Misery of the returned emigrant


OPINION:After 16 years in Canada, I came home to Ireland. Big mistake. A really big mistake . . . writes BRENDAN LANDERS.

THERE ARE three types of people who uproot themselves and emigrate to make their lives anew in a country that is not their own by birthright. Some are gifted with itchy feet and a lust for adventure – they abandon their homeland to satisfy their curiosity about the wide world beyond. Some are fortunate enough to happen upon a foreign place that touches their soul or to bond with a person who makes the prospect of migration more attractive than a life lived at home without the other. And some are forced to emigrate because their native place has nothing substantial to offer them in life.

Most of us who left Ireland during the 1980s fell into the third category. We went away not because we had itchy feet, had found our Eldorado or fallen in love with an exotic foreigner, but because Ireland had nothing to offer us. No jobs, no opportunities, no scope to follow our dreams or aspire to even a modicum of success in life. The Irish economy was broken and it would take a miracle to fix it.

Along with the dismal state of the nation’s finances, there was a sense that whatever wealth existed was hoarded greedily by a coterie of well-connected professionals, wide boys and golden circles. The land of our birth offered us nothing but tacit encouragement to leave. Brian Lenihan snr, the father of our current Minister for Finance, put it succinctly when he said: “Sure we can’t all live on a small island.”

Emigration was expected of us and so, forlorn and abandoned, we departed. We overcame our grief, our disappointment, our homesickness, our longing for the day-to-day company of our families and friends.

We settled and went about the business of building new lives for ourselves in our homes away from home. We didn’t expect to live in Ireland again.

Then, after a decade or so of exile, a sequence of remarkable events conspired to persuade us that maybe miracles can happen after all. We watched agog as Ireland underwent an awesome transformation. The country transmogrified from an impoverished backwater racked by unemployment and a culture of despair into the epitome of cool and a clamorous hothouse of self-indulgent affluence.

U2 became the biggest rock’n’roll band in the world and, unlike previous Irish rock stars such as Van Morrison, Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher and the Boomtown Rats, who all invariably moved to London at the first taste of success, they stayed in Dublin.

Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan directed world-class movies that won Oscars and they stayed in Ireland instead of moving to Hollywood. Alan Parker made a movie of The Commitmentsand Roddy Doyle bestrode the world of literature, won the Booker Prize and didn’t move to Paris or New York.

By virtue of Michael Flatley’s dazzling footwork, Riverdancecreated a sensation in theatres throughout the world and Flatley actually moved to Ireland.

The IRA declared a ceasefire and the country was at peace, albeit tentatively so. Michael D Higgins served as minister for arts, culture and the Gaeltacht. A poet in Cabinet, for God’s sake – it was like 1916 all over again.

Tribunals were exposing corruption in a host of establishment institutions and there was much heady talk of a brave new world of openness, honesty, transparency and ethics in public life.

Hope peeped out from under the carpet.

Mary Robinson, a principled, liberal woman, won the presidency and put a candle in the window of her residence in the Phoenix Park as a beacon of light and a welcome home to the children of the diaspora. For us, this was a revolutionary act of sensitivity unprecedented in the country’s history.

US multinationals flocked to Ireland to invest their money and gain a toehold in Europe, and the eponymous Celtic Tiger was born. Money talked the talk and Ireland quickly learned to walk the walk. There was full employment. We went home on holidays and we shook our heads in bemusement at the profusion of “Help Wanted” signs in shop windows.

The Irish government sent emissaries throughout the diaspora, asking us to come home and take our place in the new Ireland. They promised jobs, prosperity, vindication and a proud place in a proud new Ireland. And we, poor fools, chose to believe them. How could we have refused, we who had, for years, deep inside ourselves, wondered what life might have been like if we’d been able to stay home?

We dared to believe, stifled our doubts, bought into the new zeitgeist and gave up the lives we had so carefully and painfully constructed. We sold our houses, packed our furniture into containers, uprooted our families and came back to Ireland.

Things were good at first. We found jobs that paid well. So what if the houses cost a fortune – all our savings went into the deposit and we still had to borrow a small fortune – weren’t the universities free for our kids and won’t they have a wonderful life without the shadow of emigration hanging over their heads? And weren’t the old-age pensions going up? And wasn’t this a grand new country after all its troubles?

We blinked when we saw the old and infirm racked up like refugees on trolleys in hospital waiting rooms, enduring conditions that would be embarrassing in the developing world.

We baulked when we saw the subversion of progressive initiatives like the Freedom of Information Act and the Equality Agency.

We gaped in disbelief as successive ministers for finance behaved like lumpen proletariat lottery winners, squandered billions of euro in budget surpluses and pumped up inflation – had they no mothers, we wondered, to instill in them the good sense of saving for a rainy day?

We were overwhelmed with dejected deja vu when our taoiseach tied himself up in verbal knots trying to explain his ill-gotten gains at the Mahon tribunal. And we wept in despair when, in the face of his chicanery, the people re-elected him.

But the final nail was hammered into the coffin of our disenchantment when the financial crash came and the Government’s first instinct was to make the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society pay for its mistakes.

We finally had to admit to ourselves that the golden circles hadn’t gone away, they’d just put on new coats.

Now here we are, utterly faithless in the disposition of our elected politicians, plagued with anxiety and insecurity, one job-loss away from ruin.

Our savings are gone and our houses are virtually worthless. Our children face a bleak future and the heart-rending prospect of forced emigration.

We made a terrible mistake. We came back. Because we wanted to, we believed that the country had changed.

We believed in the miracle.

We believed in the politicians.

In the electorate.

We were wrong.

Never again.

Brendan Landers is a Dublin-born freelance writer and journalist. His first novel, Milo Devine, was published by Poolbeg Press in 2001. From 1974 to 1981. he worked in Dublin as a bus conductor for CIÉ. In 1984, he went to Canada where he was publisher/managing editor of Ireland’s Eye, a magazine for Irish-Canadians, and also editor of the Irish Canada News, a Toronto-based monthly newspaper. In 2000, he returned to Dublin. He is married and the father of a young boy. His website is landersbrendan.tripod.com