Elena Martin would not be living near the Alaskan border, far away from family and friends, and experiencing minus 40 degrees, unless she had to. The 31-year-old from Dublin has a mortgage and a car loan to pay off and, after years of not being able to find work as an electrician, she decided to go to Canada.
"I had no choice. It's hard at my age since most of my friends are at home starting families," she says. She sends about €1,000 home every month, which leaves her with just enough to get by on. "It's hard being away from home and missing out on Mother's Day and Paddy's Day and seeing everyone out on Facebook. It breaks my heart," she says.
Martin is among the Irish living abroad who are sending money home at an increasing level. The World Bank estimates that Irish emigrants sent €610 million home in 2012, up from just under €450 million in 2009 and more than double the figure 10 years previously.
The practice mirrors previous decades when large waves of emigrants were also moving abroad and sending money home. Things aren't as acute as back then – emigrant remittances in the 1960s made up 3 per cent of Ireland's gross national income and 1 per cent in the 1980s, according to Dr Irial Glynn, a postdoctoral researcher at UCC specialising in migration history.
Today’s remittance figures represent under 0.5 per cent of gross national income. But unlike previous generations who sent money back to keep families afloat, current emigrants are generally financing large debt left over from the boom years.
An online study being carried out by Glynn shows that, so far, 11 per cent of emigrants who responded said they often or very often send money home; 10 per cent said they often or very often send money back to pay a mortgage.
Margaret falls into this category. She also lives in western Canada and is funding a mortgage in Ireland. “If you saw what I am looking out at here you just would not believe it,” she says. She moves around with a company that is involved in the oil industry and it means working sometimes for weeks on end in vast, desolate places. “I wouldn’t be here only I have to pay my mortgage,” she says.
Despite her healthcare qualifications she couldn’t get work at home because of an embargo on recruitment in the health service. She left Ireland because she no longer wanted her family to have to help her out with repayments. Now, she is concerned that if something happened to her while abroad, her father, who is guarantor on her mortgage, would be left saddled with the debt. “I tried to get the bank to put the mortgage just in my name but without an Irish P60 they wouldn’t do it,” she says.
Some emigrants are sending substantial amounts home. Ann moved to Canada last year with her husband and two children and the family sends €1,800 home every month to cover a mortgage and bills here.
Not everyone has had to move abroad to pay back borrowings but going away can mean a greater ability to pay for bills from home. Owen had a job in Ireland but moved to the US through an internal promotion. He now gets a higher salary and pays less tax than he would in Ireland. “At home, it’s a little depressing and it seems there are better prospects out here to cover your bills,” he says. Like others, he is renting out his house at home but still has to send money home because the income does not cover the mortgage, the management fees or the upkeep of the property.
Negative equity means today’s emigrants can’t sell off their houses before heading off – unlike emigrants in the 1980s who generally sold their houses and didn’t have to send mortgage money home. “It would obviously be better if I didn’t have a mortgage at home to have to pay,” he says.
An international commute
While moving across the Atlantic takes a commitment of usually a few years, there are also commuter emigrants, who move between Ireland and countries closer to home to find work or higher salaries.
Will Norton runs Sonas Recruitment in London, which specialises in recruiting Irish professionals. He comes across individuals who live in the UK during the week to pay for mortgages and the upkeep of their families back in Ireland and head back there for the weekend.
"Some are involved in project management in construction. They'll start a job over here commuting back and forth Monday to Friday. After they have put the structures in place their family will often follow," he says. "It gives you the best of both worlds – you can earn good money and see your family at weekends." Such commuting also takes place between Ireland and parts of the Middle East, such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.
Not everyone is sending money back because of debts. The old-fashioned Irish tradition of keeping up family incomes back home still persists especially with the economic crisis limping on. Graham works in Canada and sends money home whenever he can after both his parents were hit hard by the recession. “My father got laid off and my mother’s hours in work have been dramatically reduced,” he says.
John Ó Ríordán’s mother is a widow and is feeling the pinch since her benefits were cut back and the household charge was introduced. He lives in Toronto and pays her oil heating and digital television subscription but admits it can be tricky to get his mother to accept the help. “I have to be sneaky about how I do it. The last time I came back there was money inside my suitcase,” he says.
He got her to allow him access to her bank account and now pays for the services through the account. “I know the guy at the heating place down the road from her and whenever she goes down to order in some oil he tells her it’s been taken care of,” he says.
Old traditions die hard and Ó Ríordán says there’s an element of guilt in his motivations to send money home. “I get the guilt trip whenever I ring home. At least this way you feel like you’re helping out a bit.”
To take part in the UCC Emigre survey, go to tinyurl.com/c8s6ah6