Recovery and return: the view from abroad

Fewer emigrants than expected are returning to Ireland. But the economic situation is only one factor in people’s decision to stay abroad or move home

Downward curve: Western Australia is seeing a slowdown in mining. Photograph: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Downward curve: Western Australia is seeing a slowdown in mining. Photograph: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

 

The number of Irish people returning to live in their native country last year was a lot lower than many anticipated. Just 12,100 Irish moved back in the 12 months to April, up a mere 4 per cent on the previous year despite significant improvements in the jobs market in Ireland, according to figures published by the Central Statistics Office.

But representatives working with Irish people in the main destination countries for recent emigrants expect the numbers moving home to increase in the months and years to come.

Eimear Beattie, president of the Irish Families in Perth social network, says the recent downturn in the mining industry in Western Australia has had a huge impact on the Irish community there.

“Many emigrated out here with a five-year plan, a ‘make hay while the sun shines’ mantra. They had no choice, because they were unemployed at home, but never imagined living permanently in Australia,” she says.

“Young families find it especially hard being away from grandparents and their family-and-friends support network. Western Australia gave them the promise of great job opportunities and high salaries. The slump in the mining industry has put an end to much of this, and this is why many Irish are returning home . . . while the young single twentysomethings are heading to the east coast or New Zealand. ”

Returning to Ireland is a hot topic in the organisation’s Facebook group, which has more than 9,500 members. “Many of the new emigrant families own a house in Ireland, and some have mortgages in arrears. Many of them are homesick but are waiting until they are certain of job opportunities in Ireland before returning,” she says.

Australia has seen a huge decline in popularity with Irish migrants. Just 7,500 people moved there from Ireland in the 12 months to April, down from 10,000 the previous year and 18,200 in 2011-12.

Barry Corr, the chief executive of the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce, says the Irish who are still coming are much more prepared than in previous years, and the number of “emergency” arrivals is in decline.

“They are choosing Australia because of the career-development opportunities it presents, the lifestyle and the opportunity to experience a different working environment.”

Career prospects are good for Irish professionals in Australia, but Corr believes many of them are still keeping a close eye on the Irish economy from afar.

“The feeling on the recovery seems to vary with sector. We’ve seen the biggest movement back among IT professionals, who see more opportunities for employment back in Ireland.”

But the economy is not the only factor motivating their decision to stay in Australia or return. “ Maybe it’s time to get married, maybe a first child is on the way or just arrived, or there’s an ageing family to care for. These are the things that more often than not will be a deciding factor.”

Canada witnessed a substantial jump in numbers arriving from Ireland last year, from 4,700 to 7,700, because of an increase in the allocation of Canadian working-holiday visas for Irish people at the beginning of 2014.

What isn’t captured in these statistics is the number of Irish people moving from Australia to Canada, when their working-holiday visas expire, or to pursue opportunities in the natural-resources sector.

This is a trend that has been observed by Irish community representatives in both countries. “With the slowdown in mining and liquefied-natural-gas projects in Australia, we really expect this trend to continue as western Canada braces itself for a natural-gas boom,” says Ruairí Spillane, a Kerry emigrant who runs Moving2Canada Recruitment in Vancouver.

The number of men going to Canada last year significantly outnumbered women, by 5,600 to 2,100, reflecting the opportunities available in male-dominated professions, such as construction and mining, but Spillane says trends are changing.

“We’re seeing less young families arrive, as they were typically coming via employer sponsorship. The downturn in oil has meant that Alberta and Saskatchewan employers that have been using this sponsorship route no longer have the same demand for Irish workers.”

Spillane says that everyone in the Irish community is watching the Irish economy closely, “whether they are settled in Canada or not”. “We’re all optimistic and want things to improve, but there is huge scepticism . . . Many are hesitant to give up the opportunities they have made for themselves in Canada.”

But the economy is not the only factor affecting their decision to stay or return, he says. “Other factors include aging parents, sick family members, having kids and just their general level of homesickness. Many of those eager to return home to Ireland just want to ensure it’s the right decision, and not one based on nostalgia.”

Cathy Murphy of the Irish Canadian Immigration Centre in Toronto says she has heard of a lot of Irish who are being headhunted by companies in Ireland. Others are returning home because their partners have struggled to find work in Canada. “Some simply miss their families,” she says.

The trend among Irish migrants in Britain is slightly different, according to Jennie McShannon, chief executive of Irish in Britain. Our closest neighbour continues to be the most popular destination for emigrants of all nationalities leaving Ireland, with the numbers moving across the Irish Sea rising 7 per cent, to 19,200, in the 12 months to April.

“Britain has always been a magnet for Irish people looking for experience, and a lot of young people are very excited about coming here,” she says.

McShannon has observed an increase in the number of people looking to move back to Ireland, but they are mostly aged between their mid 30s and their mid 40s. “They came over here because of the economic situation but want to move back home for family.”

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