Pain of emigration felt as much by those left behind as by those who have gone

Opinion: In rural Ireland there is a sense of the draining away of life from communities


It’s a time of year when many of us, myself included, will welcome diasporic family members home for a brief stay. Perhaps it’s also a good occasion to reflect on the impact of modern emigration on those who leave and those left behind.

During the course of the past year I and my colleagues Irial Glynn and Tomás Kelly knocked on more than 2,400 doors in every corner of Ireland, surveyed more than 2,000 emigrants and would-be emigrants online and at jobs fairs and interviewed more than 50 emigrants around the world. Our goal was to conduct the most representative survey of Irish emigration ever, using methodologies and data not previously available. We wanted to understand who was leaving, from where and why, where they were going and whether they were likely to return. We also wanted to understand what it felt like for today’s generation. It proved a fascinating and often challenging journey.

A lot of people tend to think of emigration, whether “forced” or chosen, as essentially unproblematic nowadays, at least when compared with the past. For the emigrant of earlier generations, clutching a cardboard suitcase and heading into the unknown, a life of hardship lay in store, more often than not, after the first journey into modernity that departure from Ireland often entailed. For the rural emigrant, in particular, the familiarity of village, field and crossroads gave way to the harsh concrete landscape of the city, with its attendant noise and crowded ambience. The culture shock of arrival was marked, moreover, by the knowledge that return, at least on a permanent basis, was unlikely for most.

Tearful farewells
If generations of parents and their children accepted such an extraordinary fate with such equanimity or resignation, it can only have been because there seemed to be few, if any, alternatives. The pain of it all was usually private and was often, although not always, masked by silence and reserve, especially male reserve. My father, from Kilmovee, east Mayo, was working in Kilcock, Co Kildare, in the late 1940s. He still tells stories of seeing emigrant neighbours from his parish leaning out of the windows as the train paused at the station. Like passengers on some voyage of the damned, they looked at him and he at them, before all dissolved into tearful farewells.

It all seems so much easier and less painful nowadays. In a networked world of Facebook, Skype and other communicative technologies, contact is cheap and constant. The real cost of travel is a fraction of what it once was, making return visits and trips by relatives and friends in the other direction readily feasible.

Yet the reality and the pain of separation are not, and never can be, fully dissipated. People do not generally launch themselves into the unknown with no regard for the families, friends and lives left behind, nor do they cut all links with home. Emigrants have always used rituals and objects to make continuing connections with home while creating a sense of belonging in the new location. In the new country, relatives often took them in until they settled. Religion represented for many a comforting link. Sport, music and other social customs and events kept the emigrant grounded. Back in Ireland, letters, parcels and (more rarely for most) visits home were eagerly awaited. Various networking strategies, cultural, social and familial, were employed. None of that has changed, a fact attested to by the extraordinary, thriving story of the GAA abroad.

Void of silence
A colleague told me recently of an elderly woman he had met who had a son in London. The son telephoned her infrequently – it used to be very expensive and they’d never got into the habit of it. In any case, she said, she didn’t like the phone. The immediacy of contact and communication was followed inevitably by an instant void of silence, distance and separation. She found such conversations painful and truncated, laden with a weight of emotion that could not be transacted or discharged. By contrast, he wrote to her regularly. She treasured the letters, carrying them wherever she went, and took them out frequently to read and reread, devouring every word.

The famous English paediatrician and psychoanalyst DW Winnicott coined the term transitional object to denote the “comfort blanket” – the toy or other object which a child uses as part of the process of separation from the mother. For the child, the pain of separation and moving towards the achievement of one’s autonomy is mitigated by the transitional object. The “object” does not have to be material – it could be a melody or a ritual. In the case of the emigrant letter, the letter itself is the transitional object, except that it is one that comforts the mother as much as the son. Perhaps Skype, with its immediacy but also the devastating sense of being so near and yet so far, does not fully meet this emotional need. In this new digital age it’s still a little too early to tell.

Representative profile
Our year’s research has come to an end. It has been a privilege to call on so many households, to be welcomed in so many kitchens, to talk to people face to face and online, to read so many varied, sometimes passionate, sometimes bitter, views in the online surveys completed by emigrants. The focus of our work was primarily on building a detailed and representative profile of emigrants, in terms of their regional, social, gendered, educational and occupational background, choice of destinations and likelihood of return. I believe we did this. Those interested can find the results at

But what stays in my mind is the impact of emigration not just on emigrants but also on those left behind. The contemporary Irish emigrant is determined to do as well as she or he can, is generally well educated and well equipped to do so and can expect to be well received in the chosen destination, although there are still people leaving without the educational and social skills required to survive and prosper in today’s global cities.

But for those left behind, especially in rural Ireland, still disproportionately affected by emigration today, there is a real sense of pain, loss and the draining away of the life and energy of entire communities. To talk of “lifestyle choice”, in such circumstances, is trite and does not capture the impact of what has befallen us since 2008, either on those who left or on those who stayed behind.

Piaras Mac Éinrí teaches in the Department of Geography/Institute for the Social Sciences in the 21st Century at University College Cork

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