Ciara Kenny

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

Spare a thought for those who can’t leave

The number of people who are prevented from emigrating due to lack of skills or qualifications, or because of mortgage debt, is growing. They must not be forgotten, writes historian Enda Delaney

Wed, Jan 9, 2013, 01:00


The number of people who are prevented from emigrating due to lack of skills or qualifications, or because of mortgage debt, is growing. They must not be forgotten, writes historian Enda Delaney

Famine memorial at Ireland Park on Éireann Quay, Toronto. Photograph: Wikipedia Commons

In the 1980s, the arrival and departure of young people from Dublin airport became a tele-visual event, as much a staple of RTÉ’s Christmas fare as the Queen’s Speech or Only Fools and Horses was on the BBC. The delighted mothers greeting returning sons and daughters and the distressful leave-takings a week or two later opened and closed the Christmas season as much as 8th December shopping and Clery’s Sale.

Today, there is a sense of déjà vu about the 1980s. With unemployment running at 15 per cent and emigration estimated last year at over 45,000 Irish nationals, there is a deep sense of pessimism about the future.

But, perhaps, this year we might spare a thought for those who can’t leave. “I pity the poor immigrant”, sang Bob Dylan. But then Dylan didn’t see what they left behind, that, is what made them leave in the first place, and how lucky they were to get in. Pitying somebody for working in Manhattan—or even Minnesota—rings hollow when expressed by somebody who hasn’t been on the dole in Mexico or Mayo.

Since the late twentieth century, states across the globe have erected barriers to the free movement of people. “Fortress Europe” does not make it easy for people from Asia, Africa or even America to enter and build a new life. Irish citizens are today able to travel within the EU for work without visas or travel permits. And, for the Irish, mainland Europe is but one destination among many. Data collected by the Central Statistics Office indicate that the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have received the bulk of the post-collapse exodus.

Each of these states has a panoply of immigration regulations. Only skilled, educated or moneyed migrants need apply. Money has always been a door-opener the world over, but different states put different weight on skills and education at different times (see, for instance, the list of skills currently required in New Zealand). If New Zealand had a Facebook account, it would “like” and “friend” Irish joiners and electricians, but it might block the newsfeed of a history graduate. And I write as one.

“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” reads the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. It is a quaint reminder of a bygone age: the post-9/11 US has some of the most stringent requirements in the world for even temporary immigration. Today it is more “Give me your educated middle classes / Your computer scientists, engineers and surgeons”.

The fruit-pickers, landscape-workers, general labourers, doormen, dog walkers and baby minders will come too, of course, but nobody breathes free in the undocumented shadow-land. The Irish making their way legally in America, Australia, New Zealand or Canada are, on some level, fortunate. They meet the essential criteria for entry: skills, qualifications, or capital. And that they are predominantly white, speak English and culturally Christian helps too.

How do those with no skill, or only basic education, or insufficient capital demonstrate to prospective hosts that they are worthy of a visa? They can’t. Immigration is now highly selective, privileging those with third-level education and marketable employment skills, essentially the middle classes.

But therein lies the rub. One might have the skill or the qualification, but will the now state-owned bank that gave you the mortgage for a house worth half the amount that you paid for it let you leave? Not very likely.

The attitude of past emigrants gives pause for reflection. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Irish emigrants blamed the British government for their exile, and, in New York and Philadelphia, Manchester and Glasgow, Melbourne and Sydney, they became a financial and political resource for militant Irish republicanism. And at home republicans, it should be remembered, were coldly realistic about the ‘slavish’ populace they had to stir to action. In part, it was the departure of the young that took much of the steam out of discontent. Likewise, in the 1940s and 1950s, those who left independent Ireland bitterly blamed Eamon de Valera and Fianna Fáil: they had promised it would be different. And yet at home, the small farmers and the factory workers continued to vote for them.

Emigration was a safety valve for the social and political system. It is no coincidence that when emigration virtually ceased during the First World War youthful energy was channelled into the republican movement. Before that, in the 1870s, a global economic downturn that limited opportunities abroad caused a head of steam to build up at home that ultimately resulted in the eviction of the landlords.

The number of people who can’t leave due to lack of skills or qualifications, or those who find themselves prevented from emigrating by mortgage debt, is growing. Unrelenting poverty and deepening alienation may spell trouble for an establishment widely perceived to be out of touch with the harsh everyday realities of life—indeed, with reality, with life—and a system that has failed. And yet, if history proves anything it is that there is no direct correlation between oppression and resistance or radical action. The future, it is said, belongs to the discontented, but somebody needs to articulate an alternative vision, and to organize to achieve it.

Enda Delaney has written extensively on the history of the Irish diaspora and his most recent book is The Curse of Reason: The Great Irish Famine (Gill & Macmillan). He is Reader in Modern History at the University of Edinburgh. He wrote a piece for Generation Emigration last year putting this current wave of emigration into historical context.