Ciara Kenny

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Current generation is gone, act now to save the next

Diarmaid O’Neill emigrated to London just days after graduating with a degree in law last month. He sees no place for himself in Ireland for the forseeable future, but hopes the next generation will have more of a choice.

Thu, Oct 20, 2011, 22:13


Diarmaid O'Neill and Amy Coleman at their graduation in UCC in September

I write neither in anger nor remorse but in petition shrouded by frustration. Just over a month ago I graduated, the following Saturday I emigrated.

I tell myself it is in pursuit of postgraduate study and adventure but that is mere a guise; in truth, I have become an economic emigrant.

This is accepted as a fait accompli for my generation like an inordinate, unconscionable number before us. The option to remain in Ireland, living amongst family and friends and successfully pursuing a career, is one I would like to have been able to consider, but it was not to be. I left for London in search of a life, not a mere social welfare-dependent existence.

Emigration is one of the central pillars of our society, an unbending absolute like the weather, the GAA, and the four points of the compass. Since independence, this country has trundled along in a predictable cyclical way: economic growth in the 1920s followed by economic decline and a wave of emigration in the 1930s; growth again in the 1940s followed by economic stagnation and mass departure in the 1950s; growth in the 1960s, followed by contraction in the 1970s and disastrous recession in the 1980s, again accompanied by emigration.

The pattern repeated itself again in the 1990s with growth spilling over into the 2000s and was followed inevitably by economic collapse and mass emigration yet again. In less than a century, we have, as a society and political entity, developed a recurrent, calculable and predestined sequence of events comprising economic growth, collapse and emigration. The three are as inseparable in Ireland as the trinity or the leaves of a shamrock.

I remember vividly speaking to a Polish friend whilst on Erasmus. Discussing migration over lunch one day he told me how two of his friends who had come to Ireland, settled, had children, integrated fully into the local community. When the downturn started, they lost their jobs and decided to return home, and were taken aback with the distinct lack of remorse or sadness at their departure on the part of their Irish friends. When asked to explain this, a friend replied: “That’s just the way it is – I’ll probably have to leave soon myself.”

The fulsome acceptance of emigration by Irish society as a natural (almost expected) progression rather than an option points to a bizarre malaise at the very heart of Irish society.

Irish society drifts further into the absurd by expecting to live in a European-style social model where social service provision and pension security are practically the raisons d’etre of the state. These are laudable aspirations but who is going to fund them, when we, the educated youth, are gone?

The refusal to address a frustratingly excessive focus on the short term should make anyone who has a stake in this country despair. How is Ireland to ever seek to fashion a sustainable economic and social model when those of us most capable of supporting it are given no real choice but to leave?

Anger is not the proper reaction. Given the scale of the loss, mourning and lamentation are far more apt. But those who now leave are not interested in such an introspective, self-absorbed enterprise.

However, I do feel there is one request, which this current Flight of Earls/Wild Geese/Brain Drain (take your pick of depressingly, long-existent cliché terms) generation would ask from those who remain: try to build an Ireland that we can one day hope to return to. This economic emigré petitions those who remain to strive to break the bond between economic decline and mass emigration from this country.

It is not for the current generation that I ask for this link to be broken but for those who will form the next wave of emigration who, if given the pattern of the last century, will probably be the youth of the 2030s. No one expects the cyclical pattern of boom and bust to end but we should be able to divorce the union of economic decline and emigration that has plagued generations of Irish families.

In short, it is incumbent upon not only the body politick but Irish society as a whole to start planning now to ensure that emigration is not the natural corollary of the next recession that Ireland will face.

Diarmaid O’Neill is a BCL (Law and French) graduate of UCC, now studying Economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London. This column is an extract from Diarmaid’s blog Digressions. You can follow him on Twitter @dmcon89.