When Ireland called emigrants ‘home to work’, it was too late

We were advised by public servants to leave in 2008. Seven years have passed and we've made new lives abroad

Maria Brown and her boyfriend Keith.

Maria Brown and her boyfriend Keith.

 

In 2007 I had just done a diploma in journalism, met my boyfriend, and was earning good money in Dublin. He was a sheet metal worker and we rented a large apartment near Glasnevin cemetery. We were loving our life.

Once the recession hit, he spent a year unemployed, taking Fás courses, with no sign of things picking up. Having contracted tuberculosis years previously, he required daily medication. Three times during his unemployment his application for a medical card was lost in the system. He was not entitled to rent allowance. My earnings from a recruitment job were in decline and paying the bills, with him on the dole, became a real struggle.

His health was suffering. When he questioned why he couldn’t get a medical card, the social welfare office advised him to think of moving abroad. Each week his Fás course advertised contracts with foreign employers. So we decided to emigrate.

We moved to the Netherlands in 2008 when he made contact with a trades’ employment agency. Unfortunately, the recession followed us to our rural location an hour from Rotterdam.

We took menial work to survive. We rented our home from the trades’ agency, taking every job they sent us. We stacked boxes, worked in factories, collected garbage.

We were alone abroad. We were reliant on and afraid of losing our jobs. Rent was high and wages very low. We were too broke to move back to Ireland. And even if we could, to where and what? Now in our late-20s, should we move in with our respective parents? We were broke and broken. We were losing weight. Life was getting difficult.

“Go to Australia, ” family members advised. Stories suggested it was an employment nirvana. And it was sunny!

But I found it hard to believe in that dream. To uproot again, spend money we didn’t have to move so far away with no guarantee of a permanent visa, and possibly to continue struggling, terrified me. I had lost my emigrant bravery.

We are often told about how hard life was for the Irish who emigrated to America in decades gone by, my own grandmother included. Familiar with these stories and now with one of my own, I knew emigration is not always the best solution. After years of hard, physical labour, we both landed jobs with a zero-hour contract in a call centre in Rotterdam. This allowed us to rent a property in the city. Though we were under constant threat of eviction, and work was just as insecure, I put my head down and did what a frightened Irish person does best: I worked. Within two years I was promoted twice and earned a good contract.

Last July we bought our first home, a spacious two-storey apartment in the centre of Rotterdam. I have found a decent employer with good benefits. We have each embarked on creative projects, music for my boyfriend and writing for me. We finally have a sense of stability.

So when in December Enda Kenny called us “home to work” with an elaborate social media campaign aimed at emigrants, we were offended. We felt unwanted when we were willing contributors to the Irish system and were advised by our own public servants to leave the country. By the time the call came through to come home, it was too late. Seven years had passed. We had made our lives elsewhere.

I would not return because the type of existence I can afford abroad is not viable there. The career trajectory I would need to be on in Ireland to sustain a modest existence is not realistically achievable for me now.

But I would caution against believing emigration is an easy option, or always leads to a better life. Listen to the ways to improve our land from those who have returned home. They bring with them hard-earned lessons. Make Ireland a place where people don’t encourage emigration as a way to survive.

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