. “A lot of people are trying to start their own businesses, growing their own vegetables, and getting closer to nature again, as opposed to during the Celtic Tiger when people were just interested in making lots of money.”

LIAM FERRIE (40)

AFTER LIAM Ferrie graduated from Athlone Institute of Technology in 1994, the first job offer he got was from an Irish company based in Moscow. He decided to give it a go for a year as an adventure but ended up staying for 15 years. Last summer, he returned to live in Ireland. His home is now in Galway with his wife Maria, who is Russian, and their daughters Sophia (4 months), Alina (4) and son Liam Óg (6).

“We always talked about bringing the kids back to live in Ireland, but the way the property prices had gone in the past decade, we couldn’t see it happening any time soon,” he says. “But early last year we realised that for the price of a four-room apartment in Moscow, we could get a very decent house in Galway.”

The family moved back last August, just in time for their eldest child Liam Óg to start primary school. Ferrie still works for an American-owned restaurant group in Moscow and commutes for two weeks of every month.

“The children are really enjoying it in Ireland,” says Ferrie. “They love having a garden, as opposed to living nine floors up in the centre of town. They miss their friends, but we are planning to spend six weeks in Moscow this summer.”

JUDY SWEENEY (36) AND DARREN BOWLER (37)

DARREN BOWLER and his fiancée Judy Sweeney left Dublin for Hong Kong when he was transferred for work in September 2008, just as the economic crisis was beginning.

“In the two years we were away, I always felt like I was on an extended holiday. Even going to work every day was a novelty. But the second we stepped off the plane, we slipped right back into the old routine, as if Hong Kong had never happened,” says Bowler.

The couple came back to Ireland last November, the same week as the International Monetary Fund arrived to take control of the country’s finances.

“It was hard to grasp exactly how bad things were here,” says Sweeney, who is trained as a nurse and a play therapist. “I thought there would always be jobs for nurses. I checked every hospital. I saw one job. I applied for it and got it, so I was very lucky.”

Both of them are still adjusting to a very changed Ireland from the one they left in 2008. “It is very upsetting coming back to see everyone so downtrodden,” says Sweeney. “I don’t think the Government realises how betrayed the people feel. I wouldn’t mind paying these high taxes if we had proper services, but why should I have to pay to bail out a bank that I had nothing to do with?”

SINÉAD O'KEEFFE (30)

BY 2009, Sinéad O'Keeffe, had spent five successful years in Washington DC. She had made good friends, visited 25 states, witnessed Barack Obama’s inauguration, and become director of corporate sales for a Hilton Hotel.

“I was torn. I had a life set up in the States, but my gut was telling me to go back to Ireland. I was missing my family and friends a lot,” she says. “Everyone told me I wouldn’t get a job and I was crazy to come home.”

O’Keeffe has worked in a couple of roles since her return over a year ago, and has recently started work as corporate fundraiser for the Irish Heart Foundation. “I am very lucky that I was hired in a role that I am happy in. I worked hard at not having to settle,” she says.

“I have a close group of friends, and that made the readjustment much easier, but really it took a whole year to settle back.”