A country hollowed out

Ireland is said to have mastered the financial crisis well, but the country has lost a generation of young, creative people

(A translation of this piece for the German daily paper “Süddeutsche Zeitung”)

A few days ago, Joe Byrne had brunch with a few friends. They do that regularly – they used to meet up in Dublin, now they sit in front of their computers, their webcams turned on: Brenda in Canada, Luke in Hong Kong, Sinéad in Moldova, and Joe at home in Ireland. “About a third of my friends have left Ireland in the last five years”, Joe Byrne says.

Ireland is regarded as a country that has mastered the economic crisis well – as an example for how well the austerity policy prescribed by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund works. The country’s economy has indeed recovered slightly after a dramatic slump. But since the crisis started in 2008, young people have been emigrating in droves – and not all of them will return.

For centuries, Ireland was poor and an emigration country. But when the economic boom started in the 90s and the island became the “Celtic Tiger”, there were, for the first time in history, more immigrants than emigrants. Some were foreigners from countries like Poland, some were Irishmen returning from their exile. Then the crisis hit, and the proportions turned again. “Old patterns are reasserting themselves”, Mary Gilmartin, a migration researcher at Maynooth University, says. Almost everyone in Ireland knows emigration stories from their parents’ or grandparents’ generation, she says.

Joe Byrne – beard, frameless glasses, sophisticated language – is 26 years old, he just finished his PhD in Chemistry in Dublin. When he and his friends finished college in 2010, job prospects in Ireland were lousy. Not long before, a hiring ban had been introduced for the public sector. Youth unemployment went up from nine to over 30 percent during the crisis; today, it is at 24 percent. The rate of young people who are neither in school nor have a job went up from twelve to 22 percent and is now, at 18 percent, still one of the highest in the EU.

“There was a change between the emigration behaviour of graduates immediately before us and my age group”, Joe Byrne says. For the older graduates, emigration was about “temporary escapism” or about a specific job, he says, whereas for the younger ones it was “the most obvious solution” to avoid unemployment. Byrne says that emigration has always been part of the Irish experience, “though we were brought up to believe we would be the first generation not forced to leave our shores by economic necessity.”

Even for those who have a job it can be difficult to earn a living. Migration researcher Mary Gilmartin says that many more people work part-time or have precarious jobs today than a few years ago. The IMF calculated in 2013 that almost a quarter of the Irish are either unemployed or underemployed.

Product designer Joanna Jakma is one of those who left. “After graduating in 2011, I was getting four emails a day saying: Thanks, but no thanks”, Jakma says. When she lost her job, for which she was over-qualified anyway, she started searching abroad and found a position in the Netherlands in early 2015. Within two and a half weeks, she and her boyfriend sold some of their belongings, packed up the rest and moved, in a crammed car, to a village on the Dutch coast. “After all these years I’m finally working as a designer”, Jakma says. “But financially it’s tough especially given my partner struggles to get work with his lack of Dutch. And saying goodbye to my mum breaks my heart every time.” Nevertheless, Jakma is planning to stay in the Netherlands long term.

In a 2013 poll, only two out of ten emigrants believed they would move back to Ireland within the next three years. The number of people returning has dropped dramatically, researcher Mary Gilmartin says. She thinks this is even more important for the country than the rising number of emigrants. It is also what makes people like Joanna Jakma different from all the young Germans who leave to explore the world. While most of them do an Erasmus semester, an internship or a Master’s degree abroad, the Irish often leave their country without a date for their return. The population statistics illustrate this: Nowhere in Europe the number of people aged 20 to 29 dropped as sharply between 2008 and 2014 as it did in Ireland. Due to emigration and declining birth rates, it sank by five percent in the EU and by 21 percent in Greece and Spain. In Ireland, it dropped 28 percent.

“Some people argue emigration has positive effects because people would be unemployed otherwise”, Mary Gilmartin says. But, she says, the people who leave are those the country needs most – young people full of energy and creativity. Unlike the 19th century emigrants, they are also well-educated: According to a study, 62 percent of emigrants have a college degree, compared to about 40 percent in the general population. Gilmartin says you can feel the effects in small towns and villages: shops closing, rural communities being “hollowed out”. Plus, she says, austerity has led to a cutting back of public services, particularly in rural areas. She says the elderly are more dependent on support by younger family members now – but many of those have left. Gilmartin says that Ireland is far from having mastered the crisis all that well. She says homelessness, long-term unemployment and suicide rates have all risen. Before the crisis, 22.5 percent of young children in Ireland were at risk of poverty; in 2013, it was 31.4 percent. “On the surface, Ireland might look okay”, Gilmartin says, “but in the lived experience, it isn’t.”

Joe Byrne has noticed a new phenomenon lately. “There is a second wave of emigration”, he says. He sees some emigrants return, but many of those who stayed, he says, feel they missed out on an opportunity for new experiences, so they leave Ireland now. Sociologists call this chain migration: “People leave because their friends are leaving”, Mary Gilmartin says.

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A country hollowed out

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