Emigration is a rite of passage as much as a necessary evil


OPINION:The next wave who may have to seek work abroad could learn from us pre-boomtown brats, writes Quentin Fottrell 

THE YEAR was 1994. Bertie Ahern became leader of the Fianna Fáil party; Oscar-nominated actress Saoirse Ronan was born; Ireland won the Eurovision Song Contest; the seemingly invincible OJ Simpson was charged with the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, for which he would later be acquitted; Dick Cheney said an invasion of Iraq would create a "quagmire"; and back home on the ranch the term "Celtic Tiger" came into existence.

The British economist Kevin Gardiner, head of global equity strategy at the investment banking unit of HSBC, is credited with having coined the famous/infamous term in his paper The Irish Economy: A Celtic Tigerin August 1994. We would soon become the darling of Brussels, a model European economy, and turn into cover stars in magazines like the Economist. But the Irish story was tainted by the odd Cassandra who wondered whether the Celtic Tiger (like OJ) would turn sour.

With unemployment hovering at 15 per cent in 1994, after which it began to decline, dole queues snaked their way out of the scratcher and down the stairs. I once witnessed a man arguing with an embattled social welfare officer, who was behind a pane of glass. The man was furious that his 18-year-old son had lost the children's allowance. Neighbours would chat or pretend they didn't see each other. It was a very Irish pride, rooted in mutual respect and shame for having to be there.

For my contemporaries, the last of the pre-boomtown brats, it was off to New York or London to create a second life outside of the one we knew. In July 1994, I packed my bags for London. Economists called us the "new wave" of emigrants, as we were supposedly better educated than previous generations. If Recession 2.0 is prolonged, as the Central Bank believes it will be, there may be a second wave: La Nouvelle Vague Part II. They could do well to learn from our experience.

Leaving the inevitable brain drain aside, which cannot always be avoided once an economy begins its downward slide, emigration is not something that should be feared. It is the best way of finding out what it's like in the big bad world and can provide work experience you could only otherwise dream of. For the last big wave of emigrants in the early 1990s, before Ireland evolved into a multicultural society, it was also a chance to see how other folk live.

Emigration is as much an Irish rite of passage as it is a necessary evil. Those haunting illustrations in history books of the starving masses in the bowels of coffin ships understandably dominate how we think about it. It was framed by keening women and perhaps even guilt among those who left and were betraying both mother and motherland.

To quote Pegeen Mike out of context: "Oh my grief, I've lost him surely. I've lost the only Playboy of the Western World."

Unlike those leaving school and college in 2008, maybe growing up with the knowledge that you have to go abroad for work prepares you mentally, but for my graduation class it was something to savour and look forward to. There was a whole clique of friends in my university who decamped to San Francisco in an excitable mass, like the Keystone Cops, as soon as the ink was dry on their final exam papers. The most overheard line? "I can't wait to get out of here!"

And it worked both ways. From 1996 to 2006 nearly a quarter of a million migrants of Irish nationality returned home, according to CSO data. On weekend trips to Dublin during those years, it was clear almost overnight that stores were selling gear you used to be able to buy only in London or New York. Now we could afford it too! This was the start of our decade-long binge. We were not educated or prepared to responsibly deal with so much money so very quickly. Nor, in retrospect, were our banks.

The decision for an emigrant to return is a complex one. It is nice taking the Eurostar to Paris every month, but that doesn't replace family. And if one returns to Ireland, is there a risk of being considered a failure for coming back without having made a fortune? That is possibly a reason why some never return.

But London is a sprawling and sometimes lonesome place to live, so, one day after work in October 1999 on the No 19 bus, in yet another split-second decision, I resolved to come home.

With epic bad timing, my Morrison Visa friend who left in 1994, returned to Ireland last month. She lived in New York, Seattle and Shanghai. She was one of the lucky ones. These were not wilderness years. Her experience was neither sad nor regrettable. It was a trip of a lifetime. She travelled the world and knows her nigiri sushi from her chirashi.

I never felt sorry for her or myself for being part of the new wave of 1994, but I did occasionally feel for those who were left behind.