Modern exodus adding to the heartache of history

Unemployment in Dublin or a new life overseas? The answer is easy for many of Ireland's young people.
 Photo / Michael Chester
Unemployment in Dublin or a new life overseas? The answer is easy for many of Ireland's young people. Photo / Michael Chester

Ireland's economic miracle has collapsed, and another generation is seeking its fortune away from home.

The theme of emigration runs like a dark thread through the literature, songs and folklore of Ireland, revealing the sense of loss, sundered ties and foreboding that came from three centuries of exodus.

In wave after wave, the sons and daughters of Ireland left its rugged coastline, emerald countryside and chirpy banter, heading to Alaska or Australia, to Newfoundland or New Zealand, to Liverpool or the Limpopo, in search of a better life.

Misery and the desire to flee it were so etched in Irish life that the "American Wake" was a fixture in many villages. So many people made the trip across the Atlantic that a kind of communal ceremony developed, enabling villagers to mourn the person who was leaving. It was almost certain they would never see that person again.

Then came a minor miracle. Pumped with subsidies from the European Union, styling itself as a financial and technological bridgehead, Ireland became an economic wonder, a "Celtic Tiger" that grew at breakneck speed. Talk of emigration faded away to be replaced by talk of immigration, as Irish expats came home and Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Romanians and Estonians flocked to do the menial work that the Irish no longer wanted to do.

Today, though, Ireland's boom belongs to the history books, consigned there by the 2008 financial crisis that left its economy a ruin. Nearly four years after the cataclysm, the Republic of Ireland has once more become a land of emigration, and the old scars of exile are starting to reopen.

Unlike the great famine of the mid-19th century that led to the death of a million Irish people, no one today is dying of hunger or disease. But at many layers, needs are growing. A survey by the Irish League of Credit Unions, found about one in three of Ireland's working population are left with €100 ($153) or less each month after essential bills are paid.

Helen Johnston, an analyst at a Dublin thinktank, the National Economic and Social Council, says the economy is putting Irish families under a lot of pressure.

"You are having to make choices sometimes about putting food on the table, or keeping kids in schools."

Those hit particularly hard are young people, many of whom are highly educated and see no future in their homeland. In a nation of 4.5 million people, more than one in six is out of work or underemployed. Among those under 25, it is nearly one in three.

Last year, 76,400 Irish moved out of the country, compared with about 40,000 in 2010. At least 250,000 people are estimated to have emigrated since the start of therecession.

Many are taking the routes of their ancestors, across the Atlantic to America or Canada, or to Australia and New Zealand.

"The tradition has always been that if you have got nothing here, you get up and you go somewhere else. And they will go anywhere," says Piaras McEinri, director of the Irish Centre for Migration Studies at University College Cork.

"Immigration is culturally embedded here. But if we hadn't had the economic disaster we wouldn't now be having the emigration."

Parallels with the dark experience of the past are risky. Today, emigrants can return to Ireland swiftly and cheaply rather than taking a long, costly and perilous sea voyage.

And email, Facebook and Skype make it easy to keep in touch, a far cry from the days when expensive phone calls and letters were the only options and people gradually drifted apart.

Even so, many families are strained as parents worry for their children's safety and fret whether they will ever see them again for more than a few days every couple of years. And the effects on morale and the social fabric, especially in rural Ireland, are becoming devastatingly apparent, says McEinri.

Gaelic football - like hurling, a proudly Irish sporting speciality - is now being played in clubs started by expatriates as far afield as Shanghai, Abu Dhabi and Ulan Bator.

But amateur sports in Ireland's heartland are taking a beating. The rural population has fallen so sharply, or suffered such a loss of young players, that many small parishes can no longer muster a team.

The annual Photo Ireland Festival, running in Dublin this month, focuses on the theme of emigration.

"We've had very strong reactions to the exhibition, and sentimental reactions to a very concrete movement of people," says the festival's curator, Moritz Neumueller.

"People here are very affected by migration. It is not just the one person who leaves the country. For every migrant who leaves, there are 20 who are affected by the loss."

- NZ Herald

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