Veronica, Loretto, Pauline, Miriam, Anne, and Trisha
NUI Galway Graduation 1991
Out of six of us that posed happily for this photograph in June of 1991, twenty years later, only one person remains in Ireland. The word diaspora means the spreading out of a group of people . We certainly embodied that.
I came through Shannon airport in Ireland on a return flight back to the USA in May of this year. Young people with anxious looking faces huddled in corners waiting to board the flight with us and I was instantly reminded of the uncertain times after graduating from NUI Galway. Questions such as ‘Where to now?’ and ‘Will I ever see this group of friends again?’ made the transition from college student to civilian painful and scary. Some of us continued on to complete law degrees, education degrees, nutrition degrees or became sales directors and computer program writers. None of us ended up on the same path that we believed college was preparing us for. Life took over and led us elsewhere globally and professionally, but we have stayed in touch.
I recognized the fearful and uncertain looks on the faces of the twenty-something-year-olds waiting at Shannon airport last May. Some were probably heading over to the USA to work illegally on holiday visas and were in panic mode. Their faces tense and tight as they waited their turn to board the plane. I wanted to sit with these young people , reassure them that if they were emigrating permanently, things were going to be alright. They’d make a new life, maybe even a better life, in the places they were going to.
A better life? That would have been a lie. It was true in my case twenty years ago, but for this group, the same facts did not apply.I realized that the lives they were leaving behind in Ireland, the lives they had known for the majority of their growing years, were far better than the life I knew growing up in the ’70’s and ’80’s. In reality the pursuit of a better life through emigration from Ireland may be an impossible dream for those twenty somethings that have only known affluence in the last 15 years of economic boom in Ireland.
The Celtic Tiger has left this generation of graduates disadvantaged in many ways. I left Ireland in 1992 with a suitcase filled with clothes and a few favorite books. These students were leaving cell phones and cars. The economic boom we called the Celtic Tiger created a life of plenty from 1995 onward. The jobs I did in Ireland to make money, waitress, receptionist, room maid, were now being done by immigrants from Europe. Polish, Spanish, Lithuanian and Latvian people did the jobs that the Irish no longer wanted to do or felt inadequately remunerated for. A friend who is hosting her niece this summer told me that the girl takes a taxi to the train station rather than ride the bus, every morning. This is what the Celtic Tiger has done to the next generation. The expectations have been raised but the means of getting the money to pay for those expectations has disappeared. The Irish Diaspora of 2011 has it far worse than the Irish Disapora of 1991. We had less, that’s for certain, and in hindsight that made us want more and work harder for it.
I left Ireland in 1992 ready to work as a room maid, baby sitter, waitress, Chinese restaurant hostess or dry cleaning retail clerk. At one point in my life I was working one full time job and four part time jobs and attended college for my Masters in Education at night. I left Ireland hungry for work and in most cases I was the only Caucasian on the shift. This was the best education I ever got, and has helped me daily since.
Allegedly 1,000 people per week are emigrating from Ireland at present due to the downturn in the economy. Faced with post 9/11 immigration laws and recessions in the countries the Irish normally headed off for; namely America and England, this new Irish diaspora has a far harder road ahead of them than I had. Work is difficult to find abroad and even if they do find it in places like New Zealand, getting a visa to go and work there is not a permanent solution. Most visas are offered for 12 months and are often non-renewable.
I wish the best to this new crop of Irish hitting the high seas and searching for work abroad. When I look at the picture above of myself and my five friends graduating in 1991, I see a pattern in Irish history that seems destined for repetition. Work hard and you’ll make it. That’s what I believed back then. Yet, today I feel that I would be giving false hope to the twenty somethings waiting to find work abroad. This is one generation that does not have it better than their predecessors.