Emigration: we still can't all live on a small island?

In 1987 Brian Lenihan Sr told us sternly: 'We can't all live on a small island'. With the publication this week of the ESRI's forecast that 50,000 people will leave Ireland this year the spin machine, which has been chuntering along steadily since recession hit, has burst into one of its periodic spurts of overdrive. Piaras Mac Éinrí traces a history of emigration, and the governmental obfuscation that seeks to characterise it as individual choice, and not the consequence of systemic failure.

It could have been almost any school in Ireland in the early 1930s. About forty five eleven- to twelve-year old boys, in short trousers, most sitting cross-legged, many barefoot. A formal occasion, in an age when photographs were still uncommon.

The photograph is of my father's graduating national school class. The parish is Kilmovee, in East Mayo – one of the poorest parts of a newly independent and undeveloped country. Ireland had only two significant exports back then: food and its own children. Within ten years, all but a handful of these boys had left the country, never to return. The numbers of girls who left Ireland at this time was even greater.

The American Wake did not get its name for nothing, although in truth most went to Britain, not the US or Canada. But it was a wake: a departure with all the finality of death. Sorrowful partings and, more often than not, a hard life to follow. For many, those early years in national school were the only formal education they received.

Against the odds, one of the boys in this photograph became a millionaire. He is still alive and lives in Australia now. My father is in regular contact with him by email. The rest have disappeared, without a trace of history or memory left behind them in their birthplaces apart from one old photograph. Last year, it was published in the Western People with a request that anyone who knew or had known any of them might come forward. There were no replies.

Poor countries and regions, on the edge of a richer world, have always sent their children away. In the Report of the Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems, published in the mid-1950s, the Reverend A.A. Luce put it bleakly:

The hard core of the problem is the sad stark fact that one Irish child (more than one, statistically) in every three is born to emigrate, and grows up in the knowledge that he or she must emigrate. The moral and psychological effect of that fact is immense. It paralyses certain areas. It is a dead weight upon the spirit of the whole country, a dead hand upon her economy.

Any Filipino, or Algerian, or Camerounian, or rural Chinese person, will recognise these truths. They will recognise, too, the immense human suffering than often lies behind such realities.

Given a choice, most people choose to remain in their own homelands. Only about 3% of the world's population live outside their countries of birth. When a country's social and economic conditions improve, a fall in emigration invariably follows. Of course, there will always be those who choose to migrate, simply because, for one reason or another, they want to, and that's fine. Others are sojourners, spending periods in one or more different places before returning home, often to raise a family.

Most people make the best of whatever circumstances they find themselves faced with. To quote Karl Marx:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past.

Many of the previous waves of Irish migrants went on to make successful and happy lives, far from the image of the downtrodden penniless homeless person which sometimes seems to be only story we hear.

People in the newly independent Free State must have found this constant emigration a hard truth to deal with. They also had to deal with it in different ways in the public and private spheres of their lives. In private, there were the emigrant's letter, the 'American box' with its sometimes garish clothes and the inevitable photographs of migrant families, often flanked by improbably large cars. Migrant narratives; myths of progress and success. Today, similar photographs, taken in Dundalk and Dublin and Cork, circulate in remote corners of Nigeria and Romania.

Such myths of migrant success were a two-edged sword. Too often, the only stories which could be told were success stories. Those who didn't make it sometimes dropped all contacts when shame would not allow them to admit that the streets, for them at least, had not turned out to be paved with gold. The most powerful part of John Healy's Nineteen Acres deals with an aunt who had regularly sent money home and given every impression of doing well in America. Eventually, Healy himself, through a scholarship for journalism, goes to meet his Aunt Mary – at an address which is engraved on his memory after many years of letters home. Instead of a 'house with a stoop' he finds a place that is almost a tenement, a penniless aunt and a cousin who cannot work and starts every day with a beer. The American Dream, it seems, was only an illusion. His aunt had married a fireman from Galway but he, an alcoholic, had died in a drink-related accident.

Public discourses of emigration were also complicated, but in different ways and for different reasons. De Valera's famous 1943 'The Ireland that we dreamed of' speech was directed at the diaspora as much as a home audience. It should have occurred to him to wonder, but apparently did not, why those same happy maidens and athletic youths were in Boston and Birmingham rather than warming themselves in the cosy homesteads of his pastoral-isolationist Ireland. The bitter truth was that De Valera's vision had nothing to offer the majority of those who had been obliged to leave. In its isolationism, its blind anti-modernism, its vision of unsustainable economic autarky and its reactionary ideology, it guaranteed the very conditions which paved the way for their mass departure. Yet there is an emerging post-revisionist trend aimed at rehabilitating Dev, suggested that his non-materialist vision of a good life should now be re-evaluated. I beg to disagree.

Here is the central point. As Tríona Ní Ghoille Coille put it back in 1989, emigration is no accident. Nor is emigration, as fatuously claimed in the Dáil last year by Minister Dr Martin Mansergh, an historian and someone who should know better, a 'cyclical phenomenon'. Just as the economic crisis which Ireland is currently traversing did not 'come' to us, as falsely claimed by the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, most non-voluntary emigration has resulted directly from the policy failures of governments as well as from the decisions of hegemonic groups within society itself. Those groups may have felt some twinges of regret, or guilt (but probably not shame, any more than any member of the current Fianna Fáil/Green administration apparently feels shame) at the departure of so many. But it took second place to the necessary preservation, from their point of view, of their rights, entitlements and privileges. This attitude has been well captured in the words of Alexis Fitzgerald in his contribution to the Report of the Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems:

I cannot accept either the view that a high rate of emigration is necessarily a sign of national decline or that policy should be over-anxiously framed to reduce it. It is clear that in the history of the Church, the role of Irish emigrants has been significant. If the historical operation of emigration has been providential, Providence may in the future have a similar vocation for the nation. In the order of values, it seems more important to preserve and improve the quality of Irish life and thereby the purity of that message which our people have communicated to the world than it is to reduce the numbers of Irish emigrants.

While there is a danger of complacency I believe that there should be a more realistic appreciation of the advantages of emigration. High emigration, granted a population excess, releases social tensions which would otherwise explode and makes possible a stability of manners and custom which would otherwise be the subject of radical change. It is a national advantage that it is easy for emigrants to establish their lives in other parts of the world not merely from the point of view of Irish society they leave behind but from the point of view of the individuals concerned whose horizon of opportunity is widened.

In the scale of metricious, self-serving and self-exculpatory argument, this is hard to beat – and Fitzgerald was associated, of course, with Fine Gael. Nor should its corollary be forgotten, the understandable bitterness of some of the 1950s generation of emigrants who felt they had been left to fend for themselves abroad, educationally and socially under-equipped by a country which did little to help them and covered its embarrassment with silence and denial.

The 1980s were supposed to be different. After all, Ireland had been in the European Economic Community for a decade by then. Emigration was part of the bad old days, before the CAP arrived, old houses could be turned to cowsheds and replaced by blissful bungalows countrywide and increasing financial transfers allowed enhanced investment in education and infrastructure while the strong growth in foreign direct investment seemed to augur well for the future. There was even a period of net in-migration during the 1970s as skilled Irish tradesmen returned with their families to a booming economy. It was not to last. By the 1980s, Gay Byrne was extolling the virtues of a life in Australia on a daily basis as emigration roared back.

There were three main problems, two of which resulted directly from Government ineptitude. The first was that the giveaway elections and irresponsible promises of the late 1970s pushed up national indebtedness to unsustainable levels, choking off any meaningful opportunities for the incentivisation of new employment creation. The second was that the Government failed to plan for an entirely predictable situation whereby what little indigenous Irish industry there had been, once the initial period of shelter from full competition came to an end, went to the wall. In Cork the results were particularly felt, with the devastating departure of car manufacturing and assembly, shipbuilding and repair, textile manufacture and a host of traditional industries within a short period.

The third problem was arguably the one factor over which the Government did not have direct control, the arrival of the baby boomers of the 1960s onto a job market which would have needed to have been in continuous expansion to accommodate the increasing numbers of job seekers, but, for the reasons just mentioned, was actually contracting. The resulting spikes in unemployment and emigration were predictable but not entirely inevitable, but nothing was done to prepare for them. In one year alone, April 1988-March 1989, 70,600 emigrants left; the highest single number in any one year of the 20th century.

Again, the Government in the 1980s was not prepared to admit that the return of emigration was a problem, at least for the many who had not chosen voluntarily to go. Instead, the new spin was to present the latest generation of emigrants as being completely different from those who had gone before them – a mobile generation of young Europeans, enhancing their skills and experience through their global options before returning to benefit the homeland. Foreign Minister Brian Lenihan Senior summed it up in his famous Newsweek interview of October 1987 and his 'we can't all live on a small island' became a bitter and ironic catchphrase for a generation:

Q. "Isn't emigration a defeat for the Irish people?

A. "I don't look on the type of emigration we have today as being of the same category as the terrible emigration in the last century. What we now have is a very literate emigrant who thinks nothing of coming to the United States and going back to Ireland again. The younger people in Ireland today are very much in that mode. And it's very refreshing to see it. If future legislation in the Congress will acknowledge the skills and the capacities of Irish emigrants and grant legal status to allow entry to qualified jobs, we will have a mobile labour market stretching from the US to Ireland to the European Community where we can participate and contribute fully..."

Q. "What can these emigrants offer Ireland?"

A. "They should do what they have to do. The world is now one world and they can always return to Ireland with the skills they have developed. We regard them as part of a global generation of Irish people. We shouldn't be defeated or pessimistic about it. We should be proud of it. After all, we can't all live on a small island".

In short, the default option for successive Irish Governments and significant portions of elite opinion has always been denial.


Now people are leaving again. The spin machine is again in overdrive as new versions of old myths and half-truths are dusted off and recycled. Young people, says the Tánaiste, are 'going abroad and enjoying themselves'. To be sure, there is some distance between the American Wake and the world of Skype, the provincial newspapers on the internet and affordable international air travel. But the underlying reality is that the State, for the third time since independence, has spectacularly failed its own citizens and has cynically sought to find a way out of its crisis, inter alia, by pressing the 'export' button all over again. Those who have to leave lose everything all over again, including any right to have their voices heard in the political process in Ireland – a process whose antediluvian, corrupt and clientelist nature is a large part of the problem in the first place.

The bottom line is that governments and elites are directly and serially responsible for policies which have led to high, unnecessary and involuntary emigration. They are responsible for the hypocrisy, silence, denial and spin which has always surrounded the issue in public and political discourse. Once again, the woes of the country are being addressed at be behest of those who have; it is those who have not who are being made to pay the price.

(Image via masochismtango on Flickr)