Turning point but no turning back


For the first time since the mid-1990s, emigration from Ireland is exceeding immigration. But although the recession may speed up this trend for a while, the more diverse society created by a decade of rapid immigration is not about to disappear

IN FEBRUARY 1995, as commemorations to mark the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Famine were getting underway, the then president Mary Robinson made a powerful address to a joint sitting of the Dáil and Seanad. Taking up one of the signature themes of her presidency, she appealed for an imaginative broadening of notions of identity and belonging in ways that would allow them to accommodate the messy and complex narrative of Irish emigration. Just as the Famine commemoration was a moral act, she said, “our relation in this country to those who have left it is a moral relationship”.

What is striking about the speech, at a remove of 14 tumultuous years, is not just the references to a nascent technology called the world wide web and its exciting potential for reducing the distance between Ireland and its diaspora, but the way in which Robinson could situate the emigration story along a continuum that she knew her audience felt they were still living through.

“No family on this island can be untouched by the fact that so many of our young people leave it,” she said. “The reality is that we have lost, and continue every day to lose, their presence and their brightness. These young people leave Ireland to make new lives in demanding urban environments. As well as having to search for jobs, they may well find themselves lonely, homesick, unable to speak the language of those around them; and, if things do not work out, unwilling to accept the loss of face of returning home.”

Enter the term “migration” into an Irish newspaper archive for 1995 and you’ll find as many references to swallows and swordfish as to people. From the vantage point of a country steeped in the business of youth export, the process of moving from one country to another, in the mid-1990s, was still conceived of as, simply, emigration.

As it happened, the stirrings of a social and demographic revolution were already in train when Mary Robinson made that speech. A month later, former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald wrote a column in The Irish Timesin which he concluded, based mainly on the falling fertility rate and the anticipated decline in those emigrating for work, that immigration was “likely to replace emigration in a decade or so”. In fact, by the following year, the number of immigrants (mainly returning Irish) had exceeded the number of emigrants, and a trend was in place that would continue, in one astounding leap after another, until this year.

Between 1995 and 2007, the immigration rate grew in multiples as hundreds of thousands of newcomers from 150 countries were drawn by the promise of one of Europe’s fastest-growing economies. In 1995, 424 people made applications for asylum here; in 2002, the figure was 11,634. A nation of notorious monoglots came to encompass almost 170 languages, from Acholi to Zulu, and in a few short years the foreign-born population grew from 2 per cent of the population to more than 10 per cent – the sort of expansion that took place over decades in other European countries.

So thoroughly has the idea of Ireland’s cosmopolitanism been assimilated that it asks a lot of the imagination now to think of places such as Bunclody, Co Wexford – home to more Poles than any other town at the time of the last census – without their brimming pews at Polish Mass on a Sunday morning or their shop assistants from Riga reading economics textbooks under the counter.

But after a decade of demographic upheaval, could we have now reached a turning point? According to new figures published this week, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) estimates that emigration has overtaken immigration for the first time since 1995, with some 57,300 people having come to the State in the year to April but 65,100 having left.

Among the emigrants, almost half (30,100) were citizens of the 12 mainly central and eastern European states that joined the EU since 2004. Irish citizens were next at 18,400, and 8,300 originally came from outside the EU. The inward flow, meanwhile, has declined across all non-Irish categories, with those from the EU12 showing the greatest fall, from 33,700 in April 2008 to 13,500 in the same month this year. These figures are broadly consonant with the steep decline in the take-up of PPS numbers and work permits among foreigners.

They also reflect the trends already noticed by staff at organisations such as Crosscare Migrant Project, which changed its name from Emigrant Advice three years ago but has seen a rise in inquiries about temporary work options in Canada and Australia, and a greater leap in the numbers of EU12 nationals hoping to return home.

But a close reading of the latest figures points to underlying trends that are decidedly less emphatic than the headlines allow. Many specialists are surprised by how few of the emigrants (18,400) were Irish, for instance.

“It’s very easy to jump to a dramatic conclusion, but emigration hasn’t actually returned,” remarks Joe O’Brien, Crosscare’s policy officer. “What we would be very clear on is that emigration was consistently happening all through the Celtic Tiger years. There still would have been people who had better job options abroad, then there was that small category of people who emigrated in crisis situations.”

Traditional emigration routes are less attractive today than they might have been in the 1980s, with prospective departees having to reckon with a global economic crisis that has led to severe job losses in Britain, the US and continental Europe as well as in Ireland.

Cultural change could provide another explanation for why relatively few of those who have felt the brunt of the recession have so far opted to depart. In the 1980s, emigration was ingrained in national thinking as a remedy for difficulties at home, as Dr Alan Barrett of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) points out. But for the current generation of school-leavers, it’s more of a historical memory than a personal one.

“So what you may be seeing is a delayed reaction on the part of the domestic population, that it’s just not the first thing they thought about doing, and that there will be an acceleration in that over time,” Barrett adds.

The CSO figures also provide a corrective, if one were needed, to the assumption that people who came to Ireland when times were good could be expected to pack their bags as soon as the economy began to founder. In all, 30,100 EU12 nationals left the country in the year to April, indicating that the great majority have decided to stay put – at least for now.

“What does seem to be clear is that while there is a degree of return migration by EU nationals, it’s nothing near as dramatic as people might expect,” suggests Piaras Mac Éinrí of University College Cork. “A lot of people are waiting it out, particularly people with children in schools.”

More striking still is that the figure for the inward flow of immigrants from the newer EU member states, though dramatically lower than its equivalent at its 2007 peak, still stands at 13,500 people.

“I find it remarkable that in the last year there were still substantial numbers of people coming as migrants to Ireland,” Mac Éinrí says.

ECONOMISTS BELIEVE THAT the figures for the second half of the year will be more revealing of how the hundreds of thousands of young Europeans who came to Ireland since 2004 are reacting to the recession. We know that the rate at which immigrants here lost their jobs rose dramatically in late 2008 and early this year. In the year to March, the rate of job loss among native-born workers was 5 per cent; for non-Irish workers it was closer to 20 per cent. Interestingly, however, Live Register figures show that the number of non-Irish people signing on has been falling slightly of late. It may be that some unemployed workers have recently exhausted their benefits or run out of savings and have opted to leave the country.

“What we might be seeing then is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the outflows,” Barrett suggests.

For many, the decision to move is influenced as much by how they anticipate the future will play out as by their reading of current circumstances. Poland’s is one of the few European economies forecast to grow this year, and although that growth will be limited (about 1 per cent) and new jobs will be slow in coming, the outlook is brighter than in Ireland.

“I think if you’re an eastern European living in Ireland and you’re looking at this country in a particularly dire situation, most of the forecasts would say our difficulties are going to persist for longer than continental Europe and beyond,” says Barrett.

Taking a longer view, the CSO figures confirm that the high immigration of the past decade peaked in 2007 and has been falling since then, and with few predicting that economic growth will return to boom-time heights, the widespread expectation is that modest net migration rates similar to those in many other European countries will resume over the next few years.

Even if that turns out to be true, the questions posed by a decade of rapid immigration are unlikely to become any less pressing. According to Piaras Mac Éinrí, justifying a downgrading of social-integration efforts on the basis of declining immigration rates would show “complete ignorance” of the lessons learned painfully elsewhere.

“If we look at other countries, when it comes to integration, it’s not so much an issue for the migrant parents in particular, because migrants will make huge sacrifices and put up with all kinds of marginalisation themselves. It’s their children and their children’s children. That’s the issue that needs to be addressed.”

Migration in numbers:


Immigrants (in year to April 2009)


Emigrants (in year to April 2009)

Emigrants made up of:

30,100 citizens of new EU member states

18,400 Irish citizens

8,300 from outisde the EU

Immigrants from new EU member states:

April 2008 33,700

April 2009 13,500

"Opportunity must wait for us somewhere"

IF YOU’D TOLD me 12 – even six months ago – that I’d be booking my ticket on the proverbial emigration ship, I’d have laughed at such a suggestion. Taking a “year out” to backpack around Australia, maybe, but deciding between the dole and the road . . . surely not in my lifetime? As a journalist with a regional newspaper, I’d been writing about spiralling jobless figures for months but I was stunned nevertheless when the recession came knocking on my own door.

At 28 years of age – five years spent in college and three in a job I’d always dreamed of – I didn’t think the word redundant could apply to me. At first, it is confidence-shattering. I went from being shocked, to sad, to angry, even while the rational side of my brain understood that this was all being caused by circumstances entirely outside of my control.

Putting aside the disappointment, however, and the sudden feeling of being cast adrift, I realise my situation is not so terrible. Unlike many of my friends, I am not tied for the next 30 or so years to an impossibly large mortgage. My only dependents are a donkey called Sylvia – now sadly for sale – and Jesse James, an unfriendly male rabbit who only its owner, I fear, could love. Lord knows who’ll take him in.

My boyfriend graduated earlier this year as a structural engineer and he is understandably dejected that, after slogging away ambitiously for five years in college, his employment prospects here are so poor. It wasn’t hard for us to decide to try our luck somewhere else. We don’t have very much to lose.

A couple we are friendly with, both qualified teachers, jetted off to Dubai just last week to teach the sons and daughters of affluent Arabs in private academies. There are opportunities out there, just not where they once were when the last wave of young Irish went seeking work on foreign shores, usually the UK or America.

We decided on the west coast of Canada, Vancouver in British Columbia, where employment has been holding steady in the face of a global recession. As it’s an English-speaking province, we’re hoping the culture shock will be minimal and, coming from the west of Ireland, the rugged backdrop of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains and the prospect of an outdoorsy lifestyle appeals to us.

Just days after I was told of my redundancy, Usit’s Under-35 Canada working visa programme reopened for a limited period. We took it as a sign and promptly signed up. We haven’t secured jobs yet but feel optimistic that opportunity must surely lie waiting for us somewhere on the vast expanse of the second-biggest, albeit most sparsely populated, country in the world.

I haven’t slept for more than two straight hours since we decided to take the plunge. My mind races with dreams and hopes, doing a 24-hour jig of nervous apprehension but excited about what lies ahead. I push fear of failure into the background and try not to think about homesickness and missing friends and family.

Our parents are pragmatic people. They realise there is little to keep us here and see this as a great opportunity for us to experience a bit of the world while waiting for “the recovery” to kick in back home. My mother’s own parents made the same journey to Canada some 60 years ago as a young couple, searching for their own pot of gold. My grandfather eventually found it, in the steelworks for the railway companies putting tracks across the North American wilderness. My mother was born in Ontario and her link to the place somehow reassures her that her daughter will be just fine.

No doubt she will shed some tears at the airport, as we all will, but I’m confident we’ll be back again and just hoping it won’t be too long.

Frances Toner