Five years of emigration: 1,000+ stories from the Irish abroad

As Generation Emigration expands to Irish Times Abroad, we look back on five years of emigrant stories

 

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Eileen Burke had just turned 60 in early 2012 when she and her husband Seamus became “the oldest backpackers in Canada”, leaving their home and grown-up family in Galway to move to Canada for the third time in their lives.

The couple’s construction business, which had employed 15 people at its peak, had fallen victim to the downturn. Their house was remortgaged to service the debts before they left for Vancouver, where Seamus was hoping to find carpentry work on the building sites.

They moved into a shared house with four other Irish in their 20s, determined to give the move their best shot.

Eileen was one of the first people I interviewed for the Generation Emigration series in this newspaper, just weeks after the couple departed; I have often thought of them since.

This week, as we prepared to expand Generation Emigration into Irish Times Abroad (more of which below), I sent Eileen an email to ask how and where they were. Five weeks ago, she replied, after four and a half years in Vancouver, they had arrived back in Galway; this time hopefully for good.

“We made wonderful lifelong friendships, enjoyed the laid-back outdoorsy lifestyle, the weather and landscape with real enthusiasm, and have to say was one of the best experiences of our lives,” she wrote. “But we greatly missed our family, friends and particularly our six grandchildren. We are back for good now.”

Although Eileen and Seamus are older than the typical “recession emigrant”, if there can be such a thing, their reasons for leaving, and returning as the economy and their own personal circumstances improve again, are fairly characteristic of Generation Emigration, and how things have changed over the past five years.

Grip of recession

When the Generation Emigration blog went live on irishtimes.com back in October 2011, the grip of recession was at its tightest. Unemployment in Ireland had soared to 15.1 per cent, the highest rate in 17 years, and the country was haemorrhaging people.

Emigration, which had lagged a little behind the rocketing unemployment rate for the first few years of the crisis, was now the default option for Irish people who found themselves out of work or underemployed.

More than 46,000 Irish people left the country that year alone; the rate was to climb even higher in the following 12 months.

We had no idea what the reaction would be when we put the call out for emigrant stories to share on the new blog. Would anyone respond? Was there any desire to talk back to Ireland once these people left?

We thought the section could run for a few months at most, provided there was enough interest, but as the emails from readers offering to write or be interviewed first trickled, then poured in, it became increasingly clear we had hit upon a topic that there was an insatiable appetite to discuss.

In five years, Generation Emigration has published more than 1,000 pieces written by readers online, and interviewed hundreds more. Looking back through that archive of stories, themes and changing trends in opinion emerge which tell a story of their own.

For the first few months especially, the stories we received were full of frustration about a lack of voice here in Ireland once they moved away, and anger over the economic circumstances which had, in the majority of cases, forced them to go against their will.

Of all the emails I’ve read and people I’ve interviewed for the section over the past five years, it is the stories of couples and families torn apart when one partner or parent had to emigrate for work alone that have stuck with me most; and there were plenty of them in those early years.

There were also stories of hope, resilience and admirable fortitude. Many of the writers and interviewees were faced with crippling debts – business closures, redundancy and mortgage arrears were all common themes – yet by making the decision to go, often leaving behind the people and places they loved most, they showed a remarkable determination to make a better life for themselves and their families.

Engaged

While the site was originally aimed at young people, the views and advice of older emigrants who have been living abroad for a longer period of time quickly became a very valuable component, and we were happily surprised by how engaged previous generations of emigrants have been.

Not all emigrants leave by necessity of course, even during economic recession, and we’ve published hundreds of stories of Irish people who have made the decision to move for adventure, for love, for a better job, or simply for the experience of living somewhere different for a while.

As the years have passed, these “voluntary emigrant” stories have overtaken those about forced migration, and that sense of desperation and anger so common back in 2011/12 features much less now.

The exception is among young people especially, who are still emigrating in large numbers, due to a combination of high rents and living costs and the expectation on them to work in unpaid or low-wage roles with little job security.

Almost 32,000 Irish people moved abroad in the 12 months to April, the most recent Central Statistics Office figures show, proving that for many, the opportunities abroad are still more attractive than what is on offer in Ireland for them right now.

Their reasons for leaving are changing, however. Just one in 10 were unemployed before departure, up from one in six the previous year, indicating an increase in “voluntary” migration.

The tide of emigration has begun to turn, however. The number of Irish-born emigrants returning to live in Ireland from abroad jumped a staggering 74 per cent in the year to April, to 21,100. Stories about returning to Ireland are becoming more and more common on Generation Emigration, and are often the most popular reads among our audience both in Ireland and still overseas.

Changing times

In total, more than 300,000 Irish people have emigrated since 2008. While many of these “recession emigrants” have already moved back, or are planning to do so, many more are putting down deeper roots overseas.

A survey by Ipsos MRBI for The Irish Times in July found the majority of post-2008 emigrants were happier abroad than they were in Ireland, with better wages, better career opportunities and better lifestyles. One in five said they don’t ever see themselves returning to live in Ireland.

This period in Irish economic history has drastically changed the Irish diaspora. As the Irish economy recovers, the needs and interests of the Irish abroad are changing again, and The Irish Times is reacting to this by expanding the Generation Emigration section into a broader service – Irish Times Abroad – for the estimated 770,000 Irish-born and many more Irish-connected people around the world.

As well as the ever-popular first-person Generation Emigration stories, readers will now find more news, business, sports, opinion, culture and lifestyle content of special interest to those living outside Ireland, with a special focus on working abroad opportunities and experiences.

By joining the new Irish Times Abroad Network, readers can provide us with a little more information about themselves, which will allow us to contact them should we need an Irish perspective on current affairs where they live.

It will also allow them to contribute their opinions and experiences more easily, and to keep up to date with our best journalism for the Irish abroad.

The Generation Emigration series so far has been a success because of our readers’ contributions, and for this we are very grateful.

We are hoping to continue this into the future with the new Irish Times Abroad Network.

irishtimes.com/abroad

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