The truth about Irish emigration: views from home and away

A major new survey of Irish emigration experiences reveals a stark contrast between the attitudes of Irish people at home and abroad

Photograph courtesy of Union of Students in Ireland

Photograph courtesy of Union of Students in Ireland


Since the onset of the economic crisis in 2008, more than 200,000 Irish people have moved abroad. They are brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, highly qualified graduates, out-of-work labourers, farmers or IT technicians.

Some emigrate alone, and others with friends or a partner and children; many go for work purposes, while others are motivated by a desire for adventure. A lot of them are thriving in their new lives overseas, while others struggle to settle.

But none of these details are reflected in the annual migration figures from the Central Statistics Office, which tell us how many are leaving but little about their backgrounds or experiences after they go.

Over the past 12 months, a research team from University College Cork has been attempting to build a profile of the current generation of Irish emigrants. They have knocked on the doors of almost 2,500 houses across the country to ask whether anyone had emigrated in recent years, and what effect their departure has had on the family and community left behind.

An online survey was completed by more than 1,500 emigrants, 65 of whom were also interviewed in-depth over Skype to find out their reasons for leaving, the positives and negatives of their experience, their views on Irish affairs, and their intentions for the future.

The researchers say their 50,000-word report, to be published at an international conference on “austerity emigration” in UCC today, is “one of the most representative studies ever” of Irish emigration.

The findings reveal a stark contrast between the attitudes of Irish people at home about emigration, and the lived experience of the emigrants themselves.

“The question often arises: are they leaving because they want to or because they have to?” says the Emigre project leader Piaras MacÉinrí. “I’m not so sure that question has meaning any more. Even if you feel compelled to leave because the opportunities here are poor, you are still going to want to own that decision.

“When we asked the households where families had been left behind, nine in 10 said emigration was negative and had a bad effect on the family, the community, and Ireland as a whole.

“They also said their emigrant sons and daughters left because they had to. Emigrants themselves were more likely to say they left because they wanted to. They are determined to make the most of the experience and stay positive.”

The emigrants surveyed reported a much higher rate of full-time employment, greater job satisfaction, higher wages and improved job prospects abroad than they had at home (for more findings on the pre-departure circumstances of emigrants, see News), leading to an average quality of life rating of 7.9 out of 10, compared with just 5.5 before they left.

Many of those who participated in the Skype interviews said the experience of moving abroad had been an enlightening one, giving them a new perspective on the world and on Ireland from a distance.

Settling in
More than half of all emigrants already know someone in their destination before moving there, while a similar number emigrate with at least one person they know. One in four have previous experience of living abroad.

Those who leave alone, especially for countries where the language and culture are very different to Ireland, find it more difficult to adjust, as do those over the age of 30, or with immediate family members left behind in Ireland.

Quite strikingly, 3 per cent of emigrants surveyed are not living in the same country as their children.

The Irish still stick together abroad, with 57 per cent living with at least one other Irish person and 60 per cent socialising often with other Irish. Less than one in five say they rarely or never mix socially with other Irish people. Of those in relationships, 68 per cent are with an Irish person, almost twice the number who had an Irish partner on arrival.

But most are well-integrated, with six in 10 socialising regularly with locals, and five in 10 mixing with immigrants of other nationalities. Facebook pages dedicated to Irish communities in the new country are often used to create new social circles and exchange advice.

One in three use some kind of Irish connection to find work, with Irish Facebook pages emerging as a successful method of securing employment, especially for construction workers. More than a quarter of emigrants have a job lined up before arrival, which doubles for those leaving with children.

Being young and single, having more spare time, a desire to save money and memories of unemployment at home make some emigrants more likely to work longer hours. Those on working-holiday visas are also incentivised to work hard in an attempt to secure sponsorship from their employer, the research found.

While just 47 per cent had full-time jobs when they left, 85 per cent now work in full-time positions abroad, considerably improving their personal finances. Satisfaction levels regarding salaries abroad averaged 7.5 out of 10, compared with five out of 10 before leaving Ireland.

Better salaries were often mitigated by the high cost of living in some destinations however, especially in Australia. General job satisfaction was also much higher, at eight out of 10, more than double the pre-departure average.

Connection to Ireland
Modern technology has changed the migration experience. This cohort of emigrants remain in constant contact with home, with 75 per cent using Skype regularly to call family and friends. Facebook and other social networking sites are also used frequently by nine out of 10 emigrants.

They also retain a strong interest in Irish current affairs, with seven in 10 regularly reading an Irish newspaper online, and one in three listening to Irish radio. Some respondents commented on the recent abortion debate and the Anglo tapes revelations, while others expressed “anger at those deemed at fault for Ireland’s economic collapse”.

There was also a sense of anger about the lack of regard they feel the State has for them once they go, with almost half saying the Government is not providing adequate support for emigrants. Eight in 10 disagree that the Government is “doing its best to tackle the causes of emigration”.

A significant majority would like a say in the future of the country, with 85 per cent in favour of votes for emigrants in presidential elections and 80 per cent in favour for general elections.

The closer the emigrant lives to Ireland, the more often they return home to visit, with more than 95 per cent of those living in the UK making it back more than once a year. About half of all emigrants in Canada come home for one holiday annually, whereas just a quarter of those in New Zealand and 44 per cent in Australia are able to do so.

More than half of respondents send money home to family, though just 15 per cent do so on a regular basis. A similar number (13 per cent) make regular mortgage repayments on an Irish property, while almost 4 per cent make “occasional” payments, which suggests they may have defaulted or relinquished control of their former home.

Despite all the benefits emigration brings, there are significant challenges, too. Many emigrants living in faraway destinations such as Australia and New Zealand feel homesickness is the emotional price they have to pay for greater financial security and the lifestyle benefits that living there can bring.

The major downside to living abroad for most is being away from family, especially for those who have left partners or children behind. Many worry about the health of their parents in Ireland.

Being absent for events such as weddings, births and deaths is a source of regret for many, while a “surprisingly large” number of interviewees mentioned missing Irish humour, the “banter” and the “craic”.

So will they return? Four in 10 would like to move back to Ireland in the next three years, but just 22 per cent think it is likely to happen. Almost one in six is definite they don’t want to move back in the near future, while a similar number again aren’t too bothered either way. One in four is undecided about where they want to be in three years’ time.

The most significant life event that would motivate emigrants to move home is having children, with six in 10 saying they would like to raise kids here, where they could be close to friends and family, avail of the Irish education system and feel part of a community. One in six would prefer to raise their children abroad, where better job opportunities would ensure financial security for their family.

Some emigrants envisage moving “home” when the time comes to buy their first house, but the likelihood of being granted a mortgage here is cited as a disincentive.

For MacÉinrí, whether emigrants will return will be one of the most significant factors determining the long-term impact of this wave of emigration.

“In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Celtic Tiger was booming, around 50 per cent of the half a million Irish who left during the 1980s came back. The likelihood of achieving that kind of return rate, even if the economy does recover, is not that strong,” he says.

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