Away for Christmas

THE statistics tell the official story but word-of-mouth paints a starker picture of the shift back towards the age-old curse of mass emigration.

The most recent CSO figures tell us 65,300 people left Ireland in the 12-month period to April 2010, roughly half of which were Irish, almost 10,000 more than had left in the year that bookended the September ’08 collapse. Unsurprisingly, we have to go back to 1989 for the last time things were this bad.

Visit any small town or village in Ireland and you’ll get names, not just cold statistics. Walk around Woodlawn in the Bronx and the intensely Irish community that resides there will tell you about the upsurge they’ve witnessed in the last two years.

There was no Facebook back in 1989, no Twitter, just a phone number to ring as soon as Shannon Airport became a painful memory. These days, word-of-mouth travels at speeds we never dreamed possible, offering imposing levels of opportunity.

Websites like irishalien.com and irishnetwork-usa.com are outlets for Irish emigrants that couldn’t have been dreamed up two decades ago.

History may be repeating itself all over again but the onset of technology is not the only difference. This time the traditional far-flung destinations like Boston and New York are being overshadowed by Toronto and Vancouver in Canada and Sydney and Perth in Australia where the ease of acquiring a visa is proving to be a draw.

And no strata of society is immune. The Irish Examiner has tracked down three emigrants, all coincidentally from Dublin but with very different backgrounds: the building trade, the arts and the legal profession.

However, what all three share is a frustration and a sadness that they have been forced to settle into a new life thousands of miles from home.

“When your own friends are saying ‘I miss you but don’t come home’ that’s not a good sign” NICOLA BARDEN faced a dilemma.

“When your own friends are saying ‘I miss you but don’t come home’ that’s not a good sign.” A paralegal in a Queens law firm, she loves New York but she is torn between the Big Apple and her professional future which is tied to Ireland.

The Ranelagh-born 25-year-old passed her Law Society FE-1 exams just over a year ago and had a Masters in Business Management from the Michael Smurfit Business School burning a hole in her back pocket. So when all she could find by way of employment was babysitting, she decided to act.

“When I did the exams, there were no traineeships,” Barden told the Irish Examiner. “The law firms were barely taking anyone at all. There was no paid work anywhere so I decided to that if I’m going to make a career out of law, I’d have to leave and get experience elsewhere to differentiate myself.”

Barden is on a graduate visa like many of the friends she has made since arriving on her own in March. But while her pals have managed to find sponsorship, she has yet to work out a way of extending her stay beyond April 2011.

Barden lives on the trendy Lower East Side of Manhattan so her story is different to many of the Irish gathered around Woodlawn in the Bronx or Woodside in Queens. Anyone who isn’t a long-term immigrant in those far-flung neighbourhoods is often illegal and therefore unwilling to discuss their situation. However, whether or not you have papers makes no difference when it comes to receiving the support for which the established Irish-American community is so well known.

“It was really daunting when I got here first but I met a lot of people through the Irish Network website and also through friends of friends back home. They introduced me to more people so I gradually built up a little bit of a network.

“But the first two months were really hard. I wasn’t homesick but there’s only so much wandering around the museums of New York that you can do on your own before you start to feel a bit lonely.

“Then there was the whole networking scene which isn’t something that happens in Ireland. Walking into that on my own was quite intimidating. A lot of the people at these events are successful CEOs and business owners. But they’re so helpful. We’re kind of like our own little family out here... it’s quite nice.”

“The welfare is cut and allowances are cut and they’re giving out free bloody cheese. That made the papers over here”

EASTER 1916 has been invoked regularly during expressions of anger at the bailout and its perceived destruction of Irish sovereignty.

Rathcoole native Diarmuid Ó Loing has direct lineage to the GPO. His great-grandfather, Gerry Boland, took up arms that day with his brother Harry — Gerry subsequently becoming a founding member of the Fianna Fáil party.

Now Boland’s direct descendant must start a new life on the other side of the world, having risen and fallen with the property boom. The 29-year-old stonemason moved to Perth, Australia, in October with his girlfriend Ita Gillen, having at one stage owned his own company, employing four people.

“I started at the bottom in 2003, served my time as an apprentice and worked my way up,” he said. “Eventually I said I’d give it a go out on my own and it was good for a while. We were being shown 100-acre farms and being told there’d be work there for 20 years. That’s the way it was, seriously. You were told you’d never be out of work. They said ‘go out and buy houses’. I know people who have two or three houses on the back of that advice.”

Even though he’s enjoying his new life by the Indian Ocean, he feels left down by his country of birth.

“The welfare is cut and allowances are cut and they’re giving out free bloody cheese. That made the papers over here. You can just imagine them on the building sites, ‘look at you Paddies, getting free cheese’.

“It was a bit of craic but it’s embarrassing too. It really makes your blood boil, (politicians) will have these fat pensions and not a worry in the world. All my friends’ children are going to be the ones saddled with this debt.”

A mortgage holder, Ó Loing felt he couldn’t survive any longer on social welfare and left not long after the chance of work drained away completely.

“Lads that I had working for me were entitled to social welfare but I wasn’t, even though I paid all my taxes. I wasn’t earning millions, I never earned big money, I made enough but nothing savage.

“I know there are another four or five people coming here from the Rathcoole/Saggart area within the next six months.”

“I’m applying for residency in Canada but I can’t say hand on my heart that I don’t want to go home at some stage in the future. Ireland’s where I’m from, it’s my culture. I want my children to learn Irish in school and know about Irish sport and culture”

KAREN CONNOLLY was on the verge of realising her dream.

The Dublin-born filmmaker had spent a year in pre-production for a feature-length movie and just before the shoot was set to begin, Irish funding was withdrawn.

In partnership with her brother, Wes, Armchair Films had been a nicely successful company producing small documentaries and commercials. Then when the recession destroyed their dream project, their world fell apart.

“We had a fantastic multi-cultural cast, Spanish, Swedish, an Irish crew of 24, a lovely melting pot of people,” recalls Connolly who was producer while her brother was writer/director.

“Everything was running along smoothly. We went to Cannes and Berlin pitching our idea alongside some major players. It was quite scary at the time. You’re putting the confident foot forward but inside you’re dying with nerves.

“In Cannes I ended up being invited to a party at one of the big villas which turned out to be where Brad Pitt and George Clooney were sitting around playing cards. I was chatting to people who were working on projects worth $230 million and $89m and they’d ask me how much mine was and I’d answer ‘€1.3 million’.

“We took it all the way. We were about to go to the first day of photography but our funding in Ireland fell through which had a domino effect on the British production company we were involved with and the Spanish distribution company we were involved with.

“It was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life, having to let go 24 people from something they had invested a year of their lives in.” To make matters worse, her partner, Rory, an engineer, was made redundant, adding extra strain at the wrong time.

They eventually decided Toronto was the place to nurture her ongoing dreams of a career in film. Connolly eventually found a job as a script editor at the Discovery Channel and is finally beginning to settle down after almost six months away from home.

“All I’m hearing is doom and gloom but I still want to keep in touch. I want to hear that things have turned around. I’m applying for residency in Canada but I can’t say hand on my heart that I don’t want to go home at some stage in the future. Ireland’s where I’m from, it’s my culture. I want my children to learn Irish in school and know about Irish sport and culture.”

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