‘No way in hell would I move back to Ireland’: Emigrant builders have their say

Thousands of workers are needed but housing and a possible crash are concerns

The number of people working in the construction sector in Ireland has jumped by 14 per cent, or 17,900 jobs, in the past 12 months, but Ireland will need an influx of workers from abroad to meet housing targets, according to the ESRI. This may put even more pressure on an already strained housing market, however, and worries about another property crash is putting some construction workers off moving here from abroad, according to one major building company.

Irish Times Abroad asked construction workers who had emigrated during the recession for their views. Do they see opportunity? Have they already moved home, or are they considering it? If not, what’s keeping them away? Here’s what they had to say.

Gary O’Shaughnessy, Western Australia

I moved to Australia in 2011 with my now wife Rachel. I am an electrician and had been made redundant in January 2011. Rachel had qualified as a planner at UCC in 2010 but could not get a paying job. So we decided to move to Australia to pay off a couple of loans and enjoy a life-changing experience. We settled in Perth, where I work in the mining industry, and Rachel is a project manager for a utilities company.

Our original dream was to move back to Ireland after five years, but that hasn’t happened. We have discussed moving back, but unfortunately we see a large amount of obstacles: housing availability, job prospects outside of Dublin, cost of car insurance, and the general high cost of living. I feel let down by the current Government’s lack for action on these problems faced by returning emigrants. Some day things may change, but for now, we are not returning.


Mark Mitchell, Toronto, Canada

I am working as a civil engineer in Toronto. Low pay, high taxes, lack of affordable housing are the main factors preventing me from coming home. Also, lack of opportunities outside of Dublin is an issue. Toronto is booming at the moment, which means a high demand for construction workers, so wages are much higher here.

Paul Neary, Australia

I’ve been living in Australia 14 years. I’m a qualified carpenter/joiner, and currently a site supervisor with a commercial builder. Unless the healthcare system, housing market and wages were right I wouldn’t return. Ireland is beautiful country with great people, but God forbid if the country goes into recession again because it will take 100 years before it will ever recover.

John Clancy, New Zealand

I have been giving a lot of thought to heading back to Ireland to work and am currently looking for opportunities in the construction management sector of either residential or commercial. I have been living and working in New Zealand for commercial group home builders in the timber framed light materials construction market, and feel the market in Ireland could benefit in this type of construction method.

Patrick Reilly

I had to leave Ireland eight years ago for work but have returned as have small family. The problem with Ireland, even during the so-called boom years, is childcare. It’s like having a second mortgage, and if both parents working it is difficult. More should be done to fix this, as this is one the main reasons young families struggle. To take jobs here in Ireland there needs to be a minimum threshold, or it’s not worth it.

Peter Byrne, London, UK

I'm an Irish electrician who moved to London in 1984. I would move back, except: 1) Rents are too expensive; 2) I've seen what happens when you get a large influx of foreign workers coming to work in construction. It leads to deskilling of trades, gangs of men working for lower rates cutting out local tradesmen who can't afford to work for the lower money because of family, mortgages, and bills. There would have to be tough regulation to make sure union rates for tradesmen such as electricians, carpenters and plumbers were protected, and a clamp down on exploitation of foreign workers by their own employers. Where will everyone live while they are building more houses? There's not enough at the moment.

Philippa Armstrong, UK

My husband is an architect who has been employed in the construction industry for most of his career as a design manager, working on large scale commercial projects. He would love to move back home to Ireland but has tried and failed to find work. We therefore remain in the UK where the construction industry continues to flourish. It is very frustrating.

Gareth Fitzsimons, Perth, Australia

I have been living in Oz for seven years. I am moving home soon to be around family and friends, and to give Ireland another go. I am a plumber by trade and the wage I am on here meets all my demands. I can pay my rent, get my weekly shopping, buy petrol for my car, and socialise, all while putting savings away.

But at home, wages aren’t meeting the demands of those living in the country. The price of rent and housing is madness, as is car insurance. You cannot save money; you are simply living week to week. I cannot understand why the Government has not learned from the greed and mistakes of the past. How can a person, or even a couple with kids, afford to pay rent and do their weekly shopping, pay other basic bills, and try save for a deposit for a mortgage? It’s impossible on the wages people are receiving. The reason people think it’s going to crash again is the greed from landlords. Everyone is out for a quick buck before it bursts.

I hope it works out for me and my wife when we go home.

Patrick Wagner, Newmarket, Canada

I am 30 years old and from a rural town in Western Pennsylvania. I started as a labourer for a general contractor in Pennsylvania when I was 15, working for a small family-owned company. I worked during summer vacations and after school, until I went full-time after graduating from university. After working on a hospital project in Brasilia, Brazil, I moved to Canada to be with my now fiancée from Cork. I have been here for a year and a half working as a carpenter for a custom home builder.

I am familiar with the housing crisis in Ireland, due to my avid listening to the RTE radio app. I listen to Morning Ireland, Drivetime, LiveLine and Ryan Tubridy, which paint a very grim picture for people looking for accommodation. From lack of housing, outrageous rental costs and lack of financing options, the reports make Ireland look very uninviting.

That said, the housing situation in the Greater Toronto Area isn’t much better. Some of the same “grim” pictures are found here as well. Of the people I know, my age and older, none own a home, rent is expensive and the market is very competitive. Paying premium prices for small, basement apartments, or just getting lucky, seems to be the norm.

The other day I was listening to a gentleman on RTE saying it’s a Catch-22 in Ireland with the demand for migrant workers, but lack of housing for them. There is no sense of a solution. Sustainability is key for any industry, and with the continued need for homes, there will be a continued need for builders to build them, and I see opportunity. My fiancée and I are thinking of moving “back” to Ireland anyway for various reasons, and the potential need for more workers in construction is encouraging.

Anthony Howley, Switzerland

I moved to Switzerland in 2011 after my earning potential was reduced by 75 per cent. Would I move back to Ireland to work in construction? 100 per cent no. Although my family still live in Ireland, the next move will probably be that my wife will move to Switzerland.

Niall O’Hara, Berlin, Germany

I am a certified civil engineer. No way in hell would I move back to Ireland. Rent is too high, housing is not realistic. Quality of life is dismal. Cost of childcare. Daily commute… I'll stay in Germany.

Fintan Downes, New Zealand

Back in the late 1960s I recall sitting in the back of a van traveling from Cavan to Ardee leaving early and returning late. Putting in 14-hour days was not so bad, but the holes in the bottom of the van with the dust coming up that kept making me sick was the last straw; when my employers were informed the just laughed it off. It was then I decided to emigrate to New Zealand, and what a refreshing change that was. Here was a place where employers treated their employees with respect and where you felt valued. Needless to say I never returned.

Sean Collins, Auckland, New Zealand

I am an Irish tradesman living in New Zealand for five years now. Like most people abroad I battle that question about moving home. I think a lot of Irish people abroad realise it is not a good time to move back. Regardless of the good job you might get, you are really up against it with rental prices around the bigger cities.

Eoin Baxter, Christchurch, New Zealand

Last time I had a job in construction in Ireland was the summer of 2008 during college, when I was studying civil engineering. When I finished my degree the only jobs on offer were internships, where the wages hardly covered your travel expenses. In 2014 I moved to Christchurch to work on the earthquake rebuild. I started off laboring, and after a year I got an engineering job with a tier 1 contractor. I moved on to work on the rebuild project in North Canterbury following the November 2016 earthquake.

I love working here. I often think about moving home, but the salaries and the cost of living put me off. My salary package here exceeds what’s on offer at home. This year I had a serious accident which left me out of work for six months, and the appeal of going home has increased. My parents had to fly over, and luckily my brother was living here at the time. But if I were to have an accident like that at home I don’t think I’d receive the same level of care, and I could still be off work, barely scraping by. The ACC system here covers all your medical treatment, including rehab and 80 per cent of your wages. I am going home for Christmas this year, but it won’t be a permanent stay. I do think I will return sometime in the next few years, but now is not the right time.

Michael Kavanagh, Vancouver, Canada

I would move back to Ireland, but only with some conditions: If I didn’t lose my right to free education and to upskill myself like any other Irish citizen; didn’t lose my right to vote, and have to re-register to do so on return; if it was worth my while to move back to my hometown of Dublin city, if it wasn’t unaffordable for most. There are many more little things I’ve lost, just by emigrating. It truly feels like Ireland has abandoned me and others like me all over the world.

Diarmuid Barry, London, UK

I graduated with a degree in civil and environmental engineering in 2009. I went travelling for a year with some friends, then moved to London to work full-time as a graduate site engineer. I worked in pipelines, then worked in pre-qualification and estimating for 12 months. I then worked in a design office, before going back working on site. I moved to the rail department and continued to progress. I have saved a relatively large deposit and I am currently in the (protracted) process of buying a house in Ireland. I am also doing interviews with the aim of moving back to Ireland early next year.