EMIGRATION was always seen in Ireland as tragedy — a loss for the emigrant and to the community left behind. The custom of the American Wake captured the sense of permanence of departure. In Cloughaneely, Donegal, ‘Droichead na nDeor’ — the bridge of tears — marked the place where those leaving said final goodbyes before trudging on to take the emigrant boat. Return was unlikely.
Historian Kerby Miller, in looking at the 19th century mass exodus to North America, called his book Emigrants and Exiles. The emigrant looked forward. Life in a new land beckoned, even if the journey was not ideal. The exile looked back with nostalgia and regret. Songs of exile celebrated the home place and a life that had gone forever. This popular narrative of departure saw it, understandably, in overwhelmingly negative terms.
It is worth remembering that in 1950s Ireland, the number of young people completing second-level education was low— only 4,500, for example, sat the Leaving Certificate in 1950, while only 7,900 in all attended third level that year. When people did leave, they were ill-prepared. For many, it was to be a life of hardship.
The attitudes of official independent Ireland towards emigration were mixed. Civil servants were concerned, once World War 2 ended, that a major return of people from Britain might strain the exchequer and lead to the importation of dangerous foreign ideas such as socialism.
What has happened since? Emigration soared again in the 1980s. Many of those who left were educated and their destinations more varied, including the US and continental Europe. Above all, of the half-million of so who left, nearly half came back. They returned to a booming economy and rapidly-changing society where immigration, not emigration, was becoming the norm.
There was much talk of this ‘generation emigration’. Fianna Fáil Foreign minister Brian Lenihan Snr declared in 1987 that, “What we have now is a very literate emigrant, who thinks nothing of coming to the United States and going back to Ireland and maybe on to Germany and back to Ireland again… After all, we can’t all live on one small island.”
Understandably, the insouciance of this view made many angry. Emigration was still not a free choice for many. Moreover, the reasons for departure were sometimes social as well as economic — pregnancy outside marriage, sexual orientation, a HIV/Aids diagnosis.
Today, after a new exodus following the crash of 2008 and the beginnings of a slow trickle back, it may be time to take stock again. Today’s emigrants are very different. 62% of those surveyed in 2013 had a third-level education. Although the US has declined in importance as a destination, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are now prominent. Britain is still the most significant destination, although Brexit may affect this.
These emigrants are generally doing well. Moreover, they are no longer cut off from the homeland. Indeed, with the rise of social media and cheap travel they are more in touch than ever before. Skibbereen is only a Skype call away from Sydney.
Some things have not changed: although 60% of the population of Ireland now lives in urban or suburban surroundings, a disproportionate number of today’s emigrants are leaving rural Ireland. Since 2008 a quarter of all rural families have lost at least one member to emigration. For those left behind, the impact of emigration is still dramatic and largely negative.
But are emigrants themselves ‘victims’? Why, for instance, do we constantly evoke the plight of an alleged 50,000 undocumented Irish emigrants in the USA when there is not a shred of evidence to support this figure?
We need a much more nuanced language to talk about emigration. Some people still leave, for instance, without the skills needed to do well. Others would like to return but encounter many obstacles, from housing to the transfer of health insurance and pensions.
We also need a reality check. Today’s victims in a world increasingly characterised by large-scale movements of people are the refugees fleeing war and persecution in unsafe boats, the women trafficked into the sex trade, the cheap and readily-exploited people a rich ‘West’ imports to do the work they no longer want to do themselves.
We can honour our complex past by showing sympathy and solidarity with them.
Piaras Mac Éinrí, Lecturer in Geography and European Studies, Department of Geography, UCC