People have always migrated, from islands to mainlands, from colonies to imperial heartlands. Often they have done so in challenging circumstances, struggling to make a living in places where others have made the rules and defined the dominant culture.
Traditionally departure was seen as a tragic loss. The emigrant was pictured as leaving for good while looking back to the cherished homeland, yearning to return. Are matters different for the current generation? If they are, how might we think about Irish emigration today?
New technologies and methodologies have made it easier to research the topic. At University College Cork we conducted a national representative survey in 2012-13, combined with online surveys and interviews, to profile emigrants.
Now the Irish Times Generation Emigration Survey brings the picture up to date and enables us to ask how today's emigrant generation have fared since the crisis of 2008; whether they are thinking of returning as the economy recovers; and how they see the future.
Today’s Generation Emigration – confident, well educated and grounded – are different. Most have third-level education – 65 per cent, compared with 62 per cent in the UCC survey but with much lower figures for earlier generations – and virtually all have a skill, qualification or trade.
They are older when leaving, although about 30 per cent of those in the UK and Australia or New Zealand are under 25. This is different from the 1950s, when substantial numbers of emigrants were teenagers.
A notable feature of those surveyed is that most had jobs in Ireland before they left, something also borne out in the UCC survey. It costs money to emigrate: research in Cork in 2014 suggests that 60 per cent of emigrants had access to at least €2,500 and most had more than €5,000 before leaving.
Many were in jobs that offered poor pay or limited prospects. The picture is one of people making strategic and careful decisions before leaving, although a minority in the Irish Times survey, notably those who had been unemployed, felt that they were forced to leave. The largest number of this group went to the UK.
Irrespective of their pre-departure experience, almost all of those surveyed got work once abroad. The vast majority felt that their jobs were better abroad than in Ireland.
Those who left in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 crisis were more likely to cite finding work or getting a better job as their main reason for going.
Fewer recent emigrants cite the need to find work as their primary motive, suggesting that the sense of urgency generated by the crisis has abated somewhat.
Today’s emigrants are also increasingly settled: considerable numbers are married, have children, and own a house or apartment. Their careers are advancing and they are, in general, doing well.
Another key feature of the findings of the Irish Times survey is what might broadly be described as connectedness. A high number of respondents keep up with Irish news and current affairs, have an interest in sport and culture, take part in Irish community activities, are in constant contact with family and friends via social media, and visit Ireland frequently.
This raises an intriguing question. If you can carry your Irishness with you, and if you are that much in touch with home, does that lessen the need or desire to go home?
There are those in the present wave of emigrants who would have preferred to stay in Ireland and who might like to return, but they will not do so unless convinced that opportunities are available for them.
But for most of today’s emigrants home is where they are now. We should forge stronger relations with them in our own interests as well as in theirs.
Piaras Mac Éinrí is a geographer at University College Cork