Ciara Kenny

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

People are too quick to say emigration is a positive

We focus too much on those who make a name or fortune for themselves abroad, writes Colum Kenny

Photograph: Olivia Harris/Reuters

Thu, Oct 23, 2014, 13:50


Colum Kenny

I hate false positives about emigration. You know the kind of thing. That young people should be glad to go. Good for the CV. Broadens the mind. Now feck off and don’t bother us.

Of course most emigrants, the ones I have met anyway, appreciate genuine positives. Work. Proper pay. Broader horizons. Fun and adventure. Even if many might prefer to be living in Ireland in the long term.

It’s just that sometimes people in Ireland seem a little too eager, a touch over-excited perhaps, when rushing to remind themselves that emigration is not necessarily a bad thing.

Emigration, like most things in life, is partly a frame of mind. If people see themselves as forced out, as exiles, then they are less likely to be happy than if they can frame their experience constructively. That is human nature.

And the Irish go abroad for all sorts of reasons. Many of those whom I have met harbour a deep desire to come back and live in Ireland if they can.

Since first travelling outside Ireland in 1968, I have met Irish emigrants of all kinds across Europe and North America. A distant ageing relative in Boston told me of seeing signs when she first went looking for work there long ago. The signs said, “No Irish or blacks need apply”.

In Bristol in the 1970s I worked for a couple of months with Irish who were down and out. What misfortune had started, drink finished. But on both sides of the Atlantic I have also met vibrant, optimistic souls who have done better for themselves abroad than they would have in Ireland. The vibrant Irish.

So when I set out five years ago to research a book about aspects of the Irish emigrant experience in the United States between 1850 and 1950, I wanted it to be balanced, to depict the experience as nuanced.

I picked one family that had worked in various fields, from boot-making and farming to real estate, through the media and arts to commerce and law. This was the O’Shaughnessys of Missouri, that very state from which Kevin O’Malley, the new US ambassador to Ireland, happens to come.

The O’Shaughnessys grew up there when Jesse James and other violent gangs roamed the countryside. Sons of an impoverished orphan from Co Galway, they benefited from an expanding economy and modernization when they moved into Chicago and New York. Not all migrants have such luck.

And there is a temptation to focus on emigrants who somehow made a name or a fortune for themselves. But most never become a JFK, or even a mere millionaire.

I say in my book that “Not all immigrants or their children get the breaks that James O’Shaughnessy and later his family came to enjoy after he fled famine in Ireland during the nineteenth century. Those wishing to enter the United States today, for example, may encounter many legal barriers that simply did not exist in earlier days. Environmental and other global factors limit the possibilities of economic growth everywhere. If there is a moral in the story of the O’Shaughnessys of Missouri it is not that one can get rich quickly by emulating them but that even back then, in relatively auspicious circumstances, any success that they achieved was in large part attained through personal commitment, mutual support, and sustained effort.”

Sometimes those who stay in Ireland envy those who leave. And sometimes those who go return later and resent the fact that people who stayed may have prospered. There are all sorts of emigrants.

What Ireland as a state needs to do is to provide services that meet the needs of emigrants, and never put obstacles in the way of their return by excluding them from educational or social services because they have been residing abroad for a few years. They should also retain the vote in general elections.

Emigration continues. It is difficult to know how reliable statistics are as an indicator of what is really happening. And it is remarkable how many foreigners continue to come to Ireland even as Irish people leave.

So it is good that websites such as this are providing a platform from which emigrants can be heard. Because unless we listen to emigrants then we will not know what issues they face and how best to support our own abroad.

Dr Colum Kenny is professor of communications at Dublin City University. He has written a new study of emigrant experiences through the prism of one family – An Irish-American Odyssey: the Remarkable Rise of the O’Shaughnessy Brothers – which has just been published by the University of Missouri Press.