Ciara Kenny

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

How the pinch steals Christmas

New technologies and cheap flights mean young emigrants are more connected with home at Christmas than their counterparts in the 1980s, but that doesn’t necessarily make things easier for those who are reluctantly living abroad, or for those left behind, writes Alan Keane

Mon, Dec 17, 2012, 09:00


New technologies and cheap flights mean young emigrants are more connected with home at Christmas than their counterparts in the 1980s, but that doesn’t necessarily make things easier for those who are reluctantly living abroad, or for those left behind, writes Alan Keane

Alan Keane (right) with Kevin Bourke and Shane Clifford, who are currently teaching English in South Korea

In 1980s Ireland, boatloads and busloads took the return journey home for Christmas. From Dublin, from London, from New York City, they returned to the fold. Press photographers gathered in airport arrivals halls, both hopeful and confident of snapping some tearful reunions.

Some did not return home. Some because they could not afford to, either financially or legally, as for many undocumented Irish in America, leaving meant never coming back. Some because they didn’t see Ireland as their country anymore. Politicians had failed them, their friends had emigrated too.

But for those who did return, two weeks over the festive season was something that couldn’t be missed. This emotional attachment was at its most potent as the lights came on in a club, and people staggered to attention for the national anthem. Sinne Fianna Fáil, atá faoi gheall na hÉireann. Soldiers are we, whose lives we pledge to Ireland.

In the cold light of January, bags full of their mother’s cooking, jacket pockets lined with surreptitious tenners from their oul fella, they returned to be swallowed up in the anonymity of the foreign metropolis’ where they had found jobs, if not an identity.

No photographers turned up at the airports in January. There is a significant difference between tearful reunions and tearful goodbyes.

We do not live in the 80s anymore, but we do live in a recession that has swallowed up this country’s youth and spat them out in all corners of the globe. Like their predecessors a generation ago, many will make the trek home for turkey this December, and like their predecessors a generation ago, many will not.

But in this age of constant communication, is the physical absence of someone felt as keenly as it was 30 years ago? Families across this country can sit down this Christmas Day in front of their turkey and sprouts, and wave happily to their child/sibling as they don surf shorts and a Santa hat on Bondi Beach. Skype, Facebook, and Google + have made this world a smaller place, and lend a hand to lessening the impact of loved ones not being around the house this Christmas.

But no amount of technology can ever make up for having everyone around the dinner table Christmas day, where the only sound is the ticking clock, a constant reminder of time spent apart.

We are in recession much in the same way we were a generation ago. Why would recently graduated Irish university students stay in this country to become government artists, drawing the dole, when they are offered the opportunities to utilise their degrees in far flung locations like Korea, Japan or Australia? Wwhy would they endure the long trek home to be reminded of the harsh realities they have left behind?

Closer to home, there are Irish people all over the United Kingdom who cannot make the short hop across the Irish Sea because they have to work over Christmas. The UK is in the grips of a recession also, and if keeping your job means having to work Christmas Eve and St Stephen’s Day, then perhaps a Christmas spent alone in a British bedsit is a necessary evil.

The Irish Government is so caught up with The Gathering that they have failed to see the bigger picture. While a year-long knees up for second generation Irish may provide a short term boost to the economy, it is nothing to the benefits this country would reap if we could just stop The Scattering. If graduates felt there was a chance of gaining employment in this country, fewer would be leaving before they pick up their degree.

Prospective employers place a premium on experience which graduates can only attain through unpaid internships. While the majority are legitimate and well-meaning attempts by employers to allow people they couldn’t afford to employ otherwise a chance to gain valuable experience, there is a whiff of exploitation off others.

If the choice for graduates is an unpaid internship or a JobBridge without the guarantee of a job at the end, or a chance to emigrate to sunnier climates with better job prospects, then there is only going to be one winner. Even looking at pictures of tanned and smiling friends on Facebook is enough for many to hedge their bets and book flights out of this country. If something is not done to stop the rot, there will be a hell of a lot more empty seats at family tables across the land on Christmas Day 2013.

This Christmas spare a thought for those who will not be home. Spare too a thought for those who will be. The two weeks at home will pass quickly and then it will be back across oceans and continents for our youth. Mothers will weep, fathers will proffer a stoic handshake, then the plane will take off and take Ireland’s youth with it.

This is not the country we envisaged a decade ago, but it is the hand we have been dealt. All we can do is welcome back with open arms those who will emerge through the airport’s arrival doors, and keep in our hearts those who can’t.