'The longer people stay away, the less likely they are to return'

Fri, Sep 28, 2012, 01:00

EMIGRATION:The exodus has had a life-changing effect on those leaving, but also on those left behind, writes CIARA KENNY

THOMAS CLOHOSEY (23) watched his friends leave their home town of Templemore, Co Tipperary, one by one over the past three years in search of work. Some went to Dublin, but most boarded a flight to London or Australia.

He had doubts about his own future in Ireland long before he graduated this year. While studying for a degree in construction management, he had to go abroad for the last three summers to make money to support himself through the rest of the college year. “I had nothing going for me in Ireland. There’s no work in my trade, or even in a shop or pub,” he says. “I came back home for a month after spending the summer in Italy, and I was bored out of my mind. There were no young people left.”

When he heard Canada was on the verge of a construction boom, the decision on where to go was easy. Within two days of landing in Vancouver earlier this month, he had found work as a purchasing agent for a construction firm.

“I have no experience but with this job I’ve jumped a few rungs of the ladder already. In Ireland, the people from my course are on the dole or doing internships, but I’ve got a really good job and am getting well paid for it. Why wouldn’t I do it? There’s no way I would have had this opportunity if I had stayed.”

Figures published by the Central Statistics Office yesterday show that 35,800 young people emigrated from Ireland in the year to April, an increase of 1,300 on the previous year and more than twice the 2006 number.

Michael Noonan’s argument in January that emigration was a “lifestyle choice” for young people is contradicted by these figures.

For many young people the opportunity to live and work abroad, even if it is thrust upon them through a lack of prospects in Ireland, is a welcome opportunity for adventure and new experiences.

Most young people who have contributed to The Irish Times’s Generation Emigration forum for the Irish abroad are happy to be away from Ireland at the moment. While some express anger at being “forced” out because of unemployment or poor prospects, most, like Clohosey, are at least glad the option is there to travel or work elsewhere.

The majority of emigrants aged under 25 surveyed by Ipsos/MRBI for The Irish Times in March reported being happier than they had been in Ireland, with better jobs, a healthier lifestyle and an ability to save money. One in three were unemployed before they left, but nine in 10 were working abroad when the survey was conducted. Some 86 per cent of those who had found a job said it was on a par with or better than the one they had had in Ireland.

The big question most face now is whether they will come back. They left with the intention of riding out the recession abroad and returning when it was all over – but will things improve enough before they have settled and made new homes elsewhere?

About half of the 500,000 people who emigrated during the 1980s and early 1990s came back, says Piaras Mac Éinrí, lecturer in migration studies in University College Cork. The circumstances were optimal in the boom years for return migration, however, but this generation of young emigrants might not be so lucky.

“The longer people stay away, the less likely they are to come back,” he says. “If you put down professional, social and familial roots in another country and you reach your 30s or beyond, the chances of returning to where you came from are much less.”

Fiona Sneyd (26), who has been working in marketing in London for the past two years, agrees. She would like to come back but says she won’t be happy to do so if it meant taking a step backwards in terms of her lifestyle and career.

“If things haven’t improved in Ireland by the time we hit 30, we’re going to start getting married and having kids, and it will be much more difficult. The next few years are key for my generation.”

Among others hoping this generation of emigrants will return are their friends left behind. The number of 19- to 24-year-olds living in Ireland fell by more than a tenth between 2006 and 2011, according to census data. While changing birth rates is cited as the main reason for the decrease, emigration has also been a significant factor.

Rural areas are particularly affected, with GAA clubs across the country reporting huge losses of young players, but the impact is felt across all social groups.

“There isn’t a group of friends in Ireland who hasn’t waved goodbye to at least one of their friends, and it is hard for those who are left behind,” says Claire Herbert (24), a freelance communications consultant living in Dublin. “Of my old school and college friends, about 60 per cent are gone. If I left, I know I would be earning more money, have greater job security and be enjoying better weather. But I have been educated here, my family is here, and I really want to stay. I think there is a responsibility on young people to stay behind if they can, to be part of a solution to whatever is coming next for Ireland.”