Ciara Kenny

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

‘Emigration of Irish proportions would never be accepted by the French’

For the Irish, leaving home is just part of life, writes David Burns in Paris

Tue, Jan 14, 2014, 12:00


David Burns

At a traditionally dressed table surrounded by family, if not my own, the New Year in Paris began with an observation rather than a resolution. It was an observation I’d made before when the streets of this city were filled with people protesting against gay marriage; although unlike a resolution, I hadn’t forgotten it.

A lot of people think the French quite cosmopolitan but truthfully, they are very attached to tradition. The long dinner on New Year’s Day with several courses, the speech and even the cutlery on the table; everything was ceremonious. But what was really striking was that the whole family was there and, not only that, but that the whole family is always there. No one has had to move out for college, there were no questions about what work was like overseas, there were no fresh arrivals from the airport— apart from me.

Of course, the picture I’m painting only fits in a small frame. If you go a little outside, or even further up north, of Paris then you find the families of immigrants or immigrant descent. They make up what is cosmopolitan and vibrant about this city and I won’t make the mistake of Woody Allen by ignoring them. But it is striking how many of my students, in the university where I teach, still live at home and have every intention of continuing on to work here. It is especially striking compared to the situation at home in Ireland. Even at Christmas, my sister was missing from the festivities having missed her flight back.

Although a lot of my French friends think we’re all farmers, in some ways I find the Irish more cosmopolitan than the French. Certainly, more travelled. My brother has worked in Baltimore, in Bejing and now lives in Strasbourg. My sister has worked in LA and London. My friends from home are scattered across all atlases; Toronto, Tanzania, Tokyo and then, Perth, Boston, New York, York and Madrid.

Emigration of Irish proportions would never be accepted by the French. But with us, it is almost second nature. It is the one thing we all have in common; Presbyterians, Protestants, Catholics, Polish, Chinese, Romanian, Nigerian. The Irish are, and have always been, a nation of travellers. Although we are often pegged as backward rustic types that drink too much, we are also adaptable, ambitious and hard-working.

The Irish ambassador to the US, Anne Anderson, is currently campaigning on these grounds in America. She and the Irish embassy are lobbying to reform legislation on immigration in America with a coalition of Irish-American organizations. At a time when many Americans regard this as a Hispanic issue, Anne Anderson is reminding the US of the considerable Irish immigrant contribution to its history.

In a like manner, it is perhaps time we took stock ourselves. The cliché of an isolated country people rooted by custom to towns and villages is an alien image. An old prejudice. Parisians are more provincial; we have worked in more countries than the French have conquered. As racism is on the rise at home, this should be more widely noted. As calls for an overseas vote continue to be ignored, this feature of our society needs to be swept out from under the carpet.

The current budget has provoked anti-Government protest against what has been variously termed ‘Operation Emigration’ and ‘the Scattering‘. Much of this rhetoric risks tarring the Irish abroad as victims. While leaving home is a hard thing to do, especially when you haven’t the choice, this poignant picture again belongs in a frame. Almost half of those who have emigrated in recent years quit full-time employment to do so, according to the UCC émigré report. According to a 2012 Irish Times survey, 80 per cent of emigrants declared themselves happier in their new situation than they had been at home. While the Irish Government can certainly be accused of encouraging emigration, it is hard to argue that all those who leave are ‘forced’ to go.

We have a long history of leaving. The year of the Gathering has drawn to a close. In the future, more shall certainly return. But emigration is part of our make-up. 2014 will hopefully be the year we recognise this, to the benefit of both those recently immigrated and those recently emigrated.

David Burns teaches at La Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. He is a founding member of the campaign group representing young emigrants, We’re Coming Back, a sister organisation to We’re Not Leaving. Read his previous articles for Generation Emigration here.