Ciara Kenny

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

We need to know a lot more about emigration

A major new study on current emigration trends will analyse who is leaving, where they are going, what they are doing and whether they are likely to return, writes Piaras Mac Éinrí, lecturer in Migration Studies at University College Cork.

Tue, Oct 23, 2012, 01:00


A new study will analyse who is leaving, where they are going, what they are doing and whether they are likely to return, writes Piaras Mac Éinrí, lecturer in Migration Studies at University College Cork.

Piaras Mac Éinrí: "Emigration is no longer as much a leap into the unknown as it once was."

Like the rest of my generation, migration was part of the background of my upbringing. I say “migration” deliberately, because emigration was, of course, only part of the picture. The 1950s, the decade into which I was born, also saw a crowding of internal rural migrants into the rapidly growing cities of Ireland. Rathfarnham and Kilmacud in Dublin, where I grew up, were full of rural migrants, bringing their own customs with them. The rise of the great Kilmacud-Crokes GAA club is one such example. Tipperary hurling star Donie Nealon, a teacher in my Kilmacud national school in the 1960s, was an early inspiration for me even if, being of Mayo and Roscommon extraction, I never really saw hurling as my sport.

Emigration was always with us. A cousin sold up his farm in east Mayo and emigrated to the UK to work in a car factory. He was in his late fifties; one can only imagine the culture shock of moving to urban Britain at such an age. An uncle left Cobh for America in 1947, having been thwarted in his ambitions to be a motor mechanic by his teacher father who wanted him to be a doctor. He wasted a year in UCD before getting the boat and disappearing from an Ireland he rejected and which he felt had rejected him.

In the following 21 years he wrote just twice to his sister, my mother. One day in 1968 I opened the door to a stranger, a large man in a loud Hawaian t-shirt. When he said “Hi, I’m Eamon!” I immediately realised who he was. Yet he could not juggle the realities of living between two worlds

He started coming back every year, and after a week or two would always complain about inefficiencies, missed appointments and Irish bureaucracy. But he didn’t feel at home in Yonkers, or later California, either. It was revealing, when I sought out his widow Paddy in Visalia, California, and went to visit his grave there, to realise how completely integrated she was in the community. A public nurse, she also worked with the meals-on-wheels people, the local Catholic charities and a variety of other organisations. Everyone knew and loved her. Yet he had never been able to fit in, either here or there.

All of this is by way of saying that emigration is not a strange phenomenon to me. I can also remember the American parcels of luridly-coloured children’s clothes and chocolates we thought inferior to those on sale here in Ireland. John Healy’s Nineteen Acres powerfully tells the story of his own journey on a Fulbright journalism scholarship to visit his Aunt Mary in America, who had sent money back over many years. Instead of a fine mansion, he finds that she is living in a tenement with a son who does not work and starts every day with a beer.

How does all this connect with current emigration?

My own first direct encounter with the 1980s generation of emigrants was in Paris in 1988, when I conducted postgraduate research on the Irish living there and was a part of that diaspora myself. There had been a rising concern with the resurgence of emigration, tempered by sometimes snide references to the “gentrification” of emigration. “Elite” emigration by Ireland’s new privileged classes of well-educated young was not the same, it was implied, as the navvies, shop assistants and factory workers of the 1950s. In Brian Lenihan’s famous and uncharacteristically dismissive phrase (he was a decent man with whom I had worked on various occasions in my capacity as a junior civil servant) “we can’t all live on a small island”. That phrase became the anthem for an angry and dispossessed generation.

My research in Paris was revealing. Yes, there had been a social shift in qualifications and expectations. But in many respects the new Irish emigrant was not greatly different from the old. Of particular note was the ability to network. The pub and other social circles were the “go-to” places for anyone looking for work, a place to stay, advice and assistance. If there was a difference, it was in the levels of confidence of this new generation. Those same pubs were now bridges to the local communities, not refuges where people went to escape from the locals.

I was surprised and impressed, visiting Feothanach native Johnny Granville’s pub in the Rue de Montmartre in Paris, to see how it was full of newly arrived Irish, but with their French, Breton or other boyfriends/girlfriends/partners and a good scattering of other nationalities, from Britain to Palestine. Networking plus confidence equalled a radical shift but yet a role as intermediaries which was not new. In 18th century Europe, for instance, the Irish were the Lebanese of their day: the “go-betweeners” who did the business in places like Antwerp, Nantes and Bordeaux.

Today’s generation are on the move again. To recognise that is not to celebrate it, on one hand, nor to excoriate it, on the other. It is worth recognising that there are some common traits which define the current generation and earlier ones, whatever the differences. But these differences are also important.

Firstly, the ability to network is a key advantage. Irish emigrants have consistently demonstrated an ability to build powerful and supportive networks wherever they go: this has not changed.

Secondly, emigration is no longer as much a leap into the unknown as it once was. Thanks to new technologies such as Skype, but also to the extraordinarily adaptive nature of organisations such as the GAA (with branches nowadays in places as far apart as Abu Dhabi, Penang and Hong Kong), the networking referred to is likely to prosper.

Thirdly, Ireland itself is more tolerant and more flexible. People are not leaving now simply because they are gay, or unmarried mothers.

Finally, return migration is frequent – one half of those who left in the 1980s returned. Emigration no longer reflects a moment of finality and permanent departure – the American Wake is meangingless to the Ryanair generation. That said, we also know that people are less likely to return the longer they stay away. A crucial question will be how quickly Ireland can recover from its present crisis. The 1980s exodus was followed by the 1990s resurgence – and it was real, before the property boom and banking excesses of the 2000s. A similar return of those leaving now is unlikely unless a battered economy recovers in the reasonably near future.

There is no question on emigration in the Census. We need to know a lot more about emigration, who is leaving, where they are going, what they are doing and whether they are likely to return. We need to know, in particular, which emigrants are among the more vulnerable and ill-equipped to deal with the shock of the new, and to do the best possible to provide appropriate support. UCC’s new research project, funded by the Irish Research Council, entitled Emigration and Return: Profiling today’s generation of emigrants, will endeavour to address some of these questions.

This research will seek to build a detailed profile of current emigrants using data drawn from the new Small Area (SA) Population Statistics in the 2011 Census. A population sample will be constructed, based on a series of rural and urban small areas and taking factors such as socio-economic and educational background into account. A survey of these small areas will enable us to identify households where people have recently emigrated. The plan is to interview such emigrants using online technologies such as Skype, focusing on such questions as destination, reasons for leaving, occupation, experience of integration and intention to return. Comparisons will be made with the 1980s generation in order to achieve some understanding of the likelihood of return in a range of scenarios.

The research team consists of Dr Irial Glynn, Tomás Kelly and myself. The project is funded by the Irish Research Council for 12 months and hosted by the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century and the Department of Geography at UCC

We appreciate the very important role of the Generation Emigration website as a resource and contact point for many of today’s emigrants and would greatly welcome hearing from interested readers who would like to know more about the project or to contribute. Our email is; a website will be online in the near future.
We believe that this research will enable us to achieve a much better understand of today’s emigrants and will also pose significant public policy questions.

Piaras Mac Éinrí is lecturer in Migration Studies in the Department of Geography at University College Cork.