The Ireland I left is no longer there, however hard I try to recapture it

Leaving Ireland while you’re young is easier than returning when you’re older

The emigrants’ ship is leaving and all the young people on board are trying to keep sight of their heartbroken parents, waving forlornly on the quayside.

Our pale and anxious heroine, Eilis, played by Saoirse Ronan, is having a peak pale and anxious moment as she stands on the deck of the ship that will take her away from everything and everyone she knows and loves. Green coat smartly buttoned up, new passport clutched in her hand, she is fleeing the narrow minds and narrow opportunities of 1950s Ireland.

In the film adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn, the image of the lonely emigrant girl blowing a last kiss to her sister is perfectly crafted to tug at the heartstrings of Irish and American audiences alike.

The quayside farewell is not featured in the novel, but in the movie this parting scene is essential. Leaving home is, famously, the speciality of the Irish, the prelude to longing for home, our other speciality. Half of our songs are about the lost homeland. And there is a good reason for this. Ireland produced more emigrants per capita than any other European country during the “age of mass migration” to the New World, between the mid-19th century and the beginning of the first World War.


In that phase of emigration, four out of five Irish emigrants went to the United States. Most of the emigration could be categorised as forced to some degree, from victims of eviction and hunger to economic migrants with no prospects at home. Particularly around the time of the 1845-1848 Great Famine, emigration for the Irish was a traumatic experience, a mass movement of the dispossessed.

But Brooklyn is set in the 1950s, 30 years after independence and a century after the famine. Hunger and persecution were gone but other pressures came into play as the 1950s became the worst decade in the 20th century for emigration. Some 15 per cent of the population took the boat, at that time mostly to Britain. It would not be until 1996 that Ireland made the transition from net emigration to sustained net immigration for the first time.

Top of the tree
Brooklyn is just one example of an entire genre of Hollywood movies romanticising the plucky Irish emigrant, from Little Annie Rooney (1925) to The Sullivans (1944) to Far and Away (1992).

We also do our share of romanticising at home. Who didn’t love President Mary Robinson’s idea to put a candle in the window for emigrants? Every Christmas the television cameras go to the airports to capture emotional scenes of families being reunited, tapping into the old narrative of grievance at what we poor Irish have to suffer. But the world has changed, as has Ireland’s place in it. The job of honestly distinguishing the current Irish experience of emigration from the past exodus has yet to be completed.

Though emigration hasn’t gone away, the scale of people leaving Ireland and the personal cost involved has diminished. Irish emigrants now travel by plane, their paperwork is in order, they have good qualifications and job prospects and no one is campaigning in the destination countries to keep their kind from coming. In the hierarchy of world migration, Irish emigration is a comfortable experience, near the top of the tree.

In 2018, the UN Refugee Agency reported that around the world 44,000 people a day were forced to leave their homes because of conflict and persecution, bringing the total number of forcibly displaced people to 70 million this year, the highest level of displacement in history. In an age when boat people are banished to the island of Nauru off the Australian coast or left to drown in the Mediterranean Sea, when the US army is dispatched to the southern border to demonise poor and persecuted arrivals, and when construction workers suffer human rights abuses building arenas for sports events to which Irish people travel for leisure, no one can claim the tragic mantle for Ireland anymore.

Irish emigrants have “influenced and shaped the world”, EPIC The Irish Museum of Emigration in Dublin reminds us. Neville Isdell, the museum’s founder (and former chairman and CEO of Coca Cola), is a shining example, having pursued a successful career working in more than half a dozen countries.

The interactive museum brings to life the stories of the diaspora: Irish workers, soldiers, doctors, scientists, entertainers and missionaries, the famous few and the forgotten millions, who contributed their life’s work to other countries.

How fitting and yet how extraordinary it is that Ireland is now being influenced, shaped and enriched by new people. In the space of one generation, Ireland has also become a nation of immigration. It is a fact of economics that a growing economy attracts new workers who become net contributors. At 17.3 per cent, Ireland has the second-highest foreign-born population in Europe, mostly due to recent immigration. Our “never forget” attitude to our own history of emigration has undoubtedly influenced the reception of immigrants here. It has its uses – empathy is definitely better than self-pity.

In another scene from Brooklyn, a few months into her new life in New York, Eilis is helping out at a charity Christmas dinner for Irish men down on their luck. The shabby men queuing up for their turkey and ham have a defeated air about them.

The kindly priest who organised Eilis’s passage to America from Ireland as well as her accommodation and job (they don’t make ’em like they used to) tells her, his voice charged with sadness: “These are the men who built the tunnels, the bridges, the highways. God alone knows what they live on now.” There is a brief interlude of merriment and bottles of porter being consumed before someone gets up to sing a sean nós song. In slow motion, the camera passes from face to craggy face, tears glistening in the eyes of the poor Irish labourers and our heroine, the kind helper, as they are overcome by mournful yearning for the old country.

For many second- and subsequent generation Americans, some of them comfortably at home with present-day anti-immigrant sentiment, this is the kind of immigration they can get behind. Immigration as it is supposed to be: noble, white and in the past. Most importantly it celebrates their identity and confirms their sense of being special and deserving, a reminder that their ancestors paid their dues in heartache for the good fortune many Irish Americans enjoy today.

A fresh start
No matter how many times you see these famine numbers, it's staggering. The population of the territory now in the Republic of Ireland fell like a stone from the time of the famine, declining from a high of six and a half million in 1841 to just below three million in the 1920s, the first decade of independence. The numbers continued to stagnate or decline for the middle years of the century, and did not get up above three million again until the 1970s. Apart from a wobble in the 1980s, Irish population growth has been strong since then, "a combination of natural increase and declining net outward migration", according to the CSO, "resulting in the current population being almost 70 per cent larger than in 1961".

The majority of Irish emigrants today are young and well-educated, seeking better opportunities and earning potential along with some adventure. The figures fluctuate but the traffic is two-way. We are now back in positive territory with more Irish nationals returning to Ireland than leaving. Going back to the most recent recession, in the six-year period 2008 to 2014, an estimated 228,000 Irish nationals emigrated (out of a total of 480,000 departures) while 108,000 returned (out of 338,000), leaving a net departure figure of 120,000 Irish nationals.

New Ireland
We know the story of Brooklyn. But as much as Ireland is a country of emigrants, it is also now a country of immigrants. One of the most successful Irish films of all time was Oscar-winning Once, the heart-warming story of an Irish busker and a Czech immigrant falling in love through music. This 2007 film showing a young eastern European woman in precarious circumstances trying to get established in Ireland was very close to reality.

Eastern Europeans are heavily represented among the new Irish. The top 10 foreign nationalities in Ireland as recorded in the 2016 census are: 1. Polish (122,515) 2. British (103,113) 3. Lithuanian (36,552) 4. Romanian (29,196) 5. Latvian, (19,933) 6. Brazilian (13,640) 7. Spanish (12,112) 8. Italian (11,732) 9. French (11,661) 10. German (11,531).

Changes on the ground are extraordinary in some places. Ballyjamesduff, 100 kilometres from Dublin in the border county of Cavan, is a small town immortalised in Percy French’s 1912 song of emigration, Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff. Yet the latest census figures show that Ballyjamesduff has the fourth highest immigrant population of all Irish towns, with 30 per cent of its population of 2,869 made up of non-Irish nationals. Newcomers have been attracted by jobs – many in the local meat plant and in mushroom farms – as well as affordable housing and a good quality of life.

The changes can be seen most dramatically in the local secondary school, which has doubled its enrolment in 15 years. On a visit to St Clare’s College, I met a very diverse Transition Year class. Around half were long-term locals, the rest had moved to the Cavan town from Dublin or from overseas. The countries of origin of the students included Poland, Croatia, Botswana, Nigeria, Lithuania and China. The principal Teresa Donnellan remembers the first non-Irish student who joined the school in the late 1990s, a Polish boy. Now there are more than 300 Polish people living in the town, enough to keep a Polish grocery shop going.

Most immigrants to Ireland – some 60 per cent – have third-level education. They are at the beginning or in the middle of their working life. The majority are EU citizens, especially since the EU enlarged by 10 new members in 2004. In terms of how the newcomers are faring, a 2018 ESRI report monitoring the integration of immigrants found that non-Irish nationals were matching Irish nationals on several key economic and social indicators, but that some groups remained disadvantaged.

“In 2016, some 23 per cent of non-Irish nationals were living below the income poverty line (drawn at 60 per cent of median household income) compared to just under 16 per cent of Irish nationals. Consistent poverty rates (the proportion of a group that is income poor and experiencing basic deprivation) were 13 per cent for non-Irish as a whole, compared to 8 per cent for Irish. This rate was very high for non-EU nationals (29 per cent),” the report said.

An accidental emigrant
Before leaving the topic of emigration, I cannot omit my own experience as someone who has lived two thirds of my life in Ireland and one third abroad. What kind of emigrant am I? An accidental one, I would say. There was certainly no master plan. Unemployment was still high when I graduated from university in 1995 and I would have been a prime candidate for emigration then. Working in a low-paid job with no security and no clear prospects, I could have done what my former classmates were doing and looked for opportunities in London, Paris and Moscow.

As it happened, I wasn’t done with Dublin and Dublin wasn’t done with me. Though we didn’t know it, there was an economic boom around the corner and, after four years of casual work in various places, I landed my first actual job contract in 2000. In the end, I emigrated for love after I met a Swiss man. I was still young enough to think I was just trying out a new country, that this would be temporary just like everything else in my life was temporary. Marriage and children changed that state of affairs.

For me, being an emigrant is an ongoing and often taxing condition. I have to practice gratitude and acceptance to work around the losses and gains. Though I'm doing well in Switzerland, I have an Ireland-shaped hole in my heart that no amount of return visits can fill. It turns out, as many emigrants find, leaving Ireland when you are young is easier than returning when you're older. Not just because of the ties of the new country but also in the sense that you never step into the same river twice. The Ireland I lived in is no longer there, however hard I try to recapture it; many returned emigrants can attest to that. Mary Robinson's candle in the window wasn't meant for the likes of me but I too have to resist the pull of self-pity. When I left by ferry last summer after a long stay, pulling out of Cork harbour in the dusk, I would have made a good extra for Brooklyn with my sad face looking back on the country I was about to lose forever, or for a few months anyway.
This is an edited extract from The Naked Irish: Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés, published by Red Stag Books. It is launched this evening at Hodges Figgis, Dawson St, Dublin, at 6pm