Aoife O'Mahony didn't leave Ireland out of desperation. The young chef and her electrician boyfriend both had jobs in Cork, but the "depressed atmosphere" of home was sufficient incentive to pack their bags. "We thought it would be nice to get away," she says.
Canada seemed like a good bet. Armed with two years worth of savings and a couple of phone numbers, O'Mahony and boyfriend Jamie Nolan headed for Toronto. Their timing was impeccable.
On the day they left, the firm where Nolan had been apprenticed went under.
When their one-year visa runs out, however, the couple will be going back home. “Working here is tough, with long hours and very little time off,” says O’Mahony, who is juggling two jobs as a cook and a waitress. A return to her old chef job in Cork now beckons.
While Nolan did manage to secure work in his field after a couple of months, he will be following the advice of his former tutors and taking a degree in electrical engineering at the Cork Institute of Technology. Going back to Ireland suits the two of them – for now.
“We might come back to Canada later,” O’Mahony says. “Now that we’ve met lots of people, we’d have some sort of base but we’d have to have jobs to come over for. I don’t know if I could go through all that again, starting from scratch. It’s very tough.”
]In many ways, the couple’s gamble has partially paid off, opening up new possibilities for the future. For many of the thousands of young Irish though who come over on working holidays each year – 10,700 two-year visas are set to be issued next year – a return home is impossible.
“Some of them come into my office saying they’re having trouble getting a job, but can’t go home,” says Cathy Murphy, director of the Toronto-based Irish Canadian Immigration Centre, set up last year to help new arrivals. “They do find it really tough in the beginning and are willing to pick up anything to plug the gap.”
Finding a job can take time. “If you’re in a trade, you’ll find work, but if you’re not, it can take three to five months to land the perfect job. It takes a long time to vet applications. HR departments are slow. It’s just the way it works here.”
Many eventually decide to stay. “There’s an increase in numbers coming to me for appointments on how to get their permanent residency,” Murphy says. “I get just as many calls on that as I do from people coming over for the first time.”
If anything differentiates this wave of Irish immigrants from their predecessors, it’s the numbers. Murphy reckons the centre has assisted 14,000 people since it opened, both virtually and at its regular information sessions. “Back in the Eíghties, it was more of a trickle.”
She says there is also a sense of “desperation” among current arrivals. “They bring an anger with them. The youth I meet are not afraid to talk about the fact that they feel so completely let down by the previous government.”
Mark O’Brien, manager of a real estate brokerage who arrived in 1989, believes that today’s arrivals are better equipped for the experience.
"They're brimming with confidence, partly because they enjoyed high times in Ireland. With that came the ability to travel to foreign places. We weren't as worldly."O'Brien regularly interviews newcomers on his local radio show Ceol Agus Craic , promoting their skills and credentials. He believes they are choosier than in his day.
“I would have settled for anything, but now engineers are working as engineers and lawyers are working as lawyers. With the internet they can congregate a lot more effectively. When I was young, it was more difficult for us to be found.”