Returned emigrants suffer from more alcoholism and social isolation

ESRI study shows that older Irish emigrants suffered more child sexual abuse

Older returning Irish emigrants are more likely to have been sexually abused as children and have a drink problem, according to new research published by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

They also report higher levels of social isolation back in Ireland, especially if they had been away for a long time.

The study is based on the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda) which is tracing the fortunes of Irish people over the generations.

The migrants interviewed were all over 50 and almost 85 per cent had emigrated to the UK. Those who were away for more than 10 years are characterised as long-term migrants, with the remainder classified as short-term migrants.


The ESRI has concluded that economic conditions are not the only factor influencing the decision to emigrate and many Irish emigrants were fleeing childhood trauma.

According to the research, some 16 per cent of men who stayed away from Ireland for up to 10 years and then returned home had suffered physical or sexual abuse as children. The equivalent figure for men who never left Ireland is 10 per cent.

A similar pattern exists among women who are short term migrants - 12.6 per cent reported abuse compared to 8.3 per cent for those who stayed at home. There was no difference in reported sexual or physical abuse among those who stayed in Ireland and long-term migrants who have returned.

Professor Alan Barrett of the ESRI said the reasons for this might be that those who went away on a short-term basis may have left because of abuse and staying away was not part of their long-term plan. It has also been well documentated that a higher proportion of those who were in industrial homes and Magdalene laundries emigrated, he said.

Both long and short-term returning migrants reported significantly greater problems with alcohol. The figure for short-term migrants reporting drink problems at 15 per cent is almost twice that of Irish men who stay at home (7.6 per cent). For long-term returners, the figure was 12.5 per cent.

Some 13 per cent of short-term migrant women reported having a drink problem, significantly higher than those who stayed at home (8 per cent). However, only 3 per cent of those women who stayed out of Ireland for more than 10 years reported alcohol problems.

Prof Barrett said those findings were not a surprise to sociologists who had studied women who were long-term migrants. Many of the women reported emigration being a liberating experience, leading to better well-being and fewer psychological problems. “For women of a certain generation, emigration to the UK was almost an escape and life was really not that bad at all,” he said.

Returning emigrants also reported higher degrees of social isolation than those who never left the country. Those men who were away longest reported the highest levels of social isolation - between 45 per cent and 62 per cent, depending on the time back in Ireland - compared to 30 per dent for those staying at home.

The proportion of women who feel the same away is also significantly higher at between 39 per cent and 45 per cent, compared to 33 per cent for those who stayed at home.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times