Austerity forced me out of Ireland. Now I don’t know how to return

I was 24, top of my year in college, a master’s in my pocket, but I couldn’t get a job in a shop

John O’Donovan: ‘My fear is that I’d come back and the same old style of politics would mean I’d have to emigrate again’.

John O’Donovan: ‘My fear is that I’d come back and the same old style of politics would mean I’d have to emigrate again’.

 

I’m in a long-distance relationship with Ireland, and every visit home I curse austerity for driving us apart. I come back to Ireland a lot now, but every time I visit it means dealing with the same old question: “Would you never think of moving home?” But the real question is “how would I do it?”

I’ve moved countries before so why should I be worried that it’d be harder now? I’ve a great part-time job in London now that frees me to write plays. I rent a tiny flat within my means – it’s mostly not damp so it’s glorious.

Compare that with 2009 when I emigrated. I had no idea what I was doing but I also had nothing left to lose. I’d had potential but austerity stole it as its ransom. I was 24, top of my year in college, an arts degree and a master’s in literature in my pocket, but in Co Clare I couldn’t even get a job in a shop.

Despite the privilege of education, coming from a working-class rural village meant I wasn’t entitled to stay. It made me depressed – I didn’t want to leave Ireland, but it was more possible for me to move to London where there were couches to sleep on than it was to Dublin, where I knew no one and couldn’t find a place to live (and could’ve hardly afforded it anyway).

Growing up in the country, you know you won’t get to stay very long. To do well, you are told, you have to leave for college. There are no universities nearby and there are still not a lot of employment opportunities. About half of economic activity in the country is in Dublin, according to the Ireland 2040 report. It doesn’t make it any easier when the doors closed on us and we all had to emigrate during the recession.

Within three months of arriving in London I’d a job (in a shop), a room to rent, and a prescription for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors(SSRIs). I learned how things work and started saving for unpaid internships in publishing. Within a year I’d my first job and I’ve held onto that career since. I’m usually not depressed anymore. So now I have something to lose.

I get bemused by criticism of “economic migrants”. Politicians blow dog whistles demanding distinction between “deserving” migrants fleeing danger and those moving for a better life. Every time I read that I think - “What?”

Economic migrants are also fleeing danger. Economics are dangerous. The National Suicide Research Foundation reports increased suicide rates linked to unemployment during the recession, and the Irish Medical Journal shows a stalled and lower-than-projected life expectancy in ageing populations for the same period.

When I say I moved to London for “a better life,” it disguises the fact that, had I stayed, there’d have been no life left to better. Working-class but out of work, I was at risk, part of a generation specifically targeted by austerity - cutting dole, freezing wages and prohibiting new hires.

Moving to London saved my life. I say that honestly and I don’t particularly like the place (soz, London).

But if leaving saved me, would coming back do the opposite? Would the persistent lack of jobs mean crowding into Dublin? Would I again be priced out, left unemployed and depressed, back in my own personal 2009?

When I think about returning, I worry. I worry about low pay and high rent. A decade or more after recession and from what I see, things haven’t changed - housing is still the preserve of landlords, who, as of the latest budget, are to be funded more than local authorities.

Meanwhile, I see contemporary artists emigrating again, even now. The promised arts funding didn’t come - it never comes.

They say the fear of the emigrant is that they leave and everything changes. My fear is that I’d come back and the same old style of politics would mean I’d have to emigrate again.

While that’s niggling away, my new play had opened. Flights is set in Ennis and features lads who stayed. In conversations about it, I’m surprised how often city dwellers describe the characters as being “trapped in their hometown”.

Don’t get me wrong, the characters are trapped, but by other things - one by negative equity, one by a loveless relationship he’s enduring because he splits the rent with his girlfriend, and one by imminent homelessness - but trapped in their hometown?

No one in Clare gets trapped in their hometown - isn’t there’s an airport in Shannon?

We’re more likely to be evicted, excluded by an absence of schools or jobs, or kicked out by a lack of regional development.

The recession is over, but austerity trundles on gleefully and the economics that drove us from the country, which inflates housing costs, and empty our villages and crowd our cities to bursting, still continue.

If there’s a trap, it’s not the one that keeps you home, it’s the one that stops you staying; it’s the one that reserves houses for the offspring of the wealthy, and rentals for those with jobs that happen to pay well (for now). It’s the trap that shuts up shops and bars the way of newcomers and the returning.

So, ask me again, “would I never think of moving home?” The truth is, I think about it constantly. I’m just completely at a loss as to how to answer.

Playwright John O’Donovan’s new play Flights is on at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin until February 8th, and has its London premiere on February 11th to 29th at Omnibus Theatre.

*If you are affected by any of the issues raised, you can contact Samaritans’ free helpline on 116-123, text 087-2609090 or email jo@samaritans.ie; or call the free Pieta House 24-hour suicide helpline on 1800-247247 or text HELP to 51444.

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