Recovering economy may make homing pigeons of emigrants

A major change for emigrants has been the dramatic fall in the cost of staying in touch

Although a vigorous economic recovery seems to be under way again, there is still uncertainty as to whether it will be sustained. photo:  ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Although a vigorous economic recovery seems to be under way again, there is still uncertainty as to whether it will be sustained. photo: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

 

Emigration has been part of Irish life for over two centuries, as successive generations of parents have seen their children leave. This process is still part of the experience of Irish families. The major factor causing young Irish people to seek work abroad has been a desire to improve their circumstances. However, the factors driving emigration and the experience of emigration itself have changed dramatically in recent years.

Emigration still represents a major wrench for those involved. Recent research shows that the experience of seeing your children emigrating can be particularly difficult for mothers, resulting in some cases in depressive symptoms and loneliness.* It’s also tough on fathers to see their children leave.

For those who can’t come home, like the undocumented Irish in the United States, missing out on family milestones like christenings, weddings or the death of a parent is a particular wrench.

Throughout the 19th century, vast numbers of Irish men and women left, generally for the US, and very few were able to return. Since the 1920s, the num- bers going to the US have been restricted and the UK became the main destination for emigrants. More recently Irish people have left to work in a much wider range of destinations across the globe.

Cost of staying in touch

This is a huge contrast with the 19th century, when emigrants left never to come back, and communication was by means of infrequent letters. Even with the 1950s generation, the cost of trunk-calls was prohibitive and urgent news was communicated by means of telegrams.

Up to 1980, most of those who emigrated had had relatively limited education. From then on the composition of emigration shifted. Today’s emigrants are mainly well educated, most with a minimum of a Leaving Certificate, and many are graduates. So concern has switched to the potential brain drain.

The very large number who left Ireland in the second half of the 1980s felt they would never come back. In some cases, before leaving, they expressed their anger and disillusionment with the state of Ireland on radio and TV programmes, announcing that they had no intention of returning. Some broadcasters reinforced a message that they had no future in Ireland.

Economic progress began

By 2005 or so, probably the majority of those who had gone in the 1990s had returned, often bringing partners and children with them. This was in contrast to the long experience of pre-1970s emigration, when few, if any, returned to live permanently in Ireland.

The effect of return migration was that, by 1996, 14 per cent of the population had lived abroad for at least a year and this rose to 16 per cent by 2002.

For those aged between 35 and 39, the figure was as high as 28 per cent. In 1996, already, one in four of all residents in Ireland with 3rd level education had lived abroad for at least a year.

While quite a vigorous economic recovery seems to be under way again, there is still uncertainty as to whether it will be sustained.

In addition, even if the recovery is sustained, the prevailing negative public mood means it may take some time before the message that Ireland is a good place to live and work seeps through to our children abroad. However, with sustained growth and a happier polity, we can expect many of those who left during the crisis to return to Ireland over the rest of the decade. Some of those who will come home this Christmas will, in time, come back for good.

Homing pigeons

This premium for returning emigrants reflects the fact that, by working abroad, young Irish people gain valuable experience of how other economies work, of how things might be done better at home, or learning to work in a foreign language. The value of such skills to employers in Ireland is reflected in their pay.

There are other, less measurable benefits. Top management of many of the multinationals here are returned Irish emigrants, playing an important role in the success of this sector. The Irish with experience of living abroad, together with immigrants from many countries, have also helped turn Ireland into a more open multicultural society.

Our culture and folk memory is of emigration as a permanent loss. Our more recent economic history suggests it can be, for many, a temporary and enriching episode and, as better economic times come at home, our homing pigeons may return to the roost. * http://ftp.iza.org/dp8037.pdf ** http://ftp.iza.org/dp4736.pdf

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