Is the image of Irish emigrants as tragic exiles still fit for purpose?

Emigration fell in 2014, but remains a stubborn fact of Irish life

Home for Christmas: Joseph Callaghan is welcomed home from Canada by his wife Elaine  at Dublin Airport last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Home for Christmas: Joseph Callaghan is welcomed home from Canada by his wife Elaine at Dublin Airport last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times


The most recent migration statistics, published this year by the Central Statistics Office, show some intriguing trends in Irish migration. The usual public and political focus is on gross emigration figures. The year ending March 2013 showed the highest single gross emigration figure, at more than 89,000, in more than a century. It eclipsed the highest year for the 1980s generation of emigrants, in 1988-9, when 70,600 left the country. Admittedly, the population was smaller then: 3.5 million compared with 4.6 million today; the equivalent emigration rate to that of 1988-9, in today’s terms, would be almost 93,000.

There are other striking differences between the current figures and earlier periods. The most obvious one is the composition of emigrants. For the most recent period, ending March 2014, the total figure of almost 82,000 – down from the previous year – was about half Irish and half non-Irish. By contrast, in the earlier period, almost all emigrants were Irish.

A second factor concerns migration flows into Ireland, including return Irish migration flows. The outward flow for the year ending March 2014 was offset by an overall inward one of 60,600 – up by almost 5,000 from the previous year – meaning the net figure for outward migration was just over 21,000. By contrast, in 1988-9, the excess of emigrants over immigrants was almost 44,000.

CSO statistics also show that 11,600 Irish people returned home in 2013-4, a fall on the 15,700 returning Irish migrants the previous year. Undoubtedly, these included a number of Irish whose short-term visas had simply expired.

But the figure for inward flows also includes substantial numbers of migrants from “old” and “new” EU member states, as well as people from other countries, who continue to arrive in recession-struck Ireland.

A few other figures stand out. One striking one is the overall size of the population. In the late 1980s this began to fall, after a period of strong growth from 1961 onwards, when the population was only 2.88 million after a catastrophic and continuing fall from the Famine to the 1950s, reaching a more modern low of 3.5 million in 1990.

Pre-Famine population

Trends suggest that Ireland may recover its pre-Famine population levels sometime after the middle of the century. This is the outcome not purely of migration but also of the natural, birth-driven increase in the population. Birth rates reached a high of 77,200 in 2010, falling to a still-healthy projected 67,700 for 2014.

While this is one factor behind the increasing demands that will be made of the education system in the coming years, it is also very encouraging in the context of an ageing Europe where those leaving the workplace are not being matched by the numbers of younger people coming up. Ireland will, in time, experience the challenges of a high ratio of retired people to those at work, but they will not be anything like as difficult as those faced by most of our EU neighbours. In other words, we’re quite a healthy society.

How does one interpret these confusing statistics? A few tentative comments can be made.

Perhaps the first is the sheer persistence of emigration as a default option for Irish people. It would be fair to describe the decision to emigrate as a normal choice, in the sense that decades and even centuries of habit have made it so, in a way that is simply not the case in many other developed countries. Only about 3 per cent of people in the world today (give or take another 10-20 per cent of that figure who are undocumented) live outside the countries in which they were born.

It is also striking that in the case of European “austerity” countries, some, such as Ireland and Portugal, are likely to experience high emigration whereas others, such as Greece and Italy, have much lower rates.

In considering Irish emigration figures, the gross numbers of those leaving increased dramatically after the collapse of the Irish economy in 2008. It seems reasonable to conclude that most of that extra number consisted of people who, given a choice, would have stayed here. Yet it is equally important to point out that even in the good times the numbers leaving annually never fell below 25,000 or so, and even in the bad times the numbers returning or coming here as immigrants since 2000 never fell below 42,000.

None of this excuses the complacency of successive politicians of nearly all parties who have described emigration as a “lifestyle choice” or sought in other ways to minimise the impact of emigration on Irish society.

It is to be hoped that the appointment, for the first time, of a Minister for the Diaspora, in Jimmy Deenihan – a man deeply interested in this topic – marks a real change and offers a real possibility of creative policy initiatives.

That second point – the number of immigrants still arriving here – leads to a second observation. A portion of the inward flow consists of returning Irish migrants. This is falling, however, and that is unlikely to change.

Research carried out at University College Cork by myself and others through the Emigre project in 2012-3 – the first representative survey of Irish emigration carried out across the whole country – suggests that most of the present generation of emigrants are well educated, ambitious and, by and large, doing well in their new countries.

Insofar as they may or may not be willing to return, they are now measuring their future prospects, compared to those of “traditional” emigrants, by a higher set of standards and expectations, usually benchmarked against those countries in which they currently find themselves.

A marked number of those to whom we spoke in our survey had left jobs in Ireland to emigrate and were evaluating their prospects of return (if they intended to at all) by more stringent criteria about job prospects, rates of pay, quality of life and other indicators.

Even then, of the 40 per cent who said they would like to return (compared with the 50 per cent of the 1980s generation who did return) only about half of that number – 20 per cent of the overall sample – felt it was likely that they would actually come back.

This leads me to a third observation. Cities, like my own one of Cork, are now home to vibrant migrant communities. Next to the Irish, the Polish community is now the largest ethnic community in Ireland, eclipsing even our British neighbours. Some Poles have left since the crisis, but many are here to stay. They include young families with children at local schools.

I know something about these new communities, not least because I have been working on immigration as well as emigration for more than 20 years and have several wonderful students carrying out research on the topic.

Let’s consider one: Malgorzata Wrzesniewska. Her PhD research looks at young Poles like herself, in Cork. She began her career in a junior catering role after Polish accession, in 2004, enabled her to come to Ireland. Now she manages a local restaurant, having done her primary degree at Cork Institute of Technology before coming to UCC to undertake doctoral research on Poles in Cork.

Two-tier labour market

The difference between Wrzesniewska and her Irish equivalent is not one of talent, qualifications or education but, perhaps, of expectation. For her Irish equivalents there is the sense of familiarity that the English-speaking world represents for would-be Irish migrants, and the embedded sense of the ease of the choice to leave and the many ways in which effective Irish networking eases the process of moving.

That is not to say that emigration is an option available to all. Our research showed that almost 60 per cent of emigrants had at least €2,500 available to them (two-thirds of those had more than €5,000) before leaving. Some may have left against their will. Others might have wished to but could not.

Today’s generation of Irish emigrants are very different from their predecessors. Most are well educated, and most will do well. Most are not leaving now because of their sexual orientation, or because they are unmarried and pregnant, or because they are disadvantaged.

They do not have to cope with the views of Patrick Pearse, for instance, who saw the emigrant as “a traitor to the Irish state and if he knew but all, a fool in the bargain” (a view he later repudiated).

They do not have to cope with the racist prejudices of the 19th-century United States or 20th-century Britain towards the Irish. They are no longer stereotyped as navvies or nurses – not that there is anything wrong with either of these two honourable occupations.

That leaves a question. Is the received folklore of emigrants – as tragic exiles and victims – still appropriate, still fit for purpose? Today’s emigrants are much better equipped to fend for themselves.

Other issues relating to the modern emigration experience cannot be addressed in full here. A key one is the impact of emigration on rural Ireland. Most Irish people now live in urban centres, but in rural areas 25 per cent of families have experienced the departure of at least one emigrant since 2008. This raises a series of key questions about the survival of rural Ireland. There is little evidence of Government concern.

My own view is that we should now seek to embrace and to honour the Irish diaspora in all of its complexity and diversity, including those who were not previously visible and those who do not fit into the stereotypical view.

As a people we have had a disproportionate influence around the world. It’s not just missionaries, or aid workers, or UN troops, or the Irish in places such as Argentina and Quebec, as well as better-known communities in North and South America and the Antipodes. In Britain, the Irish contribution to popular music, from Morrissey to the Pogues, hardly needs stating.

There is, of course, a dark side as well: the Irish as colonisers and imperialists. We don’t have a saintly history – let’s tell all of the stories.

By getting away from stereotypes and received ideas we can also evoke the entire complexity of our emigrant history. Necessarily, if we are to do that, we must also embrace other diasporas in Ireland itself. In time they will become part of the warp and weft of a complex and mixed history.

In any new attempt to construct a relationship between Ireland and its diaspora – and this has been a key objective for more than 20 years, since the inauguration as president of Mary Robinson – we need to embrace the diaspora in its entirety. It’s not just the great and the good, the wealthy and the well connected. It’s a swathe of complex and diverse communities, interventions, connections and hybrid relationships.

We should investigate and acknowledge all of them, in all of their complexity. And we should not forget those who paid a price for their exclusion from this society.

Dr Piaras Mac Éinrí teaches in the Department of Geography and Institute for Social Sciences at University College Cork

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