The night before I left Ireland for good in the summer of 2000, I took a taxi from the Cork suburb of Togher to the city centre bar where I was meeting friends for my American wake. I had taken this route a thousand times before but on this occasion everything seemed different. Nearly a decade had passed since I moved to Dublin but each landmark from my childhood and adolescence suddenly appeared freighted with significance and emotion.
There was the church where I made my first communion. The park bench by The Lough where I got my first kiss. The wall on Bandon Road where we’d sit waiting for the team bus before going to Gaelic football matches with St. Finbarr’s. By the time the driver reached Washington Street, I had a lump in my throat, a tear in my eye, and couldn’t speak without my voice cracking.
I’d been mentally preparing to emigrate since I’d first met the New Yorker who became my wife six years earlier. We’d planned it and talked about it and, in many ways, as Ireland descended deeper and deeper into Celtic Tiger mania, I’d been heartily looking forward to the change of scenery. Yet, here I was, 12 hours before hitting the road to Shannon suddenly overcome with so many conflicting feelings and quarrelling emotions. It says something about what emigration does to you that walking past the nightclub where you first snagged an underage pint makes you come over all wistful and poignant. You don’t expect it to but it does.
The lesson here is that no matter how blasé or cocky we get about leaving the homeland, and the latest college graduates are among the most self-confident bunch we’ve ever produced, it still exacts an enormous human toll. For some, this week’s news that emigration has reached the highest level since the Great Famine will register merely as one more depressing statistical indicator of the tough economic times. The thing is it’s much, much more than that. When 6000 or so people fly off to seek their fortunes abroad every month, they leave behind heartbroken families, decimated towns and villages, and a country being thieved of its greatest natural resource.
It’s been said before but is worth reiterating under the present circumstances. Those who leave are traditionally those with most to contribute to a country battling to survive. Our best and our brightest left in the great generational exoduses which blighted the nation in the fifties and eighties, and they will do so again now. The type of go-getters who might have helped Ireland navigate its way out of the current morass will fetch up in London or New York or Sydney, and will thrive in meritocratic jobs markets less afflicted by the nepotism and cronyism still so prevalent in Dublin.
Some of those promising to go for only a few years will only ever return to Ireland as tourists, dragging reluctant children with strange accents around historic landmarks they never visited themselves during their own childhoods. As they do so, they will suffer the age-old emigrant dilemma of simultaneously loving and hating the place that spawned them. They will miss so much about their old lives yet will also quickly realise how fortunate they were to get out and enjoy an opportunity to experience a different lifestyle. Imagine living in a country where pubs don’t have bizarre signs asking for children to be off the premises by 8pm.
The truly galling aspect of all this is the impact this new wave of departures will have on future elections. The tens of thousands heading out the door are the very ones who would have been most inclined to punish the present crop of politicians at the ballot box next time out. In waving goodbye to its most vehement critics, the government is safeguarding its own future. Everything will be easier for them now that the demographic most likely to actually do something drastic like start a new political party or refuse to vote along Civil War lines like their parents and grandparents before them is gone.
Any furore about giving emigrants the vote, a briefly popular cause back in the 1980s, will very quickly come to naught because that would be the Leinster House equivalent of turkeys voting for Christmas. So, those who might have made a crucial, political difference are going to be weeping into their drinks thousands of miles from home as Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee battle it out for the keys to the bankrupt country.
And, for every emigrant, there will, unfortunately, be some weeping into the drinks to be done. Exile has a strange effect on you. I was warned before I left about the tendency for absence to make the heart grow fonder and to drive some into the arms of traditional Irish music. So it proved. I never liked or took much notice of the song “Spancil Hill” until it turned up on a CD in the car a few years back. I love it and I hate it. There are days even now when it still makes me tearful to hear the line: “The old ones were all dead and gone, and the young ones turning grey.”
That’s the emigrant experience summed up. For all the professional and personal happiness you may accrue in a far-off field, every trip home brings a reminder that you are missing out on so much. One day your parents are hale and hearty, greeting your homecoming for the holidays at the airport. Next time out, you are taking a taxi from that airport to the hospital to say goodbye and, en route, you are ruing every one of the days in between that you lived so far from home. Time you can’t get back. Memories you’ll never have. The human face of the statistics being bandied about this week.
For those heading for the airport over the coming days, weeks and months, they can at least take heart from the fact there has never been an easier time to live abroad. Phoning home has never been cheaper, the wonders of Skype make it possible to see the loved ones you’ve left behind anytime you want, and the globalization of television and media mean there are very few shocks in store no matter where on the planet you end up plying your trade. How different it all used to be was brought home to me a couple of years back in a conversation with a Clare man who arrived in New York in 1929.
At the age of 17, he’d never been off the family farm until he set off to catch an ocean liner out of Cobh. On that first day aboard, he was served fresh milk with his tea, and this was enough to send him off investigating. He spent the next 48 hours at sea searching high and low to see exactly where on the vessel they kept the cows. He knew so little of the outside world that he reckoned if there was fresh milk, there had to be cattle some place too. Those leaving today are a little more informed and that bit better prepared for the journey. Something to be thankful for.