Ciara Kenny

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

All emigrants need the prospect of a safe return

Alex McDonnell, coordinator of the Aisling Return to Ireland project, writes about marginalised emigrants whose experiences have been driven underground.

Tue, Nov 8, 2011, 15:19


Alex McDonnell, coordinator of the Aisling Return to Ireland project, writes about marginalised emigrants whose experiences have been driven underground.

I read with interest the article in the Irish Times online, ‘Emigrants Need the Option to Come Home Not Pity’ (27/10/11) and noticed that it caused a stir on the comments pages. It was fascinating to see how polarised opinion was on the issue and how evenly the comments split into pro and ante camps. It was also marked but hardly surprising how strong people’s feelings are on the subject. The article was taking the view that emigration was on the whole a positive experience for most emigrants. Interestingly, those who had experienced emigration and returned home fell into both camps as did those who had never emigrated.

All emigrants need the prospect of a safe return, which is something we at the Aisling Project in London are advocating strongly at present with our bid to the government to support our Aisling Community Resettlement Centre. The Safe-Home Programme in Mayo has helped hundreds to return to sheltered housing but many others can’t make it because there is no supported housing scheme that recognises and understands the deeply ‘tragic’ experiences that can and still do befall emigrants and often as in a recent Irish Times editorial (1st November) these experiences are ignored.

In my 20-odd years in London I have met many eminent Irish emigrant musicians, artists, sportspeople and academics as well as successful business people and I have witnessed plenty of less successful examples including those that I worked with in Arlington House. None of the emigrants I met in my time who had ended up in hostels or street homeless felt any sense of injustice or unfairness in their experiences but in most cases did not want anyone at home to know about their lack of success on the mission they had set themselves when they left Ireland. Nor did they want anyone to pity them even though they were in virtual hiding living in a vast but invisible Irish community.

This unsentimental breed can be seen most vividly in the film ‘The Men of Arlington‘ (broadcast on BBC NI 24/10/11) and most people back home will have some family or other connection to one of these stoic individuals. Although they would look for no sympathy and feel that their circumstances were of their own making I would say that to a great extent they have been excluded from the debate and their experiences have been driven underground. I remember these same arguments being pushed in the mid 1980s when I came to London for work. At that time we were confronted with vast billboards at Dublin airport of ‘The New Emigrants’ all wearing the caps and gowns of university graduates. Later, as a community worker for the Greater London Council I was often asked by Irish journalists for the low down on the recent emigrants and I would offer information on homelessness, social problems and economic exploitation to be told that they weren’t interested in all that old stuff but more in the success stories of new Irish graduates working in the city etc.

Then and now this unwillingness to accept that there are many for whom emigration is not a wholly positive experience only encourages more emigration and the whole cycle continues. We need to be honest and realistic with potential emigrants (basically the whole country) so that they can make informed decisions based on all shades of the emigrant experience, including those who because of new technology and good education will hopefully have a better experience than those who went before. To start with they could make ‘The Men of Arlington’ compulsory on the school curriculum.

Alex McDonnell is coprdinator of the Aisling Return to Ireland project. A winter Big Race Day fundraiser will be held this Sunday, 13th November at 4pm at the SheepHaven Bay, Mornington Street, Camden. For more information, visit