Uncertainty around lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic forced Aiden, a bar and restaurant worker from Donegal living as a undocumented worker in San Francisco, to switch careers.
He was making good money, more than $100,000 (€85,000) a year in hospitality, but that came in tips, and when the customers disappeared during Covid, so did Aiden’s income.
Being a prolific saver helped tide him over for several months but another lockdown last November meant covering the following month’s rent was a concern.
He used his contacts in the Irish community to find a new job in the construction sector. The Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre in San Francisco has provided much-needed support in the city to many in a similar situation to Aiden’s.
“I know so many people in the same boat as myself who moved out of the city into cheaper areas or moved home or to Canada or somewhere where they had family,” says Aiden.
“I just happened to be decent at saving but for anybody else you are really only one bad break away from living paycheck to paycheck.”
Aiden, who is in his 30s and has been living in San Francisco for nine years, says that a move home was “in the back of my mind as weeks of lockdown turned into months” but it was not his “first, second or third choice”; he has built a good life in the US.
Although he pays tax in California, as an undocumented worker he has not been entitled to the unemployment benefits or stimulus payments his fellow documented workers enjoyed.
Being undocumented, returning home to Ireland before Covid was difficult if not impossible. During the pandemic the isolation was even more keenly felt because of worldwide travel restrictions.
“My fiancée’s grandmother died during the pandemic. She would have loved to have gone home,” he said.
Financial insecurity has been the most severe impact felt by Irish emigrants abroad during the pandemic, particularly among people made redundant or ineligible for state unemployment payments, according to a new report on the experiences of Irish emigrant communities during the pandemic.
The Crosscare Migrant Project, a support service for migrants and part of the care agency of Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese, found that financial uncertainty hurt undocumented Irish emigrants or those on temporary visas the most.
Many Irish emigrants are casual workers in hospitality and are among the first to lose work in lockdowns; their immigration status means they do not qualify for income or social welfare supports.
"There is a lot of risk for them there: do they stay or do they come home? Do they lose out on a career and a life they have built, and what kind of supports do they get if they come back to Ireland?" says Danielle McLaughlin, Crosscare's Irish abroad networking officer.
The report – titled “Ní neart go cur le chéile: Irish emigrant community experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic” – captures how the pandemic has affected the Irish overseas, taking in the perspectives of emigrant groups in the UK, US, Australia and Canada at the frontline of providing much-needed support to Irish people in difficulty abroad.
Cathy Murphy, executive director of the Eamonn O’Loghlin Irish Canadian Immigration Centre in Toronto, says many Irish contacted their service because they were on temporary work permits and chose to stay on but were not granted work permit extensions.
“Many seeking permanent residency could not get the required documents in time due to serious pandemic-related delays to avoid of bridge permits. They fell out of status and contacted us in crisis,” she said.
In Australia, the closure of the country’s borders and stringent travel restrictions left many Irish feeling isolated and alone, with an increased feeling of homesickness, not knowing when they would be able to fly back to Ireland.
“No one moves to the other side of the world thinking that they will be unable to return to Ireland. The fact that there is no date in sight for the international borders to open is causing people a lot of distress,” said Nicola Holly, president of the Irish Australian Support Association of Queensland, an organisation set up in 2007 to support Irish and Irish Australian families.
One emigrant, Gerald Faulkner (69), last visited Ireland in May 2019 and accepts that it could be some time before he sees his son in London or daughter in Dublin because of the travel restrictions in New South Wales where he is living.
There is “huge unhappiness” among the Irish in Australia at the inability to get home, he says. “It’s like being sent to a penal colony all over again and revisits the days of old when deportees were sent to Van Diemen’s land. The tyranny of distance is very much present right now, and the frustration of Australian government rulings on travel is harrowing,” he said.
Faulkner has a cousin who flew home for her mother’s funeral and has been stranded in England since December 2020. Each attempt to fly back has been stymied by flight cancellations due to the restrictions on the number of people allowed to fly to Australia.
Nicola Holly says it has been “absolutely heartbreaking” seeing Irish people in Australia miss the funerals of parents at home. This has had a knock-on effect on their mental wellbeing.
“The stress of being so far from home, with no end date in sight, coupled with economic uncertainty, has seen a huge increase in mental health issues. Since the pandemic, we have seen a huge increase in people that require access to mental health support,” said Holly.
The Crosscare report found that isolation, wellbeing and mental health were the main challenges for older and vulnerable emigrants, while immigration insecurity has been a major challenge for temporary workers in Australia, Canada and the US.
“Less dominant but concerning challenges included health vulnerability, homelessness and domestic violence,” the report says.
Anne Wayne, coordinator of the Claddagh Association, a support group in Western Australia, says many in the Irish community are more at risk of isolation, loneliness and mental health pressures than they ever have been before.
“Many feel guilty about not being able to get back to Ireland for important family rituals or funerals,” she said.
Even in the countries that have managed Covid-19 better than most, the impact is still felt.
Marc Haughey and his partner Judith ventured to New Zealand for the backpacker experience in 2018 and have since found jobs, but they have no ability to buy a house or really settle there because New Zealand has closed all visa options for anyone not a resident to stay.
“It feels like we are in limbo and Immigration NZ aren’t budging,” he says.
They count themselves lucky to have spent the pandemic in a “beautiful part of the world that has been largely unaffected,” says Haughey (29), who is from Belfast.
“But the time for us to make a decision around our future is looming – Ireland or New Zealand – and more things are starting to pull us home than keep us here.”
For others, the pull to return home lands as an urgent personal crisis and considerable trauma.
Paula Cobain, coordinator of the Irish Support Agency in Sydney, says she and her staff have been working 15-hour days and weekends “determined to be a voice rather than an answer machine” as they take calls from Irish people “distraught with worry about what to do”.
Among those they have helped are people getting “that call from home they have been quietly dreading.”
“The personal stories are heartbreaking,” she says.