Emigration, the perpetual Irish pandemic

Image Credit: Emigration rates have gradually been decreasing since the financial crash of 2008, however with the Covid-adjusted youth unemployment hitting 61.8 per

Emigration rates have gradually been decreasing since the financial crash of 2008, however with the Covid-adjusted youth unemployment hitting 61.8 percent in April 2021, Michael Bergin questions if this pattern will change.

Recently, it was revealed that Ireland’s population had, for the first time since the great famine of the 1840’s, surpassed five million people. The reason for such slow population growth is known to all of us: emigration. There is scarcely a household in the country that doesn’t have to call relatives in the US, UK, Canada or Australia each year at Christmas, and it seems that for the longest time, the decision to move abroad has had a unique bond with Irish society and culture.

Since the 1960’s, Ireland’s population has been growing, due to economic prosperity and increased standards of living. This progress is not irreversible, however. If the past year has taught us anything, it is that nothing can be taken for granted. In fact, some would even argue that the harsh realities and restrictions of the pandemic have exacerbated the already legitimate reasons to leave the country, leading to a generational reckoning on the topic of emigration.

In order to uncover some of the truths about emigration during a pandemic, the University Observer spoke to UCD graduate and former editor of the University Observer, Gavin Tracey, who recently left Ireland, deciding to move to France.

The first question is perhaps the most obvious one: Why?

In Tracey’s eyes, it’s less of a specific reason, and more to do with the general conditions of life in Ireland. “There was very little keeping me in Ireland” he says reflectively, “Dublin was too expensive and there was really nothing going on in terms of employment that I felt I could make a career out of.” In his view, since leaving Ireland and heading to France, “The cost of living, the housing situation, the quality of life, you name it, is vastly better than it was in Ireland”.

It’s a sobering reality for many, and certainly raises many questions about how Ireland is treating its young people in the wake of the pandemic. However, according to Tracey, he is not alone in having to leave the country as of late.

“A lot of [my] friends have either moved away, or want to move away at some point”, he says, “most have moved simply because their two options were to stay living with their parents or pay through the nose to live in Dublin”. “In the next few years”, he forecasts, “most of my friends will be living outside of Ireland.”

“We had nothing but time to think about where our lives were going, and at least in my case, I realised that living in Ireland had run its course”.

Tracey’s points highlight the economic situation in Ireland, and the cost of living in Dublin, which for some time now has been one of Europe’s most expensive cities. The housing crisis, as Tracey has noted, also seems to be a huge driver of emigration. In the past 20 years, there has been a 20 percent increase in the average wage earned by young people in Ireland. However, over the same period, house prices have soared by an enormous 155 percent, meaning that even with two incomes, buying a home is out of the question for most young people.

Tracey’s points also raise questions about the struggles young people face when it comes to finding work in Ireland. In the most recent figures, the youth unemployment rate in Ireland stands at 61.8 percent. An enormous figure, even if it is adjusted to account for a completely unforeseeable pandemic.

The next obvious conclusion to be drawn is whether or not the pandemic has impacted on young people’s decision to move.

“Absolutely it has” he answers definitively, though not for the reasons one might think. “We had nothing but time to think about where our lives were going, and at least in my case, I realised that living in Ireland had run its course”.

Remarkably, it doesn’t seem to be the pandemic-related unemployment, or shutdown of society that has caused people to re-evaluate their futures in Ireland, but rather the opportunity to stand above the humdrum of everyday life and truly reconsider the direction they were headed in. If all it takes for people to realise they cannot continue life in Ireland is a moment’s clarity afforded by a global shutdown, this is an uncategorical condemnation of the failings of government when it comes to young people.

These failings need to be addressed in a specifically Irish context,  so Tracey is posed with the question of has Ireland gotten better or worse at providing for its young people?

“Ireland is fantastic at flinging its young people out of the country, and at the fastest rate possible” comes the unequivocal response, “We don’t invest in our young people, and if they make it and do well for themselves, it is in spite of, and not thanks to, the way the place is run”.

This rejoinder is tempered, however, by a poignant reflection on a land that seems to draw the adoration of so many, while simultaneously pushing them away. “I love Ireland dearly, I love the people, but for me and for a lot of people my age, we do not see a future for ourselves there.” Finally, Tracey enforces the responsibility the Irish government have to make Ireland a hospitable and fruitful place for young people to exist “[Ireland]s not better or worse at holding onto its young people than it ever was, we’re just of the age now where it’s our turn to leave, it’s never been any different”.

This account is rife with disappointment and fury, at a country that so clearly evokes deep emotions, yet at the same time is inherently hostile to the ambitions of many. The effects of the pandemic have been felt, but in the most unexpected way. It seems that when decision time is approaching, the economic and financial headlines that are attributed to the pandemic fade into the background, and an opportunity to think is afforded. The fact that once clarity of mind is achieved, emigration seems to be the natural solution, is a real, visceral problem.