Here’s my Comment is Free piece on being an Irish emigrant, which appeared on Guardian.co.uk last week. The same piece also appeared in that week’s Irish Post
Mourning can be a protracted business. In the past week, after years spent oscillating between low-level anger and outright denial, I finally graduated to acceptance: having left Ireland in 2003, I am an Irish emigrant.
And after recent events, it seems like going home is no longer an option.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief have provided an unexpected leitmotif for Ireland’s economic collapse. But while public fury about the financial situation contrasted sharply with the government’s increasingly brazen disavowals, there has been a quiet, almost stoical, recognition that the country is once again stepping up production of its most celebrated natural resource: emigrants.
Forty thousand Irish people left last year; with joblessness running at over 13% another 100,000 are expected to join them before the end of the next.
Migration is an ingrained part of our national psyche. Almost every family carries traces of the instinct which, for two decades, lay in abeyance as the Celtic Tiger’s putative masters told their pups that they would never be forced to cross the Irish Sea or the Atlantic to make new lives for themselves beyond Ireland’s shores.
These hubristic promises have been revealed to be as empty, illusionary and downright dangerous as the ill-conceived bank guarantee, made in September 2008, which sounded a slow death knell for Ireland’s political and economic sovereignty ever since. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout has scarcely begun, but already Ireland’s citizens are abandoning ship.
What is there to stay put for? With its boarded-up main street, uninhabited ghost estates and derelict shopping centre, my hometown, in the midlands of Ireland, is hardly atypical. Here greed gave way to naked stupidity when developers started building houses in the boggy flood plain five years ago. Recently a gallows humour has replaced the air of despondency that marked the early days of the collapse.
The IMF and its apparatchiks hold little fear for residents of such places – what does austerity look like when your home is practically worthless, your job is gone and your children are likely to follow suit?
By even the most optimistic predictions, the Irish economy will take generations to recover. The government is once again turning to the safety valve of emigration: despite its protestations little or nothing is being done to encourage young, well-educated men and women to stay in Ireland.
Meanwhile the legions of Irish-born citizens already living in Sydney and Chicago, Edinburgh and Edmonton, have seen their daydreams of returning home dashed, probably forever.
I was glad to leave Ireland at the age of 22. The Celtic Tiger created a culture in which property prices replaced the weather as the preferred topic of the nation’s small talk, and the pursuit of money without ethics or obligation was not just acceptable but actively valorised from the very top of the social and political tree. Getting out was a relief.
Back then the word “emigrate” had been expunged from our vocabulary. Emigration was supposedly a thing of the past. I thought of myself not as an emigrant, but as an Irishman who just happened to be living somewhere else. How could I be one of John B Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty when my leave-taking was not motivated by unemployment or lack of opportunities?
But late last Tuesday, as news bulletins on every channel reported live from Dublin and Brussels, I found my thoughts turning not to my country but to myself. The life I have made away from Ireland – first in New York, then Britain – is a comfortable one but it is also an emigrant’s. If I raise a family they will speak with a different accent to mine. The country whose passport I carry will not be my home.
The true cost of Ireland’s folly should be counted not in billions of euros but in the millions of Irish men and women who will forced to emigrate, to accept the reality that they too will never be able to go home.
Far from being finished, a new chapter has just been started in the age-old story of Irish emigration.