Richard Donovan had always wanted to see Australia, so when activity at the civil-works company he worked for began to slow, in early 2008, it seemed the perfect time to go. The recession that followed in Ireland made his decision to stay in Brisbane a simple one, as job prospects dwindled at home and the Australian economy grew and grew. But seven years on, and now with a wife and a four-month-old son, the Tipperary man has decided it's finally time to move home.
“Getting a job back in Ireland that will further my career seems possible now for the first time,” says the 32-year-old. “And with family back home and such a small child, it seems like the right choice to make. A lot of my friends are talking about making the move back. We are all in a similar position, having had kids or about to have kids, and we would all love to see them grow up in Ireland. They all see work at home for at least the husband or wife now. Soon enough a lot of them will be home.”
Donovan’s is a typical recession-to-recovery story of moving away for work and returning for family as the economy in the home country improves.
Emigration has always been the Irish default option in times of economic hardship. When the downturn hit in 2008 the response was predictable. Emigration soared, from 36,000 at the height of the boom, in 2006, to 89,000 in 2013 – the highest gross emigration figure in more than a century.
Now, as the economy recovers, the tide has slowly turned. Over the past two years the number of Irish people moving abroad has fallen by just over 30 per cent. In the year to this April, 35,300 Irish people left, down from 50,900 from April 2012 to April 2013, according to new figures from the Central Statistics Office.
Although the downward trend is welcome, the total number of Irish leaving is still extremely high, almost double the precrash figure from 2007. Perhaps even more startling are the very low numbers returning: 12,100 moved home in the 12 months to April, up just 4 per cent on the previous 12 months, when the CSO recorded the lowest rate of returning Irish since 1996.
With the fastest-growing economy in Europe and unemployment at a six-year low, why are so many Irish still emigrating and so few choosing to return home?
The CSO figures show that fewer than one in seven people (of all nationalities) who left Ireland last year were unemployed; most were working or studying. This emphasises that simply having a job is not the only push-and-pull factor in the decision to either emigrate or immigrate home.
Seamus Farrell, a 24-year-old youth activist who campaigns on behalf of the Irish Housing Network and We're Not Leaving, a youth group campaigning against forced emigration, says the "recovery" is not filtering down to young people.
“The recovery is two-tiered,” he says. “A small segment of society is doing all right, and certain professions living in certain parts of Dublin are doing all right, while the rest continue to struggle.
“The core problems facing young people, namely the high cost of living combined with a lack of adequately paid and quality employment, have only got worse. Rents continue to rise in Dublin, and the expansion of schemes like JobBridge means there are thousands of mostly young people getting paid next to nothing.”
Farrell knows lots of young people who are still leaving because they can’t afford to live in Ireland – even if they have a job.
“Of course there has been a slowdown in the numbers going, because there has been such a large exodus, and if people aren’t coming back we will reach a natural floor. It is not because the conditions are better here now but simply because there are fewer young people left here to leave. There has been a hollowing out of our generation.”
Emigration has undoubtedly eased the pressure on the labour market. Still, the loss of so many skilled and highly qualified people – 39,800 of all nationalities who left Ireland in 2014 had a third- level qualification – could actually inhibit economic recovery and social renewal. That's according to James Doorley, deputy director of the National Youth Council of Ireland.
“Workforces tend to operate better with a diversity of people of different ages,” he says, “whereas sameness can lead to stagnation. What young people lack in experience they make up for in energy and innovation, so that is lost to the Irish society and the economy.”
That applies to communities as well, Doorley adds. “There is greater cohesion when a diversity of people is involved. It is less of an issue in urban areas, but in some rural communities there are not that many young people in their 20s and early 30s around. Sometimes this is just spoken about in terms of the local hurling or football team, but it is more profound than that.”
While the number of 15- to 24-year-olds emigrating fell by 9 per cent in the 12 months to April, to 30,400, the group aged between 25 and 44 leaving actually grew, by 5.6 per cent, to 39,700.
"These are the ones who have attempted to weather out the storm but have reached their limit, and are saying things are not going to improve, and are leaving for that reason. These are often the ones with families," Mary Gilmartin, a senior lecturer in geography at Maynooth University, says.
“We know from previous waves of migration that people make the decision to return not just on economic grounds,” she says. “People move back for family reasons, for nostalgia. I think it will be a few years before we see this cohort of emigrants making those decisions.
“Many of them are trying to regularise their status in the country they are living in, trying to get citizenship in that country before returning to Ireland so they have the option to move back there. They might not yet have formed relationships or have had children, which often becomes the catalyst for them to return.”
Gilmartin sees few practical incentives for emigrants to return, only obstacles.
“Accessing housing, childcare, education or social-welfare entitlements are all broader structural issues, so it is not about targeting individual migrants with particular jobs or tax incentives,” she says. “It is about making Ireland a better place to live, both for people who are living here at the moment and for emigrants who are planning to return.”
Over the past seven years high emigration rates, combined with low birth rates in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have led to a 34 per cent drop in the number of 20- to 24-year-olds living in the country, and to a 27.5 per cent drop in 25- to 29-year-olds.
Prof Alan Barrett of the Economic and Social Research Institute says that historical evidence shows that the population will eventually balance itself out, both with returning Irish emigrants and high numbers of non-Irish nationals immigrating, just like we experienced before the crash.
“Jobs are being created and things are moving in the right direction,” he says. “Migration can lag as a response. . . . The thing people want to see is that recovery is sustained. The holes that emerged are certainly visible, but I would be very surprised if they are not eventually plugged.”
Society may recover from this wave of mass emigration, Gilmartin says, but it is important to remember that a scar will remain with many of the individuals, families and communities that have lost loved ones to other countries in recent years.
“We will never go back to the way it was, but we need to look at how we can learn from the experience in a positive way. While there is a net balancing off of the population as a whole, it is made up of lots of different kinds of people, and that diversity is a huge benefit. But the loss that is experienced by some can’t ever be forgotten.”