Ciara Kenny

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

Streets not always paved with gold

Not all emigrants find happiness abroad, no matter what the newspaper surveys and politicians say, writes Niall Foley.

Thu, Apr 19, 2012, 09:04


Not all emigrants find happiness abroad, no matter what the newspaper surveys and politicians say, writes Niall Foley.


Niall Foley

A few days ago I met Davie, a young Irish man who has just started work in my local supermarket here in Edinburgh.

Where are you from back home?” I asked him.

Wexford,” he said.

A nice part of the world at this time of year.”

Not at the moment, it’s not,” he said “It’s depressing. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

Me neither,” I said.

Since leaving Dublin in 2009 I’ve had many such casual encounters with Irish emigrants in the UK and abroad. Some are happily embracing opportunities not possible at home. But despite our social tendency to put on a brave face on and say everything is grand, I’ve also met a fair few who are struggling.

Certainly I’ve met more disillusioned Irish than as represented in the recent Ipsos MRBI / Irish Times survey suggesting most emigrants are happier now than when they lived in Ireland. Indeed, I can’t help wondering if those surveyed were, unlike my new supermarket friend, positively exaggerating.

Not that they are liars. But the narrative of the prospering emigrant is a pressing one in the Irish psyche. Certainly the character of the labourer who comes home boasting that he is running a job in Kilburn, when in truth he lines up behind the Elephant and Castle every morning hoping for the start, is a well established literary figure, perhaps most disturbingly drawn as Uncle Alo in Pat McCabe’s The Butcher Boy.

Decades ago, Irish newspapers featured advertisements from shipping companies selling the vision of a brighter future overseas. In the present, contemporary media emphasise the life-enhancing experiences of those who move abroad.

And times have, indeed, changed. The emigration experience to the UK is now Clapham, not Kilburn, and the City of London, not construction.

But as the old song goes, while London’s still a wonderful sight, there’s no point trying to dig the streets for gold. Not everyone can get ahead. Some struggle, are left behind, and go under.

Being London-born to Irish emigrants of the fifties and sixties, I recognise ripples of a previous generation. Some of those previous emigrants earned fame and fortune in London. Many more floundered. Some are still to be found, haunting neighbourhoods that have changed before their eyes, eternally dreaming of returning to an Ireland that ceased to be long ago.

My parents earned neither fame nor fortune, but did achieve their own personal victory when they returned to Ireland in the late nineties. Although we haven’t spoken much about it, I sensed they were happy when I followed shortly after.

During the excesses of the Celtic Tiger era I often heard my parents, and other older Irish people, comment that while it all seemed a little too much at times, it was great for young people to have such opportunities here, in Ireland.

Of course, not every child in those giddy years had a helicopter ride to their first communion. I saw plenty of people, and plenty of communities, that the Celtic Tiger never even glanced at.

Now I note with bitterness that a narrative is being fostered in some quarters defining the Celtic Tiger years as a time when we were all a little too greedy, wanting two homes, two cars, two big holidays a year, and that now we all have to pay for our silly, giddy excess.

The truth, as I see it, is that the Irish people were gravely failed by leaders and politicians who were paid enough to perform better then and are rewarded with fat pensions now.

In 2009, as a result of their failure, and following a spell of unemployment, I went back across the water. Ironically, my last job was a commission to write an information guide for prospective emigrants. I steered clear of directly advising whether or not an individual should emigrate.

Emigration, they may tell you, is not what it was. Sure now there is facebook, email, Skype, texts, and the fun and busy chatter of meeting new people.

And yet nothing replaces the company of a best friend or relative in the act of, for example, sitting at a bar and supping a pint in blissful silence because nothing needed to be said.

Edinburgh to Dublin is only 45 minutes on a plane. But there never seems to be enough time or money to get home as often as you’d like.

The job I moved to Edinburgh for ended last year. I’ve survived on freelance work, always with an eye on moving back home to Ireland. I had even put plans in motion, albeit daunted by stories of returning emigrants being refused social welfare.

And then a job I applied for in Edinburgh came through. It is a good job, one that I want, one I’d have greater difficulty getting in Ireland. And so, for now, I’ll stay.

It is a matter of both necessity and choice. But it is wrong to simply define the narrative of today’s emigration experience as a lifestyle choice, no matter what Minister Michael Noonan or the Irish Time survey says.

Johnny Cash was playing in the supermarket when I was talking to Davie. Cash sung Man in Black, proclaiming he wore black for “the ones who are held back.”

No doubt many Irish emigrants do find greater happiness abroad. But not all of them.

And I wanted to write this for them.