A man stands on a shoreline, suitcase in one hand and a hurling stick in the other. In the distance lie famous landmarks; Sydney Opera House, the Statue of Liberty and the British Houses of Parliament. The Caption on the horizon reads, “SAVE ME FROM EMIGRATION.”
‘Jobless Paddy,’ Feilim Mac an Iomaire, 26, of Inverin, Connemara, spent his savings on a billboard advertising his desire to remain in Ireland. After spending a year in Sydney, Australia, Mac an Iomaire returned to Ireland and remained unemployed for eight months. Mac an Iomaire received five job offers and now works with Paddy Power as a communications executive.
Jobless Paddy’s idea of being ‘saved from emigration’ is not shared by all Irish emigrants.
Some emigrants left by choice, and others left by necessity. In 1991 myself and five other women graduated from NUI Galway. We too were faced with emigration. We left in the late eighties, mid-nineties, at the start of the millennium and in 2009. The idea of being ‘saved’ from emigration was foreign to most of us. In fact some of us would argue that emigration saved us.
We choose our new countries for a myriad of reasons. In 1987 I left for America, returning to university in Galway and then back to work in America for the summers. Since 1987 I have spent more time in America than I have in Ireland. I became an emigrant officially in 1993 .
Anne Walsh and Patricia Crosse left for England in 1992, Miriam O’Brien had been in England since 1991. I worked briefly in London in the latter part of 1992. Pauline Singleton remained in Ireland as did Veronica O’Looney.
London became our launching pad. The group splintered and we headed off to different corners of the globe. I to America, Crosse went to South Africa and then on to Australia. O’Brien joined me in the US in 1994 and Walsh remained in London until 1999.
For Walsh remaining in London was important because it was close to home.
“Personally I never thought to go to the States,” Walsh acknowledged, “I think it was too far away for me. I was kind of happy to stay near enough to London,” she added.
O’Brien chose London for similar reasons. “It was quite close to home and it was relatively cheap to get there.”
Crosse felt an affinity for England because she was born there.
“I felt greener pastures were elsewhere,” Crosse said, “Having not been born and bred in Ireland, I didn’t have the same ties that everyone else had,” she added.
The Ireland we left in the early 1990’s could not provide us with the work or remuneration we wanted. Pauline Singleton had already worked in England prior to starting university. I had completed almost a full year of working in America. Most summers took us to other countries in search of work.
“There really didn’t seem to be anything available,” Crosse said, “most people seemed to be heading off to the US or elsewhere.”
O’ Brien agreed. “The economy went through a slump and there was like no jobs.” Though intent on travelling and seeing the world, she added, “probably the economy had an impact on my decision to leave.”
Walsh added, “It wasn’t good at all. I remember most summers, we had always went abroad to look for work,” she said, “The next thing to do was to go where others had gone before you.”
When we launched ourselves from London to other parts of the world the emigrant status became very real and permanent for us.
America was my choice, I felt that Ireland could not provide me with the same opportunities I availed of in the US. I was getting paid a very decent wage and could go to school at night for a masters degree in education which opened doors that I believe would have remained closed in Ireland.
I am an emigrant by choice. I could never see myself remaining in Ireland, although I love the people and the country, I felt confined. That first working experience in the US in 1987 kept luring me back.
Crosse emigrated to Australia by choice. “I was quite happy to come and live here, nicer climate, bit different. Whereas London, or even Ireland, didn’t quite feel appealing back then,” Crosse acknowledged. “It actually wasn’t that difficult a choice to make at that time.”
O’Brien who lives in New York said, “I just thought maybe it would be fun to go try America out.”
By the time the millennium had rolled around, things were changing for Walsh in England and Singleton and O’Looney in Ireland.
Walsh returned back to Ireland, after spending eight years in London, to care for an ailing parent in 1999. O’Looney had taken a career break from teaching in 2001 to, “see what else was out there,” and Singleton who was working in the service industry saw the end of the boom coming in 2005.
O’ Looney admitted, “A lot of people find that interesting that I left Ireland in the middle of a so-called peak, I say “so called,” because I did try to get a job in Ireland before I left,” she added, “I found in Ireland, essentially, Irish people were never paid what they were worth.”
Despite the fact that the ferry from Dun Laoghaire to England was broken on the day O’Looney left Ireland, she drove to the North of Ireland, took a ferry to England and then another to France. “That is how is escaped Ireland,” O’Looney said, “It was emotional leaving.”
Having studied German and French in college and spending an extensive amount of time in both countries, Germany was O’Looney’s first choice as a new country.
“I have always had an affinity for the country, I have always managed to make my way there,” she said “The weather was good, the beer was good and so was the wine! The people are relatively friendly and I got what I still consider today to be a very good job with a lot of benefits,” O’Looney said.
Since leaving Ireland O’Looney has progressed upward in careers in Germany, a progression that she feels may not have occured in Ireland.
Singleton had spent an extensive amount of time working in England before university and America during the summers while at university.
“During the nineties it was hard enough to get work,” Singleton said. She chose America for one year.
“I wanted to spend a year in America with Margaret (sister) I had a green card at the time,” Singleton said, “And purely to save some money before I went back to do the apprenticeship, I knew I would be earning so little,” she affirmed.
When she returned to Ireland, after over a year of searching, Singleton attained an apprenticeship in a law office in 1993.
When asked why it was so difficult to get an apprenticeship Singleton replied, “Purely because of the economics,” and added, “There was no work really in Ireland at the time. The boom hadn’t kicked in until closer to 1999, 2000.”
Singleton, a solicitor, saw that the boom in Ireland was mostly a property boom that did not begin until 1999. “There was plenty of work for solicitors at the time because of the property boom,” she said.
In 2005 Singleton, who had now gone into the B&B business with her husband, saw the end of the boom coming.
“Because of the property boom,” Singleton said, “the government had given tax incentives to hotels, for new hotels to be built. So there was a glut of new hotels all around the country. That pretty much killed off the B&B industry,” she added.
Despite having a beautiful B&B in a prestigious location, it took Singleton two years to sell the business.
“We were told that it would sell no problem, we were very lucky to sell it after having it two years on the market,” Singleton said.
With a husband and two young children Singleton relocated to Tenerife. A difficult decision and one that she now wishes they did not have to make.
“I had moved with my children and it is so difficult when you don’t know the systems that are in place in order to provide for children,” Singleton affirmed, “When you are moving on your own, you only have yourself to worry about.”
Walsh now has second thoughts about moving back to Ireland and has not given up on the idea of emigrating again.
“I am seriously considering (emigration) at the moment because things are so bad here,” she said, “I reckon you would probably get a better job in London.” Walsh added, “I have never gone back to the wages that I was on all those years ago in London.”
Feilim Mac an Iomaire, the man who wanted to be saved from emigration, caught the attention of many people in Ireland, including Walsh, who does not share Mac an Iomaire’s sentiment about emigration.
“I thought, ‘What is he on about?’ The best thing you could ever do is leave,” she said. “You don’t have to leave forever,” and added, “You always have the option to come back. But it is the best thing ever, you left, I left. Anybody whoever left only gained from it,” Walsh said.
O’ Looney agreed. “I am glad I emigrated. I am particularly glad that I just got up and went.”
O’Brien shares a different point of view. Though working and living in New York for “almost twenty years,” O’Brien said, “I have never looked at myself as being an emigrant,” and added, “But I guess I am.”
Emigrant or not, O’Brien feels that the experience abroad has been a positive one.
“I am glad that I left,” O’Brien said. She feels that the experience of working abroad has made her, “more of a rounded person, more free thinking.”
Crosse in Australia disagreed. “I am regretful,” she said. “I am sad. Because it is a sort of a lonely life for me and Liam (son) because we don’t have any family here,” she added.
For Singleton, the last of the group to leave, the decision was a difficult but realistic one.
“I was a basket case,” she said and laughed. “I am not happy that we’ve moved, but I don’t see any future for us to come back right now,” Singleton said.
For those of us who left, regardless of whether it was by choice or forced emigration the consensus is that you can always return to Ireland but try to make it work.
O’Looney’s advice is, “Try and integrate well, get to know the locals. Don’t lose your love of Ireland, but don’t pretend that Ireland hasn’t changed or won’t change when you leave.”
Crosse’s advice to the new wave of Irish emigrants is, “Embrace it. They’re going somewhere, it’s an adventure,” she said, “Know that one day you can always go back.”
For Walsh, emigration is an empathic ‘yes!’
“Get there as quick as possible, settle in, get involved and open your mind,” she said, “you certainly will learn a heck of a lot from interacting with other people. It’s the best thing that will ever happen to you,” Walsh said.
Even Jobless Paddy, Feilim Mac an Iomaire agreed. “You’d have to leave the disappointment behind you. Try to make the most of it,” Mac an Iomaire said. “If you embrace your new surroundings, chances are you are going to make new friends.”
When asked what advice he would give to emigrants Mac an Iomaire said, “It’s not ideal, but you have to make the most of what things have become I suppose.”