Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Extreme commutes: “If there’s no work, you have to follow it”

Many Irish people now travel overseas midweek to work and return home at the weekend as an alternative to emigrating. A new RTE documentary explores this new phenomenon.

Sat, Oct 29, 2011, 09:36


Midwife Margaret Sexton Fitzpatrick commutes every week between Clonakilty and London

Many Irish people now travel overseas midweek to work and return home at the weekend as an alternative to emigrating.

ONCE A WEEK, Margaret Sexton Fitzpatrick packs her bags in her home in Clonakilty, in Cork, and waves goodbye to her husband, her seven children and her three-year-old grandson. She takes a flight to London and a tube to her dormitory apartment in the south of the city, where she stays for three or four nights while working as a midwife, before flying back to Cork again to be with her family.

“I love my job and I love my family, but unfortunately the two are not in the same place,” she says. “My dream would have always been just to work here in Cork. London was just not part of the picture, and it kills me leaving.”

Sexton Fitzpatrick qualified as a midwife last year and quickly discovered she would have to leave Ireland to find steady employment. She is one of a number of people interviewed in an RTÉ documentary, The Commute , who form part of a growing group opting for long-distance travel as an alternative to emigration.

“The stories are about people from rural Ireland that are just caught,” says Philip Gallagher, who directed and produced the programme. “They have no option but to travel overseas or to the other side of the country to get work.

“The west coast has been hit particularly bad, and people from these areas are having to travel much longer distances than they ever would have considered in the past. The airports in Shannon, Donegal and Cork are jammed on a Sunday night with people flying out to the UK before returning again on a Friday. It has a devastating effect on these families.”

With a girlfriend and a young daughter to support at home in Sligo, moving to London to search for work was a hard but necessary decision for Matt Scanlon, a construction worker whose business collapsed in 2007. “Twenty or 30 years ago you’d hear stories of a lot of fellas having to travel over and back from England on a boat. I never thought I’d be doing it, but under the circumstances what can you do? If there’s no work, you have to follow it,” he says.

Because of the cost of transport, Scanlon can afford to take the 17-hour overnight journey back to Sligo by boat and train just once a month. “London is only work to me, but it will be at least two to three years before I can get enough to get out of it. This is always going to be my home, so it is important to keep coming back.”

According to David Meredith, a senior researcher at Teagasc who is analysing how commuter patterns have altered as a result of our changing economy, migration in search of work has always been common in Ireland, but the concept of a “transnational household” is a relatively new phenomenon.

“The reason people are engaging in this long-distance commuting is to secure their future and the future of their families and to continue to service mortgages,” he says. “For many people who have lost their jobs, the option is emigration. But for those who have a house in Ireland, who have a family with children going to school, emigration becomes more difficult, and undertaking very long commutes across the country or overseas becomes more feasible.”

Brian Smyth travels back from London to Westmeath to captain his county team

In the past, emigration was more common among the unskilled, but over the past three years an increasing number of graduates have been looking overseas for opportunities, and some also opt for extreme commutes.

Brian Smyth has been teaching PE and maths at St Paul’s Academy in London since 2009 but travels back to Westmeath every weekend to captain the county’s hurling team. “It is almost like I’m living two lives. During the week I’m over there teaching, but Friday night to Sunday it is all about getting to see the family, getting to see the friends and focusing in for a big game or training session,” he says.

“Some people do think I’m mad, and ask would I not play with a team over there, but then I wouldn’t get to see my mum and dad and my family as often,” he says. “I’d be very tired on a Monday, but I’m almost immune to it at this stage.”

The Commute is on RTÉ1 on Monday at 9.30pm