Ciara Kenny

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Managing sameness and difference: the experience of returning Irish emigrants

Will this generation of emigrants be welcomed back with open arms in 10 or 20 years time? Not if the experiences of the 1980s cohort are anything to go by, writes David Ralph.

Tue, Jul 10, 2012, 08:26


Will this generation of emigrants be welcomed back with open arms in 10 or 20 years time? Not if the experiences of the 1980s cohort are anything to go by, writes David Ralph.

David Ralph: "Will this generation of emigrants be welcomed back with open arms?"

Much sadness, loss, and even a sense of national humiliation shrouds the departure of our young and not so young emigrants, many of whom assumed they would spend their lives working in trades, professions and vocations at home.

But, pending an economic recovery in, say, 10, 20 years from now, how will this generation of emigrants be treated if they decide the time is right for a return to Ireland? Will they be greeted back with arms wide-open? Or, will those of us who stayed behind just shrug our shoulders bitterly on seeing them again?

If the evidence from a research project I recently completed on the reintegration experiences of the 1980s cohort of Irish emigrants who returned to live in Celtic Tiger Ireland is any indication of future trends, then the present group of emigrants should not expect much if and when they do return.

The findings of the research, Understanding Home: Irish-born return migrants from the United States, 1996-2006, suggest that those emigrants who left during the last major wave of emigration in the 1980s had high expectations attached to coming back to the Celtic Tiger. Their main driving motive for return: they wanted to restore a sense of belonging they felt was often missing or at least not fully present overseas.

But for many who returned, the biggest obstacle to regaining this elusive sense of belonging again in Irish society was the near-hostile attitudes directed at them from Irish people who stayed behind, Irish people who never emigrated.

The logic informing return migrants’ hopes of resettling was straightforward: if people were upset by my departure, then they should be happy when I return, welcome me back. But unfortunately for a majority of those I interviewed who returned at the height of the boom years, the fabled céad míle fáilte was in short supply.

Time and again, participants in the study described meeting old friends and acquaintances who were indifferent to their lives abroad. Worse still, others described a downright hostility directed at them, were questioned aggressively about their motives for returning when they did.

Many grappled with an attitude emanating from their peers that says, “You don’t fully belong here, you’re not a real Irish person, because you didn’t stick it out when the ship was sinking.”

One return migrant I interviewed, an accountant who had come back to Dublin after 15 years living in New York, captured a widely shared experience: “You are prepared for leaving. You get your visa, you arrange a job, a place to stay.

But it’s coming back they don’t prepare you for. That’s the real shock: not leaving, but coming back. No one is prepared for charges that they abandoned their country.”

Interestingly, all the people I interviewed were excited by the new multicultural Ireland they had returned to, describing the mix of nationalities, languages and cultures on view as a welcome addition to the drab, monocultural Ireland they had left twenty years previously.

The current response to the exodus of Irish people is understandable. Many parents, friends and relatives of those involuntarily emigrating are angry at the shambolic stewardship of the country, at the flagrant failure to provide a viable livelihood for everyone on the island.

For many Irish families now, the only way they will get to spend time together is perched around a laptop, chatting over crackling internet connections on Skype.

But as this next generation of Irish emigrants make new homes in faraway places, it is worth remembering that most retain the intention to come back one day. The international literature on return migrants consistently makes this point: no diaspora exists with a desire for homecoming. Speaking from his new base in Australia, Mark Hayes, who featured in an Irish Times features on emigration back in 2011, echoes the sentiments of many of those now leaving. “But Ireland is still home,” he said, “and long-term I hope to go back.”

This remark is worth keeping in mind. The only way to spare the likes of Hayes the frosty reception that greeted many of the last generation of Irish emigrants who came back is to be more appreciative of the current cohort of emigrants’ motives for leaving, and when the time comes, for coming back.

The lesson that the 1980s class of emigrants who returned home can teach us is clear. When the 2011 class completes the return leg of their journey and comes through the arrivals halls at Dublin airport sometime in the future, show them a fraction of that sympathy now on display at the departure gates.

Otherwise, prepare for a case of collective déjà vu, as those who never left these shores accuse our future returning emigrants of lacking commitment to the country. Again.

David Ralph recently completed a PhD at the University of Edinburgh on Irish return migration during the Celtic Tiger years. He currently works at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.