Most Irish emigrants have prospered - and most eventually want to return to their roots

Mon, Mar 19, 2012, 00:00

Respondents generally have a better quality of life in their host countries, but most also harbour a desire to return to live in Ireland, writes KATHY SHERIDAN

LIKE ANYONE who has ever made a big, public, life-changing decision, most emigrants will want to put the best gloss on it. Do the St Patrick’s Day pictures of merry Irish exiles, hurling themselves into warm oceans under azure skies, for example, tell only that part of the truth which they wish to reveal to those at home? If the quality of life really is better for 70 per cent of them, and an astonishing 80 per cent are actually happier – or at least as happy – in their new home as they claim in our survey, how does that chime with the massive 72 per cent who say they want to return home to live?

When a startling 95 out of 100 say they were welcomed as migrants by their host country, how does that tally with the 11 per cent who live in fear that the same “welcoming” country might bar their re-entry if they were to come home for a visit? Self-assessment can be an unsatisfactory measure, reliant on the honesty of interviewees and the professionalism of interviewers to tease out the truth. The difficulties are compounded by the old push-pull factor about Ireland.

For many, the pull of home is almost overwhelming. However attractive another country might seem from the perspective of a decent job and financial security, for more than 7 in 10 of the emigrants in our snapshot it is not enough: they want to come home. “Because it is the land of my birth, even though I have a better standard of living in Australia,” said one. “Home is home. Family are at home. It’s where my roots are.” They talked about plans – to come back to the farm, start a business or open a cafe. But it always came back to family and friends.

Not surprisingly, 3 in 10 of respondents want to kick the dust from this country off their heels forever. Many of these are among the “early” leavers – those who left in 2008; nearly half of them plan to stay away compared to less than a quarter of those who left last year. Age or gender make little difference in this case, but the base country matters. A massive 8 in 10 of those in the UK would like to return home at some stage compared to only 3 in 10 of those in Canada.

There is a sense of realism among those who want to return. Asked how many years they thought it would take, only 20 per cent thought a year or two. About a third said 3-5 years; another third said they didn’t know, or it depended on the economy.

A closer look at the roots being laid down – or not – by these emigrants suggests many are keeping their options open. A quarter of those who left in 2008, and are aged over 35, got married and/or bought a home, while 11 per cent have had a child. They are, no doubt, among the “early” leavers who have declared their intention to stay. Remarkably, from 2009 through to 2012 there are virtually no marriages, no children and no house purchases in any of the age brackets. Whether this reflects a determination to remain free to return home or to pursue other goals is a moot point.

Meanwhile, roots are being nurtured, with the telephone still tops in communications modes used. Age of course plays a part in preferences. While Skype has been mastered across the age groups, Facebook and other social media show a clear spike in top choices for under-25s, with text and email trailing behind.

Nonetheless even for the under-25s, Skype and phone emerge as the top choices. The handwritten letter isn’t quite dead, though it’s not far off – just 11 per cent still see the point of a lasting, physical document.

Another substantial difference between the old and new is the amount of money being sent home and the perception of need back in the old country. Only 17 per cent send money home now, although 70 per cent have managed to save money, and that includes half of the supposedly feckless under-25s.

That suggests a sense of security most couldn’t dream of in Ireland today.

Despite the upheaval that comes with finding a new job and accommodation and challenges of a new country, new social circle and new culture, half say they have a better social life now (rising to 60 per cent in the under-25s), with nearly a third saying it’s about the same. The big exception to this is the UK.

The difference is not explained by the amount of alcohol imbibed or the social circle. About a fifth of those surveyed have drunk more since emigrating, while well over a third claim to drink less. About 42 per cent drink the same as before.

Age of course is a significant factor. Although a third of the under-25s drink more, 40 per cent of 25-34s drink less.

The old image of the diaspora sticking to their own is challenged to some extent. Although nearly 6 in 10 of these emigrants still mix mainly with other Irish, there is clear evidence this fades with time. For example, that figure is almost reversed for the 2008 departures and the over-35s. It also appears women are more adventurous about socialising with other nationalities, perhaps a reflection of the more varied workplaces they tend to inhabit.

The people in this survey also reported a healthier lifestyle. Well over half said they exercised more and had a healthier diet. In the breakdown, age plays a positive role – early leavers tend to exercise a good deal more than the recent ones – as does length of stay. But the main assumption here might be that in the culture of say, Australia, people spend more time out of doors on health-related pursuits. Yet when it comes to the country breakdown, there seems to be little difference between the predilections of emigrants in the UK, US or Australia.

The only spike applies to what the pollsters call Mainland Europe, where 68 per cent claim to be more exercised.

The diet factor shows a similar trend with regard to age. The longer the stay, the more likely they are to claim a healthier diet. The country least likely to induce healthier diets is the UK, where only a third say they eat more healthily now. But well over two-thirds of those in Australia say their diet is better, along with similar numbers in America, Canada, Mainland Europe and the rest of the world.

One way or another, those here surveyed say their quality of life is better than it was in Ireland.

Some 70 per cent say it is better now; only 11 per cent say it’s not as good. Overall, well over half say they are happier now, with 22 per cent saying they are about the same – that’s 88 per cent who are at least as happy now as they were in Ireland.

Perhaps all this positivity says something about the people, their resilience and their ability to overcome challenges. Or perhaps most happen to be a privileged cohort whose education armed them with precious work visas, financial resources and the confidence to take on new challenges and training opportunities, and to enjoy it all.

Asked what was the greatest challenge they faced, there were few or no complaints about the things they could control – such as other people, making friends or commuting. None suggested they had experienced discrimination, bullying or anti-Irish behaviour. The main problems were the perennials of finding accommodation and jobs. Nearly a third of respondents in Australia, for example, cited difficulty in getting a job. We know, however, that virtually all of them succeeded in the end.

Over and over, this survey demonstrated that even in a few years the majority of Irish emigrants have prospered and flourished, and that ultimately, given the right circumstances, most of them want to come home.

That of course is down to Ireland and the troika, so how soon will it happen? Perhaps, after all, they were the lucky ones. They were the ones with choices, the ones who got away.

SURVEY METHODOLOGY

Accurately sampling the population of Irish emigrants is problematic for researchers, as no reliable measure of the emigrant population exists, therefore no objective basis for controlling or weighting a sample exists.

For today’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI survey of recent Irish emigrants, a “purposive sampling” approach was employed.

Criteria for qualifying for interview were defined as Irish nationals who had left since 2008 and had left as emigrants, not for extended travel.

The interviewing method was by telephone, which was deemed most appropriate as it would be reasonable to expect all emigrants to be contactable by phone, limiting the potential for data- collection technique bias.

Regarding sampling approach, migrants were identified by Ipsos MRBI interviewers through their network of contacts. Rules were applied to ensure only one emigrant from any college class, company or family could be interviewed to avoid any clustering effect. The research took place from March 1st to 13th.

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