The other sides to our migration stories

Leaving aside economic necessity, we have to face the fact that a lot of emigration is opportunistic

The most vital statistic is that half of those who have emigrated in recent years quit full-time employment to do so. Photograph: Alan Betson

The most vital statistic is that half of those who have emigrated in recent years quit full-time employment to do so. Photograph: Alan Betson

Mon, Sep 30, 2013, 01:00

Passing through Abu Dhabi airport recently, I eavesdropped on a conversation between two young Mayo men en route from Sydney for the All-Ireland final. You might think flying across the world for a weekend to watch Dublin win finally puts to bed the idea that the best and brightest leave, but it’s an interesting insight into the emigrant experience, which is one of constantly looking back.

The narrative we have about contemporary emigration is wrong and the fog is beginning to lift, thanks in part to new research from a team at University College Cork. More than two-thirds of emigrants between the ages of 25 and 34 have a third-level degree. For the most part, the taxpayer has funded this education.

Leaving jobs
But the most vital statistic is that half of those who have emigrated in recent years quit full-time employment to do so. How do you keep people in a country when they have jobs, friends, a community and access to education?

How do you convince someone to stay with Jennifer Aniston when they are eyeing up Angelina Jolie? How do you hold on to someone who’s just not that into you?

Not everyone leaves because there’s no hope here. Not everyone who leaves gives the two fingers at Terminal 2. And not everyone who stays is in negative equity and/or thick.

Leaving aside emigration out of economic necessity, we have to confront the fact that a lot of emigration is opportunistic. The best and the brightest don’t all leave. Yes, there is a brain drain, but that’s also down to the high level of education and its accessibility here. Chances are, loads of people who emigrate are just going to happen to have third-level degrees.

At a debate organised by the Philosophical Society in Trinity College Dublin last week, at which I was a guest speaker, the motion “There is no place like home” was carried. The arguments for emigration were individualistic ones. And that’s fine.

No one can argue logically that emigration for the purposes of bettering oneself, seeking extra opportunities and experiencing life elsewhere is bad. Of course it isn’t. It’s fantastic. And no one can argue that the State hasn’t let down entire generations through plain idiocy. But in the broader context of emigration and society versus emigration and the individual, the benefits of departing are only relevant in the context of a return.

Embarrassing pleas
Even so, begging emigrants to return so they can share their new knowledge from faraway lands is embarrassing, like the mother waiting for Jack to return and hoping he hasn’t gone and blown it all on magic beans again.

The key to Irish society progressing isn’t necessarily external. Most of the answers will come from within. Emigration unnerves people because it’s also about who is left here.

Most of us are ancestors of Irish men and women who survived the famine. Anyone who had any gumption, a few spare quid, a thinking mind, an atom of ambition or an instinctual drive to get the hell out of dodge, left. That means that many of us alive today are the product of those who stayed.

That’s a slightly worrying thought, because it indicates that a bunch of our population is the lineage of those who were too poor, sick, weak, insular, resigned or scared to leave.

That said, the political and cultural discourse and action in late 19th century and early 20th century Ireland was our finest. People stayed and their sons and daughters changed things. We are the descendants of starving people. And we are also the descendants of revolutionaries.

At the Constitutional Convention over the weekend, diaspora voting rights were up for conversation. It’s an intimidatingly complex issue. I understand the desire: that those who are products of a society deserve a say in it. But the beauty of democracy means you have to live with the results. And even if time and time again, the results aren’t what you want, the consensus and actions of your fellow citizens means you must accept them as fair and representative.

But voting when you don’t have to encounter the consequences is a different story. That’s why voting rights for presidential elections seems logical, because although the office of the president is of symbolic importance, it’s not the nitty gritty.

New citizens
When it comes to migration in Ireland, we’re missing a trick. Surely people who are not citizens but who live, pay taxes, raise their children, socialise and work here are a bigger priority for representation than Irish people living their lives somewhere else?

Only some non-Irish people who make their lives here for a period of time end up going through the long (and expensive) process of citizenship.

But hey, only some Irish emigrants return.

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