Fr Kevin Hegarty
In the next decade, as we prepare to celebrate the centenary of the foundation of the Irish state, there will be much focus on the visions the then nationalist leaders had for an independent country.
One of them, Eamon de Valera , encapsulated his ideal in an address for St Patrick’s Day in 1943: “ That Ireland which we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. It would, in a word, be the home of a people living the life that God desires that man should live.”
Whether this Arcadian vision would attract people is arguable. What is beyond doubt is that De Valera was unable to create and sustain it. He, who conducted foreign affairs with intellectual precision and diplomatic finesse, had a poor grasp of economics.
Emigration, a central part of Irish experience since the 18th century, particularly haunted his years as head of government. Four out of five children born between 1931 and 1941 emigrated in the 1950s. In that last decade the drumbeat of Irish life was the journey to Holyhead.
As the historian, Joe Lee, tartly observed:
“There would be fewer and fewer ‘sturdy children’ to romp in a wasting society. There would indeed be “contests of athletic youths” – on the building sites of Britain, where ‘McAlpine’s God was a well filled hod’. Not only would emigration soon reach levels unprecedented in the 20th century, but Ireland would boast the highest rate of female emigration of any European country between 1945 and 1960. If the comely maidens would laugh, it would be the bitter sweet laugh of liberation through emigration from a sterile society.”
Once they left they were often forgotten by official Ireland. Eavan Boland poignantly evokes the pain of what effectively was compulsory emigration in her poem ‘The Emigrant Irish’:
Like oil lamps we put them out the back of our houses, of our minds. We had lights, better than, newer than and then a time came, this time and now we need them. Their dried makeshift example.
They would have thrived on our necessities. What they survived we could not even live. By their lights now it is time to imagine how they stood there, what they stood with, that their possessions may become our power. Cardboard, iron. Their hardships parcelled in them.
Patience. Fortitude. Long-suffering in the bruise coloured dusk of the New World. And all the old songs. And nothing to lose.
Emigration is once again a hot topic. Due to the recession there is a constant stream of young people leaving our shores. ‘Skype’ has become the new life-line in thousands of Irish homes. And there is the government-sponsored initiative to invite people of Irish descent to come here next year as part of the ‘Gathering’ project.
Recently, also, the Federation of Irish Societies published the biggest empirical study of the Irish community in London ever undertaken. It gathered the views of 855 individuals and collated their responses in a professional sociological survey. The primary aim of the project was to “engage with vulnerable Irish people across London to assess their needs and aspirations in terms of future welfare, social and cultural services.”
Among its key findings are:
• Over 87 per cent of the overall sample report poor or moderate social support. The research indicates that isolation in the London Irish community is a contributing factor to poor health outcomes.
• Over 20 per cent report that they are in poor health or suffer anxiety and depression.
• While discrimination is less acute than in the past, negative stereotypes about the Irish persist among some sections of London society.
•Respondents found that mainstream services in London have limited understanding of the needs of the Irish community, their entitlements to services or benefits, and often make assumptions based on ill-informed stereotypes.
• Recent migrants, carers, second generation Irish and older people who do not use Irish community organisations are more likely to feel unfairly treated.
• Recent migrants found mainstream UK organisations, such as Job Centre Plus, has limited understanding of the eligibility for benefits of Irish claimants, particularly if they had not been unemployed in Ireland.
This fine study is a blueprint for action in the care of vulnerable Irish in London. The Irish Government has a moral responsibility to consider and respond positively to the findings. A failure to do so would give substance to Gabriel Byrne’s assertion that next year’s ‘Gathering’ is a ‘scam’.