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Economics isn’t the only reason emigrants come home. Referendums play a role too

Personal values influence people’s decisions to leave and return, writes Dr Marc Scully

“Wondering how many “so, should we move back” conversations happening around Irish kitchen tables in Britain this weekend?”

So tweeted the Channel 4 reporter Paraic O’Brien in the immediate aftermath of the referendum on the Eighth Amendment in May. Having had that conversation around my own kitchen table in Nottingham two years ago, in the aftermath of the Brexit result, it was not difficult to relate.

For Irish people abroad of a broadly liberal political persuasion, an Ireland that has recently given large majorities to referendums on LGBT and women's rights may seem increasingly attractive, compared to the uncertainties of a Brexit-convulsed Britain, or Trump-era America.

While it is difficult at this stage to predict whether this will lead to a wave of what we might call “values-driven” return migration, it is possible to examine some precedents, both in why people leave Ireland, and what stops them returning.


We have a tendency to view Irish emigration and return migration in purely economic terms. This is understandable: waves of emigration and return have tended to ebb and flow with the economic tides. People left in the 1950s and 1980s, returned during the Celtic Tiger era, and left again post-2008.

But economic drivers of emigration have never told the whole story. As researchers such as Breda Gray and Máirtin Mac an Ghaill have highlighted, gender and sexuality have consistently acted as drivers of emigration from Ireland, independently of the economic situation of the time. Some of these individual migrations were the result of deliberate decisions around self-expression, others were the results of moments of crisis; a proportion could be termed “exile”.

One of the features of the marriage equality referendum was the way it drew attention to the stories of those whose decision to leave Ireland was shaped by their sexuality - stories that continue to be told on the Irish Times Abroad website.

Home to Vote

Similarly, many of the individual stories shared in the run-up to the referendum on the Eighth Amendment focused on the need to leave Ireland to access abortion services, whether temporarily, or more permanently. Ann Rossiter's Ireland's Hidden Diaspora tells the story of Irish migrant women in London who provided assistance and support to women travelling from Ireland to access abortion services throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The diasporic element to the recent repeal campaign was notable through the efforts of groups such as the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign and Speaking of Imelda, as well as the Home To Vote movement, the second such campaign organised by emigrants in as many referendums.

Home to Vote gives an insight into the possibility of values-led return migration. After all, the implicit argument for returning to vote is that this temporary journey home to Ireland will be followed by another, more permanent, one.

Legally, citizens who move abroad can only retain their franchise if their intention is to resume living in Ireland within a period of 18 months. This may be why the Home to Vote movements of both 2015 and 2018 have been so celebrated: they can be seen as an unspoken pact between the nation and its (largely young) recent emigrants that the current generation will come back, and want it to be to an Ireland that is more progressive on issues of gender and sexuality.

A recurring issue for returning emigrants is that of ' reverse culture shock'

But this celebration of the promise of return could mask the structural and psychological difficulties that come with the actual process of return migration. In their research on the popularity of "surprise homecoming" videos on social media, Eleanor O'Leary and Diane Negra have argued that the post-2008 wave of emigration from Ireland differed from previous waves because there was an explicit expectation that those leaving would return when the economic situation improved; itself a legacy of the return migration associated with the Celtic Tiger era.

The cultural celebration of return over the past few years can be seen as marking a cathartic end-point to the traumas of the Great Recession, now used by the Government to promote a narrative of recovery. O’Leary and Negra argue that this glosses over the uneven nature of the recovery, and the fact that not all those who emigrated have the opportunities or the means to return. It also overlooks the fact that as of April 2017, more Irish people continued to leave Ireland than return to it.

Reverse culture shock

Return migration is not guaranteed to be successful, either. Recent reports from groups such as Crosscare Migrant Project have highlighted some of the structural barriers faced by return migrants in attempting to reintegrate to Irish society, particularly in relation to housing, motoring and access to social welfare.

Research on previous generations of Irish return migrants, such as that carried out by Caitriona Ni Laoire, has also highlighted the social and psychological barriers to reintegration faced by return migrants. A recurring theme was that of "reverse culture shock", realising that either the country, or the individual migrant, had changed too much to make reintegration straightforward.

For individuals whose decision to emigrate or return is motivated by values, changing political and social norms in Ireland may be seen as an attraction, rather than a barrier. If it is a sufficiently significant “pull” factor to overcome other structural barriers, we may see a new wave of politically conscious return migrants.

This also raises the possibility that forthcoming return migration (if it transpires) will be of a different order to the return migration of the Celtic Tiger years, which appears to have been more oriented towards “settling back” for family reasons.

In other “emigrant” countries, like China for example, return migrants are often seen as drivers of social change. If the social change we have seen in Ireland in recent years does attract higher levels of return migration, might that become a driver of further social change in itself?

It may be too early to tell, but it is unlikely that the impact of such migrants would be solely an economic one.

Dr Marc Scully is a lecturer in psychology at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, with a special interest in migration and the Irish diaspora. He tweets @marcdonnchadh