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A light that endures


American Emigrant

A light that endures

Irish Diaspora

Stephen O’Grady

IT is almost 16 years since a great Irish woman – a great Mayo woman – made a symbolic gesture with rich Celtic undertones that continues to stand the test of time.
An enduring and endearing image was formed when President Mary Robinson, during her inauguration speech in 1990, remembered the Irish diaspora sprinkled all over the planet, and offered them a candle of hope to guide them home from a bay window in the Phoenix Park.
In 1995, she recalled the Irish diaspora once more, in a passionate address to the houses of the Oireachtas. The tide soon begun to turn, with 1996 marking the turning point when the increasing numbers of immigrants outnumbered emigrants. A skills’ shortage had briefly stemmed the flow out of the country during the 1970s, but the late 1980s had seen emigration levels scale jagged, unwelcome peaks. By 1989, more than 70,500 Irish people were upping sticks, most of them in search of a so-called better life on pastures far and near. Between 1986 and 1991 the outflow reached a massive 134,000 people. Slow growth, brain drain, low productivity and high tax economy were the anti-buzzwords, which seemed to capture the state of the nation.
And then that tide began to turn. Agreements commenced in the late 1980s designed to reduce costs and boost profits began to kick in. The interest of foreign investors perked up as corporate taxes were slashed, and the knock-on effect boosted productivity and wage increases beyond expectation. EU subsidies also began to feed into the Irish economy, it was estimated that a net 3,000 Irish people had returned to the country in the five years between 1991 and 1996.
From the mid-90s the Irish economy generated employment at an unprecedented rate as new and significant labour shortages emerged into a situation of near-full employment. As the influx took shape it was confirmed that more than half of the immigrants swelling the nation’s population statistics were in fact returning Irish emigrants.
Net immigration figures have remained in the black since, with almost 23,000 recorded for 1998. Last month’s preliminary census figures, recording the country’s greatest population in over a century and a half, have consolidated the sense that Ireland is a ‘go-to’ place.
However, another set of recent and burgeoning statistics could be set to make Ireland a ‘get-away-from’ place again. While the standard of living bounds along prettily, so too – but not so prettily – does the cost of living here.
Last week’s intervention by the European Central Bank – their fourth since December – has seen interest rates climb to new heights that, at last, are beginning to realistically hit pockets. Now home-owners and, even more acutely, prospective home-owners, are waking up to new financial realities that are beginning to stretch and hurt them.
The ECB’s move is designed to stem the inflationary pressures that are emanating slowly but surely from the fuel crisis and those soaring oil prices we keep hearing about. Not only will we have to pay more for our petrol, diesel and oil in the very near future, but the very source of this hike is also at the heart of mounting inflation rates and rising interest rates. The annual rate of inflation amongst the 12 countries in the Eurozone now sits at 2.5 percent, with Ireland’s loitering menacingly around the three percent mark.
Living in Ireland is not quite the piece of pie it’s made out to be, and the question has now to be asked if it is in the interest of some living here to look elsewhere. Could a new Irish diaspora be set to emerge, wrought out of an affluent society that just could not sustain or control the good times?
It was interesting, in the midst of all the talk of hikes and highs, that commentators predicted last week that low-cost carrier Ryanair is set to take the hit themselves, rather than pass it on to its consumers and lose its low-cost brand in the process. So, while the cost of living continues to soar all about us, Ryanair will continue to soar over and above it all. Could Ryanair, then, provide an unlikely and ironic vehicle for the distribution of a new diaspora abroad?
“The grand old days of emigration are gone,” responds east Mayo native, Piaras MacEinrí, who is part of the Migration Studies Unit at the Geography Department of UCC.
“Emigration has shrunk emphatically. There are less than 17,000 people leaving the country per annum now and most of these are going voluntarily. There is still a trickle to the [United] States and London, but it’s nothing like it was in 1988 and 1989 when two percent of the population left, and half of those who left during the 80s actually returned in the 90s.
“As the economic standards go up in a country, the tendency to leave the country goes down. That desire to emigrate, that wanderlust, is not the mass phenomenon that it’s often made out to be.”
According to estimates compiled by the United Nations, only three percent of the world’s population engages in migration during their lifetime.
“The whole migration thing is a bit of an aberration,” continues MacEinrí, originally from Kilmovee. “Sure, there is a big spike coming into Ireland from Poland right now, but that will level off as the Polish economy begins to find its feet and perform. Emigrants tend to find their way home.”
So, while the bright city lights of New York, Beijing and Paris present certain inducements, it seems the light in Mrs Robinson’s window and the light in the heart will continue to exercise its own immeasurable effect on the Irish psyche.