Ciara Kenny

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

The downturn was the shove we needed to go explore

The downturn in Ireland’s fortunes has been the push many indecisive young people needed to board the plane and explore the opportunities the rest of the world can offer us, writes Niall Murphy

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00


The downturn in Ireland’s fortunes has been the push many indecisive young people needed to board the plane and explore the opportunities the rest of the world can offer us, writes Niall Murphy

Niall Murphy: 'There are two sets of news headlines to read in the mornings'

I’ve been through the departures area of Terminal 2 three times in the past two years, each occasion with the Ma and Da in tow. I’m fairly sure Da thinks I bring them along because I’ve a soft spot for a €10 breakfast. But more often than not, it’s because I have been uncertain when I’ll be back. If a new opportunity presents itself while I’m away, I’ll jump on it. “Sure you’d be mad to come home,” people say. “Sure there’s nothing here.”

A six-month stint volunteering in Haiti came first, followed shortly afterwards by a semester studying for a masters in the Netherlands. After that I took up a position with an Irish aid agency, again in Haiti where I still am now. All the moving about has hopefully conditioned them, and me, for the coming-and-going lifestyle which is likely to continue for me for the next few years.

The fractured perspective I get of Ireland because of all this moving about can be unnerving, but it gives me the opportunity to take snapshots over time of a country in flux. Each time I come home, there’s a bingo-card selection of friends from school and college still in the country: you might be surprised who you’re going to get. You can keep tabs on some through Facebook and email, but honestly, Dublin, New York and Sydney are hard to differentiate as the backdrop in photographs is often of nights out.

The surprise and novelty that four years ago would have been reserved for a friend emigrating has now been reserved for those few who have managed to find full-time employment in the area of their qualification. There are very few “you-got-a-job” parties to attend though. Ireland still prefers a good send-off into the unknown over a celebration of someone’s financial stability for the foreseeable future.

The downturn in Ireland’s fortunes has been the deciding factor for many of us who would otherwise have be teetering on the brink of indecision as to whether they should look abroad for opportunities. It has been the little push that was required to encourage many young people to board the plane. Before, you might have fallen into a job which accidentally turned into a career at some indeterminable point. After a while you may have told yourself that it’s a big world and you’re only young – but then again, if you were to leave you’d probably want to come home at some stage and then you’d have to start from scratch. One three-week holiday later, all wanderlust cleansed from the system, you’d return to the grind, surrounded by people who understand that UHT milk is “not the same thing”.

Nowadays, the above career progression pattern isn’t common. Some give it six months after they graduate from third-level before they begin to consider options abroad, while some have their flights booked before their finals. Some go back, start again, decide to study something else. Some decide to go forward, do a masters, or if they can get funding, a PhD. Those finishing trade apprenticeships can try to live off the nixers. But the option is always there on the table, in the form of a glowing computer screen, offering cheap one-way flights and detailing the ridiculously simple process required to obtain a work permit or visa.

The view that Ireland will eventually pull itself out of the abyss, and that we’ll all be able to come home and get zero percent mortgages, varies from person to person too. Some have already decided no, that Ireland has shown its true colours now, and no matter if the Celtic Tiger’s cub comes to maturity in five or ten years’ time, it’s a damp dark corner of Europe, and a visit every Christmas or so will do. Others perhaps are biding their time, gaining valuable experience in economies that are jet-skiing across the stagnant waters of the global downturn, until they can return home, with CVs as long as your arm. But I think for most, myself included, it’s an unknown – you could wander the whole earth trying to find somewhere that feels homely, but isn’t home. Or you could find your soul-mate in Jakarta and set up shop.

Of course, globalisation and technology are making things less drastic, for those at home and abroad. You don’t feel thousands of miles away when you can Skype your brother from a hillside in the Central Plateau of Haiti to find out who’s won the county semi-final. Or when you know that you could potentially pack it all in and be home on your couch in less than three days. But this also prolongs the umbilical connection with home. There’s little of the severance of ties that the emigrants of the eighties would have felt – when you were gone, you were gone. Now, Ireland lingers in the brain, and is interacted with almost daily. There are two sets of news headlines to read in the mornings.

Even with this continuous contact, I don’t think I will ever come home to find Ireland unchanged. People have talked about the Ireland of their youth for generations, and we have yet to see Irish society go back to the way it was before.  Although we are in familiar economic territory, we are different, now. We are better educated, and better able to compete, out in a competitive world.

Perhaps this is the Ireland of our generation, defined by its ambitious and ubiquitous diaspora rather than by the passive acceptance of its own misfortune.

Niall works for Concern in Haiti. He blogs at