Coming home – the big decision for emigrants

Why would an Irish emigrant move back to Ireland, with its long recession and lousy weather? More than 100,000 have returned since 2008. So what brought them home?

What Irish emigrant in their right mind would want to move back to Ireland at present? Five years of deep recession, recrimination and despair, not to mention the lousy weather, would be reasons enough to stay away for many emigrants.

Yet, the dream so many emigrants have of coming back to live in their own country is becoming a reality for some. The number of Irish emigrants returning home has been remarkably consistent. More than 100,000 have returned since 2008, according to figures published in the Central Bank’s last quarterly review.

Although some 87,100 people left Ireland last year, 52,700 people came to Ireland, giving a net outward migration figure of almost 35,000.

Though this is a substantial outflow of people, the large number of immigrants to Ireland means the brain drain is not as bad as it was in the 1950s or 1980s. Over the past three years the net emigration averages 1.4 per cent of the labour force annually. In the 1950s, it was closer to 5 per cent; in the 1980s, 3.5 per cent.


The number of returning Irish emigrants has been hovering at around 20,000 a year for the past five years. Only in 2009 did the figure drop significantly when 17,900 Irish emigrants returned. Last year, it was 20,600.

Many of these are young Irish emigrants returning home after spending a year or two on holiday visas in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Others are more long-term emigrants.

The collapse in the domestic economy has given the impression that there are no job opportunities in Ireland, but that is not universally true. The exporting sector has remained strong, the shortage of skilled IT personnel is well-known, there are vacancies in international financial services, and language skills remain in short supply.

“There are opportunities in accountancy, finance and IT that I know could be filled by people sitting on Bondi Beach,” said Cormac Spencer from Link Personnel, which is actively recruiting Irish people currently living abroad.

The experience Irish people get by working abroad carries a premium. According to research carried out in 2010, returning Irish emigrants earn 7 per cent more than their peers with similar qualifications who never emigrated.

“They tend to do well. They tend to get into fairly sizable companies and are given responsibility. They can parachute into jobs that are not entry level,” says Spencer.

Though an estimated one in five Irish people has lived abroad at some stage, very little research has been done on why so many of them come home. However, there are indications that most harbour an ambition to live in Ireland some day, even while they are enjoying life abroad.

In an Irish Times /Ipsos MRBI survey of Irish emigrants last year, some 70 per cent said they had a higher quality of life abroad, and 80 per cent declared themselves happier than they had been in Ireland. But 72 per cent said they wanted to return home to live.

The fact that 100,000 Irish people have returned to Ireland despite the recession is no surprise to migration researcher Dr Caitríona Ní Laoire from University College Cork. She says there is an inherent desire in Irish people to travel and see the world, but this is coupled with a desire to return home.

“I moved to Boston in 1986. The majority of Irish people I moved with and became friendly with have moved home,” she says. “People stayed in their early 20s and 30s. They had a great time travelling and then, when they settled down and got married, bit by bit, they went home.” She says the absence of extended family is keenly felt when emigrants have families of their own abroad.

Eibhlis Connaughton (37) returned with her husband Diarmuid Collins (38) from Toronto last year. “Both our Canadian and Irish family and friends questioned our decision. Why were we going against the grain? Why were we leaving a country that Irish people were desperately trying to get into?”

Collins left Ireland in 2004 and Connaughton followed him in 2007. In Toronto, Collins had worked in software and publishing, while Connaughton was a records manager for the College of Nurses of Ontario. They returned four months ago; their daughter Róisín is now 14 months old.

“The birth of our daughter spurred us on. We realised fast that we definitely wanted to bring her up in Ireland surrounded by her family,” Connaughton says.

“The strength of that feeling was quite overwhelming. And, while there were so many negatives associated with our return, that overriding feeling endured.

“We spent many agonising, sleepless nights weighing up the options. It boiled down to good jobs versus family, friends and strong community. In the end we felt that we should take the risk and go while the momentum was with us.

"However, there was one group of people who understood and supported our decision – older Irish women who lived in Canada for most of their adult lives never questioned us. In fact, many of them encouraged us to go. Many of them related stories of the loneliness of bringing up children in a foreign country, elderly parents back in Ireland, weakening ties with friends. But we definitely feel we've made the right decision even though it is an adjustment."

Out of Canada
Alan Daly from Dublin and his wife Sarah from Galway also returned from Toronto last year. The couple left Ireland at the end of 2007, moved to Toronto on a one year visa, and stayed for five years.

Daly, who is originally from Swords, worked as a recruitment consultant for Canada’s booming mining industry and still does, albeit from Dublin. The couple had a one-bedroom flat in central Toronto and loved the city.

Their decision to come home was also motivated by a desire to be closer to family. Their catalyst was also the birth of their son Cian, who is now two and a half.

They may still return to Canada. “We miss it every day. We have a quality of life there that just isn’t comparable at all. My salary was six figures, which it isn’t in Ireland. We had four distinct seasons. We never saw any crime. If Sarah wanted to get a subway home at 1am, we wouldn’t blink on it.

“When we were there we were voluntary emigrants, but as we got closer to leaving, we saw a lot of angry emigrants who didn’t want to be there and hated everything about it and didn’t make any effort to integrate.”

He harbours ambitions of living in Canada again. “We were looking at Ireland with rose-coloured glasses,” he says, “but I’m happy we did it, though the novelty is wearing off.”

In January, Generation Emigration spoke to Clare Waldron (52) who was planning to return from Boston after 30 years abroad.

She left the US on St Valentine’s Day to return home, and she intends to stay. “I’m in shock at a lot of things,” she says. “The price of everything and the rain is killing me. I got lost coming home from the Dundrum Town Centre though I’m from Dublin.

“But it is great to be back home and to be involved with my family and rugby again. It is great to be among Irish people. There is no one like the Irish.

“We whinge like hell, but we’re great craic. Irish people get it; Americans love us but they don’t get us.”