What became of the Morrison emigrants?


A decade ago RTÉ followed some of the 40,000 people who left for the US. Now it has gone back for an update, reports Róisín Ingle

Almost 10 years on people still remember the conflict on the couch. Thousands of miles from home, Aideen and Shahram Emdadian appeared on RTÉ television to talk about the changes in their lives five months after leaving Dublin for the US on a Morrison visa.

He was desperately unhappy with the way things had turned out for his wife and two young daughters in the Bay Area of San Francisco and wanted to return home to Tallaght in Dublin. She was determined that the family should give life in the US a chance.

And so a nation not yet jaded by wall-to-wall reality television watched enthralled as husband and wife argued it out on the sofa, the air-conditioned gulf between them seeming to stretch wider than the Grand Canyon.

The Morrison Tapes, which was filmed in 1994 and broadcast the following year, tracked four groups of people who had taken up Morrison visas, which in the early 1990s allowed tens of thousands of Irish people to work in the US. Their stories made riveting viewing, bringing us water-cooler television before we really knew what the phrase meant.

Anyone who saw the series couldn't help but wonder what happened next. Did they succeed or fail, stay or come home, stay together or drift apart? As a result The Morrison Tapes: Ten Years Later, a series of updates on three of the four groups, is expected to attract a curious and sizeable audience when the first programme goes out on RTÉ 1 on Tuesday.

Darragh Byrne was only 24 when he conceived the series, at a time when the boom that followed was just a twinkle in the eye of even the most prescient economists. "I had already made a couple of films and was thinking about going for a Morrison visa myself," he says. "Ireland was a bleak place at the time. Unemployment was around 300,000 in 1993, and for many people, especially young people, the country held few career prospects. Back then America seemed like the promised land."

As he looked for documentary ideas, he realised that the stories of people packing up their lives and leaving for the US were perfect human-interest fodder.

RTÉ had just launched its independent production unit; Byrne says Clare Duignan, its head at the time, took a risk handing a sizeable budget to a relatively inexperienced director and his company, Graph. "I was saved from the boat myself because RTÉ commissioned the programme and gave me work at a time when I thought I might have to emigrate."

Byrne spent three months finding his subjects, scouring the country and writing to newspapers in search of suitable candidates. They received thousands of replies, choosing the people who eventually featured because they were "honest and open and had a story they wanted to tell".

Among them were Charlie Bagnall and Donal White, two men in their early 20s from Co Kildare who said they wanted more from life than a few pints and a game of darts. Back in 1994 most Morrison visas were given to people under 25, so the civil servant and carpenter were ideal.

In the original programme the pair discussed their reasons for leaving, with Bagnall saying he wanted everything the American dream entailed, including the cars, the money and the big house. "If I can get it, great; if I can't, I will keep on trying," he said. They went to New York, but White returned home three months later, as the construction industry was beginning to pick up. Now 33, he runs a joinery business in Kildare and has never regretted the decision.

Bagnall stayed on in Long Island, working as a salesman and playing in a band that he declared, half-seriously, would be bigger than U2. The last we heard of him, on the original documentary, he was speculating a future of 5 a.m. starts and, if things went his way, a garage filled with convertible BMWs.

Ten years later he is happily settled in Exeter, a town in Pennsylvania, with his American wife, Patrice.

Speaking from his home, he says when he emigrated he was looking for the things "every young fella" dreams of. "For me the move was a chance to turn over a new leaf, to start with a clean piece of paper. I felt pigeon-holed in Ireland, and I wanted to try America on for size," he says.

There have been tough times over the past decade, times when he had to search down the back of a sofa to find money for meals, surviving on "two pizzas a week". He's now a US citizen, running his own construction-equipment company, and music is just an enjoyable hobby. "He has realised he is not the up-and-coming U2," says his wife when asked how Bagnall has changed.

After getting married the couple tried to have a baby, undergoing painful fertility treatment. Their subsequent struggle to adopt a child is one of the most moving parts of the programme. "Instead of getting a life of quantity I got a life of quality," says Bagnall, who considers his adopted country home.

But it's seeing how the Emdadian couple's conflict on the couch was resolved that might prove the biggest draw. "The Emdadians' story is in many ways a cautionary tale of a family heading off to pursue the American dream and finding the dream wasn't true for them. They eventually achieved the life they wanted for themselves here, but it was like they needed to leave to find it. . . . America seemed to act as a kind of catalyst," says Darragh Byrne.

Aideen Emdadian, who was born in Co Longford, and her husband, who was born in Iran, now own an Italian restaurant in Talbot Street in Dublin. They returned to Ireland just a few months after the original film was made, settling in Leixlip, Co Kildare.

After the programme they were often recognised in the street. "I was in a shop the day after the programme was aired, and one woman came over to me and started shouting at me and trying to hit me with her handbag. She said I should think myself lucky to have a husband who was looking out for me and my children. I just ran out of the shop," she says, laughing at the memory.

Originally, they had come home from the US only for Christmas, but Shahram pleaded with Aideen to give him six months to find a business they could run in Ireland.

"A week before the six months was up he found the restaurant, and he went back [to the US\] and shipped all our stuff back over. It was very hard when we came back here. I missed America and secretly hoped it wouldn't work out in Ireland, but it did - and here we are. It doesn't feel like 10 years," she says.

For people who remember the way we were, the programme offers a nostalgic look back; younger people will be amazed at how things have changed: Dublin Airport looked like something from the Eastern bloc back then.

"In a very short period of time Ireland became practically unrecognisable from the way it was before," says Byrne. "The jury is still out on exactly what those changes have meant to society - and also on who is better off now: the ones who left for America or the ones who stayed at home."

The Morrison Tapes: Ten Years Later is on RTÉ 1 on Tuesday at 10.15 p.m.

Remember the Morrison visa?

With unemployment hitting its highest recorded level and thousands of Irish immigrants working illegally in the US, Morrison visas were like lifelines for many Irish people in the early 1990s.

The visas - named after Congressman Bruce Morrison, right, - were given away by lottery in 1992, 1993 and 1994, with 16,000 of the 55,000 available being set aside for Irish people each year.

The luxury of a quota was the result of intense political lobbying by Irish- American groups. It was not afforded to the 35 other eligible countries.

In the end the Irish quota was not reached, with some who were awarded visas deciding not to take them up.

But more than 40,000 people, many of them young and unemployed, were given what amounted to passports to new lives over the three years.

Now a public-relations consultant in Washington DC, Morrison says he is proud of the part he played in laws that allowed a diverse range of Irish people to contribute legally to US society.

He has been critical of Irish immigration policy, particularly the citizenship referendum. "Immigration is not charity. We didn't award the visas for the good of the Irish. We did it for the good of America," he says. "\ immigration policy should be based on what is good for Ireland. Immigrants make a contribution and become part of your community. . . . You should not think that you are doing them a favour."