Why are the Irish still leaving the land of their birth?

Ireland's economy is showing growth, but those born on the Emerald Isle still leave in greater numbers than they return to it.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Colorful storefronts line one of the main streets through of Dingle, Ireland, in July 2011.

With the Irish economy expected to grow at 6 percent this year – poised to be Europe’s best performing for two years in a row – Jimmy Deenihan’s job should be an easy one.

As the Minister of State for Diaspora Affairs, Mr. Deenihan is tasked with luring back home thousands of Irish who fled for jobs and better opportunities abroad after the spectacular crash of the Celtic Tiger in 2008.

“It is part of the Irish psyche to travel,” he says. “But what we are trying to do, this government, is give people a choice to stay if they want to.”

But half a year since the government unveiled a new plan, called “Global Irish: Ireland’s Diaspora Policy,” his task remains formidable. While net migration from Ireland in the latest figures decreased – to 11,600 this year, down from 21,400 in the same period last year – more continue to leave than return home. And 17.5 percent of those born in Ireland now live abroad, according to new data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the highest rate for all 34 OECD members.

The job to sell Ireland comes naturally to Deenihan. His office in downtown Dublin is a testament to his love of homeland: it's decorated with portraits of the River Feale in County Kerry, where he was born; of men harvesting peat from the bogs that dot the Irish landscape; and of himself in his younger days, when he played Gaelic football.

Still, he acknowledges how challenging the sale is. He is fighting against a historic pattern of emigration that makes moving abroad a culturally acceptable decision here – unlike in Spain, for example, where the population is more prone to stay home despite tough times.

He is also facing a recovery that looks better on paper than the reality of high housing costs and scant childcare options. And perhaps most important, today’s emigrants are the most educated the country has ever seen: many of them have good jobs in Britain, Canada, and Australia, setting the bar for return even higher.

'A self-confirming thing'

Emigration has been a feature of life in Ireland for two centuries. During the Great Famine in the 1840s, some 1 million fled, and waves have continued ever since, often in economic down cycles.

It was only during the 1990s and 2000s during boom years that Ireland reversed the trend and saw substantial numbers of immigrants for the first time. Some saw that as a marker of Ireland's arrival as a modern nation. But the collapse of the Celtic Tiger showed that reversal to be an anomaly more than a new cultural norm.

"There is a certain sense that emigration becomes a self-confirming thing," says Piaras Mac Einri, an expert on emigration at University College Cork. "It becomes a default option for young people. It is not seen as unusual or abnormal," which might explain the new OECD analysis.

The question of return was once unconsidered. In fact, in the 20th century the celebration of departure was called the "American wake" as it signaled a final goodbye. The advent of transport and globalization has changed that.

But so too has the profile of today's emigrant, notably their education levels, says Mr. Mac Einri, who worked on the largest study of its kind of today's emigrants. According to the Central Statistics Office, 52.8 percent of those emigrating have a university degree, and most had jobs when they left.

This makes them more coveted than ever – but also harder to draw back. Deenihan says their experience abroad is an asset for Ireland, with domestic jobs in IT and pharmaceuticals already in demand. One thing his office is considering is launching a call center to give returnees information on everything from schools to local job prospects.

But many have wanted more concrete measures, like a tax incentive for returning emigrants, which was not announced when the budget was released this month.

“They are saying we want people to come back, but we haven’t seen anything specific that you could put your finger on as a measure as such,” says Marie-Claire McAleer, National Youth Council of Ireland Senior Research and Policy Officer.

And without specific incentives, they are often doing better abroad, even as the Irish economy continues to strengthen. “It is not an equal recovery," says Mary Gilmartin, author of the new book “Ireland and migration in the twenty-first century." "Recovery is not what it appears."

The town of Port Laoise in the Midlands region, west of Dublin, has been one of Ireland's fastest growing towns, with a 38 percent increase in population from 2006 to 2011. Recovery is evident. At lunch time, The Pantry is bustling with locals eating healthy salad plates and homemade soups. Owner Mark Healy, who took over the place one year ago, also opened up a gift store down the street in May. As the treasurer of the downtown traders’ association, he tallies three restaurants, three pubs, and two stores that have opened up this year alone.

Still, he can count a dozen people he knows who moved abroad in the past five years and plan to stay there. Six of them he considers close friends. “They are doing well,” he says. Some are staying put to save more money to be able to buy homes in Ireland. Others won’t be coming back.

A new view of emigration

In some ways the emigration story is the same as 200 years ago, especially in rural Ireland, far from the booming capital. Sentiments in the town of Waterville, in rural Kerry on a recent Sunday outside the tourist season, are typical. Waitress and student Sandra O’Shea, whose brother and sister are already in Australia, plans to go herself as soon as she finishes hairdressing school. “Everybody wants to go,” she says. "There is nothing here."

But the forces of migration are changing. For starters, says Ms. Gilmartin, Ireland should no longer define itself as an emigration nation or an immigrant nation, but a bit of both. During the Celtic Tiger, all the focus was on immigration even though Irish were still leaving. “Now all we are talking about is emigration, while there are still a large number of people immigrating,” she says. “We have a very unidirectional view of migration.”

The meaning of emigration is also changing. Mr. Healy says his generation’s view differs from their parents’. They see it as something tragic that separates families, while the emigrants he knows see it as an opportunity.

Many are quick to criticize comments from politicians when they dismiss emigration as a lifestyle choice, masking the policy failure behind many decisions to emigrate, including high housing or healthcare costs.

Still, it is increasingly considered something of a way of life in a globalized world. Ciara Kenny, who curates The Irish Times’ Generation Emigration section and has seen friends and acquaintances go for both reasons – need and desire – says she and her coworkers have discussed whether the term emigrant holds the same connotation as it has in times past. They agree it is changing.

“There are two sides of it,” she says. “These days it is a lot more fluid.”

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