The new diaspora speaks

Sat, Mar 17, 2012, 00:00

Is emigration about heartbreak? Far from it. In today’s Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI survey of recent emigrants, the vast majority report being happier and healthier and prospering at work. KATHY SHERIDANreports

THIS WEEK The Irish Times asked readers to tweet their definition of Irishness. Some were philosophical: “Being Irish means we must persevere.” Some took a negative turn: “Being Irish means sympathy for fraudsters.” A lot were affectionate: “Being Irish means having an Aunt Mary.”

And some nailed it: “Being Irish means emigrating because the country’s in tatters, and telling the world how much you miss it,” wrote Julia Cashman.

There it is, in under 140 characters, a perfect summation of that centuries-old torment over the auld sod, as seen through the eyes of emigrants. In today’s Ipsos MRBI survey of recent Irish emigrants for The Irish Times, the push-pull factor that infuses the responses like the lettering through a stick of rock.

The irony perhaps is that we needed a few clear-sighted emigrants to remind us that the Ireland of Joyce’s “old sow that eats her farrow” is not the only one left to us. And that alongside the noxious bankers, cuts, bailouts and infuriating impunity is the land of rootedness, soft light, animated people and the banter; of sing-songs, big families and Aunt Marys (and Kathleens and Brigids); of pork sausages, proper brown bread, GAA barneys and mad racing fans; of freezing outside a pub on Christmas Eve to catch up with old friends; of the sense that everyone knows everyone and that other people “love” us; of answering “grand” to “how are you?” even if you’re dying; of turning out en masse for funerals (“the poor oul’ divil”); of besting the auld enemy when – hark, an optimist speaks – Tommy Bowe dives over the line at Twickenham to a raucous chorus of “Her eyes they sho-one like diamonds”.

“It’s my native country,” said one respondent, when asked by the pollsters why he would like to live here again. “My heart is in Ireland and people have more heart in Ireland,” answered another, in a poignant reminder that despite all our travails, perhaps we’re not the worst.

But does it also mean that we are back in the territory of the Emigrant’s Song, like an old stuck record? “I’m bidding you a long farewell, my Mary kind and true / But I’ll not forget you, darling, in the land I’m going to / They say there’s bread and work for all, and the sun shines always there / But I’ll ne’er forget old Ireland, were it 50 times as fair”.

DOES THE “PULL” part of the push-pull imply a diaspora of long-gone folk blinded by Riverdance and fantasies of a long-vanished Ireland? Does the “push” factor mean emigration is still about enforced departures and heartbreak for poor Mary and Mother Machree?

Far from it, apparently. In today’s snapshot of recent emigrants – those who have left since 2008 – hailing from almost every county and now living in almost every continent, that view is hotly challenged. Just three or four years down the line, the vast majority report that they are happier, healthier and doing well at work, with deep, well-tended ties to the motherland.

While many emigrants feel keenly the absence of family and familiar things, the evidence suggests that for most, emigration is a means of exploring other countries and cultures, as well as gaining experience and developing personal potential.

Crucially and surprisingly, for six out of 10 of them, their departure was voluntary. They said they wanted a change, to experience a new country or had personal reasons for leaving. As might be expected, the element of choice declines as a person gets older, but even among the over-35s, just half were emigrating for work purposes. Of the total, those who left solely because they fancied a change of scenery (as opposed to wanting the experience or for personal reasons), outnumbered those who were emigrating because of unemployment.

Even the unemployed were not entirely work-focused. A sixth of them said they left because they wanted a change or for other reasons. Would they have stayed had they been able to get work in Ireland? One in three said they would have left anyway.

This implies that the majority of those surveyed left jobs or left straight from school or college. One in eight were straight out of school or college. But more than seven out of 10 had been working immediately before they left. However, it’s safe to assume that for a good many of these, their position was precarious at least. Nearly four in 10 of the men had worked in construction at some stage, either as professionals or in the trade. Unsurprisingly, they headed for places where building sites remain busy and plentiful. The majority ended up in Australia, the rest mainly in the UK.

As for the women, nearly 80 per cent of them had come from the pharmaceutical/medical/health fields, financial services, education, hospitality work, admin or wholesale/retail. But the lion’s share – well over a fifth – had worked in the pharma/healthcare area in Ireland (compared with only 7 per cent of the men), and are probably expensively-trained nurses or doctors. They headed for Australia, the UK and mainland Europe.

What else did they leave behind? A spouse? A child? A home? Three per cent of those surveyed, all men, left behind at least one child. Thirteen per cent, one-third of them women, left behind a spouse or significant other. Sixteen per cent – half men and half women, and mostly aged over 35 – left a house or apartment they still owned.

But for the most part, they weren’t heading off unarmed. A surprise of the survey is the education levels achieved by these emigrants. More than 8 out of 10 have a third-level qualification of some kind. Nearly two-thirds have earned a third-level or master’s degree.

Again, this may be self-selecting. With work visa requirements becoming more stringent around the world, it stands to reason that those with decent qualifications have a better chance of gaining entry. Another self-limiting factor is money. It takes substantial sums to emigrate; not merely to fulfil entry visa requirements, but to keep food on the table if a job hasn’t been lined up. Graduates are more likely to have the financial resources to survive while waiting for a job.

SO HOW MUCH planning did our emigrants do? How many ensured they had a job waiting upon arrival? Nearly 6 out of 10 took pot luck, with the women more happy-go-lucky than the men. The fact that only 20 per cent of those going to Australia/New Zealand had jobs lined up compared with 60 per cent of those going to the US may give a clue about where people are most likely to take a punt on getting a job – and get away with it.

And, as it happens, they were right. A total of 94 per cent now have jobs. All those who had been unemployed in Ireland and were among the “early” leavers in 2008 and 2009 are employed. The one trouble spot for the recent arrivals in this cohort is the UK, where 9 per cent of those surveyed remain unemployed. In this small snapshot, women and those over 35 seem to have the greatest problems.

Interestingly, of those who had jobs in Ireland before leaving, slightly fewer are in work now. It may reflect the fact that they had more choices and more money, and had the luxury of looking around for a while before committing themselves. But while this might hold for the under-25s, of whom 11 per cent are not working, does it also hold true for the over 35s, of whom 12 per cent are unemployed? The overall totals may also be skewed by the fact that they include very recent arrivals in 2012, of whom a quarter have still to find jobs.

And yet there is strong evidence that for those who hang in there, things get quantifiably better. Three-quarters said the job they hold now is better than the one they had in Ireland. Another 14 per cent said it’s about the same. Unsurprisingly, satisfaction rises with the number of years spent in a country. So while 91 per cent of 2008 arrivals rate their job as better than at home, that falls to 67 per cent for 2011 arrivals.

The reasons are obvious. More than two-thirds of the early leavers, for example, have been promoted, obtained a qualification or gained further training. Just four out of 10 of the recent leavers have done the same.

But they’re managing to save money. Seven out of 10 say they are putting money by. Again, that rises with the number of years spent abroad, with 83 per cent of the 2008 arrivals accumulating savings, compared with 61 per cent of the 2011 cohort. Interestingly, nearly six out of 10 of the 2012 arrivals are already saving. The country least amenable to this, seemingly, is the UK.

So have they been radicalised since travelling abroad, after seeing different countries, cultures and systems at work? Now that they’ve left, are they bothered about who runs the country? Do these emigrants want a vote in Irish elections? They do. Seven out of 10 of them feel they should have a vote, a view fairly evenly shared across the age groups and genders. Only one in 8 believes emigrants shouldn’t have a vote. Not surprisingly, the most recent arrivals are most likely to want one.

So should the political parties be quaking in their shoes? Probably not. To a startling degree, the party preferences echo last year’s general election results once the Don’t Knows are stripped out. Two-thirds for Fine Gael, around a fifth for Fianna Fáil, Labour and Independents, and 7 per cent for Sinn Féin. But significantly, that was only when the pollsters insisted on a party choice.

Left to their own devices, the clear winner was the don’t knows with 4 out of 10 votes, plus another 4 per cent who wouldn’t vote, and 2 per cent who “refused”. That’s 46 per cent of those who left in the past four years, who felt unable to make a choice about Irish politicians. That view is shared right across the age groups and arrival years, though not across destination countries. While 28 per cent of those surveyed in the UK were don’t knows, in Australia and New Zealand, that soared to 47 per cent, perhaps reflecting a sense of distance.

It doesn’t appear to be about apathy. After all 7 out of 10 do want the vote. It matters because so many are determined to come back. It happens, even in the current climate. The Irish Times property supplement on Thursday featured Emer Craig and Eoghan Moloney, thirtysomethings who emigrated to Australia after university in 2006 and later had a child there.

This is usually the part where grandparents’ hearts sink; the assumption is that the young family is now settled abroad for life. In fact, the couple are back. Emer landed a job within three weeks and Eoghan is working at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth. They’re now house-hunting, cash in hand, with a view to settling close to family and friends.

Now there’s an emigrants’ success story.

Living in the nearest place that isn't Ireland

A RECENT COMMENT on the Irish Times Generation Emigration blog questioned the validity of the Irish in Britain to be considered “emigrants”. Citing the ease and relatively low cost both of returning to Ireland and of having family to visit, the contributor concluded, “Sorry, but no sympathy for ‘emigrants’ living in England.”

Leaving aside the questionable notion that a hierarchy of sympathy should exist for emigrants, it is undeniable that the proximity of the two countries influences the Irish experience in Britain. The appeal and economic draw of “the nearest place that isn’t Ireland”, to paraphrase the historian Ruth-Ann Harris, has ensured a constant stream of migrants across the Irish Sea.

The very closeness of Britain to Ireland, in cultural as well as geographical terms, may allow for a high degree of “transnationalism”, ie the extent to which a life is lived in two countries simultaneously, whether that be materially, socially, economically or psychologically.

The recent emigrants surveyed in today’s poll would appear likely candidates to live transnational lives, given that transport and communications are more affordable for this wave of emigrants than for any of their predecessors.

At first glance, much of the data in the survey would appear to bear this out. For example, 94 per cent of respondents based in Britain have been home to Ireland since they emigrated. This is a larger proportion than of people in farther-flung destinations. Similarly, 80 per cent of respondents based in Britain report having had family members visit since emigration. Respondents in Britain appear more likely to use phone calls and text messages to keep in contact with people in Ireland, whereas Skype is the preferred option of people in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This might suggest that communication with those at home is more of an everyday matter for emigrants in Britain, and that methods of communication have not changed greatly post-migration.

It also seems that recent Irish emigrants to Britain wish strongly to remain part of the Irish national community. Support for voting rights to be extended to emigrants, while high across the board, is strongest in Britain, with 84 per cent in favour. Desire to return to Ireland is also most widespread among those in Britain, with 82 per cent expressing a wish to return to live in Ireland at some stage.

The evidence would appear to indicate a truly transnational cohort who have a foot firmly planted in both Ireland and Britain.

This, no doubt, could be considered grist to the mill to those who would paint recent Irish arrivals in Britain as not being “proper” emigrants. And yet there are other ways in which Irish emigrants to Britain stand out in this survey. In response to the question on quality of life, the number of respondents who said their life as emigrants was “not as good” or “about the same” was greater in Britain than in any other country.

Proportionately, more respondents in Britain reported that their diet has stayed the same or deteriorated since emigration, and a high percentage say their social life has deteriorated post-migration. Only 51 per cent say they are happier post-migration, compared with much higher figures in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US.

These are, of course, relatively crude measures of the experiences of recent Irish migrants to England, and without a more in-depth qualitative study of this particular cohort, no broader inferences can be drawn.

It is also important to point out that these percentages for Britain suffer only by comparison with those in other countries and that, viewed in isolation, a small majority of these migrants seem satisfied with their lot.

And yet the difference remains intriguing. While the hardships of previous generations of migrants to Britain have been well documented, it appears unlikely that the same conditions apply to today’s emigrants.

We can only speculate, but given the relatively high proportion of respondents in Britain who report feeling “forced to leave”, could the problem with “the nearest place that isn’t Ireland” be simply that it isn’t Ireland?


Dr Marc Scully is a social psychologist with a particular interest in Irish diasporic identity. He currently works on the Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain research programme at the University of Leicester
Generation Emigration An ‘Irish Times’ project

The Generation Emigration project has been running in The Irish Times, online and in print, since the end of October. Since its launch, the project has shared the stories of close to 100 emigrants, and provided a forum for thousands more to join in a worldwide conversation about Irish emigration.

Initial feedback reflected a frustration among recent emigrants about their lack of voice in Ireland once they moved away. Many felt they had been forced out of their country because of the lack of employment for them here, yet had no way to air their views once they left. The Generation Emigration blog has offered them an opportunity to have their say.

Older emigrants who left Ireland during previous recessions have also engaged with the series, sharing their experiences of living abroad over a prolonged period, of raising a family and making a new home overseas.

Thousands of young people moved abroad during the boom when there were plenty of opportunities for them here, and these voluntary emigrants still make up a significant percentage of those who are leaving our shores.

Today’s survey shows that almost half of those who were working in Ireland before they left made the decision to go because they wanted a change or to experience a new country, and on the blog we have published the stories of a number of graduates and enterprising young people who have voluntarily emigrated.

Many of them would have made the decision to move abroad regardless of the economic circumstances.

Others who were impelled to emigrate because of the lack of employment opportunities here are gaining valuable work and life experience overseas that would never have been available to them in Ireland, even in the good times.

Almost all respondents to today’s survey are now employed, with the vast majority saying their current job is better than the one they had at home.

Of course, it is hard for those who feel forced to leave in the face of mounting bills and dwindling job prospects. Contributors to our blog include husbands and wives who are maintaining relationships over the phone, and older Irish people are watching their grandchildren grow up through video link.

Another common experience reflected in our blog is that social media has made the world a smaller place, but that Skype is no replacement for being able to see, hold, touch and hug the ones you love and miss most.

While some contributors to the Generation Emigration series have said they are disillusioned with Ireland and can’t see themselves ever returning to live here, the majority are hopeful that their emigration is temporary.

Being close to friends and family, wanting to raise their children in Ireland, the Irish way of life, the culture, the GAA and the craic are commonly cited factors that many recent leavers expect will lure them home in the future, when circumstances permit. On Monday, we will publish more on this aspect of our survey.

But as many of the older and more established emigrants have pointed out, intentions fade and priorities change as new relationships are formed and people become more rooted in their adoptive countries over time.

We have had contributions from Irish people living in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, Korea, Cambodia, Zambia, Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Every emigrant’s experience is unique, but the one common factor is their desire to maintain their connection with Ireland, and to continue contributing to the conversation at home, no matter how far away they are. - CIARA KENNY, blog editor


An emigrant writes 'I feel great in Melbourne'

Will Keena, who recently moved to Australia, reflects on his new life

Mornings are beautiful down here at Melbourne’s majestic, tranquil Brighton beach. I’m awake just after dawn and there’s an inky blue sky that just runs and runs. The depth of the shade is striking, its freshness replenishing.

I’m up early because I’m anxious. Today I will find out whether Tuesday’s second interview went as I hoped.

When I arrived, some friends offered me a room in their house until I got on my feet. I’m endlessly grateful for and humbled by the generosity of such friends. No one likes to have to rely on others, especially when they can’t offer much in return. “Could I interest you in a short story, perhaps?” doesn’t help with utility bills. It motivates me to do better though, to repay their benevolence and their faith in my success.

The employment positivity here is infectious. Triumphant stories abound among my acquaintances, a welcome change from the gruelling death-match for opportunities in Ireland.

Melbourne has much to offer in terms of quality of life, from perfectly judged cappuccino along the stooped, winding splendour of Degraves Street to an endless selection of luscious beers and delectable food in the rooftop bars and Yarra-side establishments.

Art, music, ethnic culture and a celebration of life are on every thoroughfare, in every neighbourhood. Everything is illuminated. A friend referred to it as the “new” New World and I’m starting to really believe in it, investing my all into that; building my dreams around it, if I may paraphrase The Pogues.

I drink less on nights out, my diet is healthier and I’ve lost some weight. I still have no hair but the face below is tanned, smiling, mischievous.

I walk or cycle everywhere, driven forward by a cocktail of vitamin D and inner contentment.

I feel great. The anxiety borne of a lack of success in Ireland is being slowly assuaged. I’ve always believed that I had a lot to offer, that I could produce good work . . . all I required was an opportunity.

Emigrants often discuss returning to Ireland eventually. I still can’t provide an answer of any real certainty. Just being away this year means I’ll miss the weddings of some dear friends, and my father’s 60th birthday. These things matter to me, these things sting. But I have to stay where my skills are valued, where my self-confidence is secure.

Emigration and sacrifice have always regarded each other warily.


How the poll was conducted

For researchers, to accurately sample the population of Irish emigrants is problematic, as no reliable measure of the emigrant population exists, and 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: Irish nationals who had left since 2008 and had left as an emigrant and not extended travel.

The interviewing method was telephone interviewing, 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.

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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