The reality of emigration


Since 2008, more than 200,000 Irish nationals have emigrated. That amounts to more than four out of every 100 people in a population of 4.6 million. Many have left by choice, as polls have indicated, and others have gone through economic necessity to seek employment abroad. But the latest figures from the Central Statistics Office show that many have also returned home. More than half the number of Irish nationals who emigrated in the 2008/2013 period have come back. More recently, however, the balance has shifted sharply as far fewer have returned.

Years of austerity, low growth and high unemployment have taken an increasing toll, as reflected in the steep increase in net outward emigration by Irish nationals. They accounted for more than half of the total number of emigrants (89,000) in the 12 months to last April. By contrast, in that time more non-Irish nationals came to Ireland than left.

Undoubtedly, public attitudes to emigration have changed over time. In the contemporary world of globalisation, where mobility of labour is greater, travel is faster and cheaper, and communication is easier – via the internet and Skype – the barriers of time and distance have been greatly reduced. For some, absence still means pain but for many other Irish emigrants or their family members at home, the sense of loss is less keenly felt.

In 1954, Alexis FitzGerald, later a distinguished Senator, wrote a memorable minority report to the Commission on Emigration in which he argued for a more realistic appreciation of the advantages of emigration, in helping to release social tensions that, he feared, would otherwise explode. Emigration today has shed many of its former negative overtones. And for many – as Minister of Finance Michael Noonan has acknowledged – the decision to work abroad reflects a lifestyle choice. Emigration is a reality and one for which the State could better prepare its citizens, not least by ensuring the education system places a greater emphasis on foreign languages.

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