The joy of homecoming is short-lived


CHRISTMAS will be an especially cheerful time in the Mannion household in Ros Muc in Connemara, as the family celebrates a wedding as well as the birth of Christ. But the cheerfulness will be tinged with sorrow, and the realisation that in a week or so it will be time to say a lot of goodbyes.

Eibhlin Mannion has been living and working in London for the past few years and travelled home with her husband, Moile Joyce, who comes from Leitir Moir and also lives and works in London.

They got married on Friday in Ros Muc church, surrounded by family and friends.

They have been celebrating since, and no doubt there are a few sore heads in the parish this morning. There hasn't been such a get together in the family since the last wedding, and they will want to make the most of it before packing their bags again in the new year.

Johnny and Bridie Mannion have 10 children, five boys and five girls. They are all grown up now. Nine of them have left the area to find work, leaving one daughter in Ros Muc.

Four of Eibhlin's brothers and four sisters have gone to the same Tower Hill district in south London where she lives. Another brother has "emigrated" to Galway. The family she is marrying into has a similar story to tell most of Moile Joyce's siblings also live and work in London.

"I left just after school," she says, speaking in Irish. "I wanted to go places. I went to England first, then America, and then I went back to England." Like many others before her, she intends to come home for good one day. She works as a cleaner in London, and together with her husband (who lays television cable for a living) is saving up the money for a house in Leitir Moir.

They already have the site and planning permission organised.

"Hopefully, in three or four years we'll be able to come home." There is very little work in either Ros Muc or Leitir Moir the land is poor, the fishing is worse, and there are jobs for only a handful of people in a few small factories and businesses supported by Udaras na Gaeltachta.

Nevertheless, she is optimistic about her prospects. "It would be nice to get a job when we come home. We're used to working, and it would be strange not to be."

The national school beside the Mannion home had about 200 pupils on its rolls during the 1950s. Now it's down to 38 pupils and with falling numbers in the other Ros Muc school it seems only a matter of time before one of them closes.

Depopulation is not just a term in a place like this it is a grim reality that colours everything. Eibhlin's mother, Bridie Mannion, tells of her joy at seeing her children come home, but also of the loneliness behind it. "Ta se an uaigneach iad a fheiceail ag teacht ar ais," she says.

The pubs will be full for a week or two, before the social scene settles down to its usual quiet. "There are only a few middle aged people around, apart from the ones who are going to school." Ironically, improved education standards in recent decades have helped increase the population shift. Many of those who go to university or technical college find their options back home are too limited for their taste, once they have finished.

"A lot of young people now are going to college. The schools are better now than they used to be . . there are jobs available to those who get an education. You have to have that now," she says.

Johnny Mannion nods gravely at his wife's words. A keen Gaelic footballer in his youth, during the 1950s he played for the Army's Irish speaking battalion in Renmore Barracks in Galway. He passed on his talent to his five sons, who all played football locally and whose skills are sorely missed.

It is a familiar tale, and one which will remain unaffected by all the good news on the jobs front announced in Dublin recently. That news led to claims of a bias towards larger urban centres in job creation.

On a smaller scale the pattern is repeated in the Connemara Gaeltacht, with places like Ros Muc 40 miles from Galway losing out to Spiddal and Moycullen, which are much nearer the city.

A study carried out by Cumas, a local partnership board, shows the imbalance. The unemployment rate in Ros Muc is 48 per cent, and in Ceantar na nOilean (the island district which includes Leitir Moir) it reaches 51 per cent.

This compares to an unemployment rate of 15 per cent in Spiddal, falling to just under 10 per cent in Barna and 8.2 per cent in Moycullen.

Small wonder the imbalance in employment is reflected in population patterns. The population of Ros Muc declined by 25 per cent between 1981 and 1996. During she same period the population of Moycullen jumped by 36 per cent. Barna's population increased by an equally significant 35 per cent.

All the statistics in the world, of course, cannot give a flavour of what unemployment and depopulation mean to people in Connemara.

For that you need to turn to songs like Conamara, sung by Sean O hEanai and his group, Einniu.

They acquire an extra resonance at this time of year, when they are played on Raidio na Gaeltachta. They can raise a lump in the throat of emigrants coming home for Christmas, who are perhaps more used to listening to commercial stations across the Water.

Here's a taste of O hEanai's song:

O Montreal go dti Seattle, O New Orleans go San Antone, Ta daoine oga ann ag taisteal, Ag saothru saoil doibh fein nios mo.

O Conamara, ta tu imithe uaim ro-fhada, O mo chuimhne, o mo chroi...