The prospects for most people in their 20s would not seem that great, but, of course, it has happened so many times already that we should have learned to deal with and exploit emigration.
The biggest exodus from this country began after the Great Famine. Our emigrants are now much better educated. Many have third level degrees, and this is in a sense a dreadful waste of resources. Employers in other countries are reaping the benefits, but there are also tangible benefits for this country.
At the height of the last recession in 1987 Tánaiste Brian Lenihan Sr, extolled emigration in an interview with Newsweek magazine.
“What we have now is a very literate emigrant who thinks nothing of coming to the United States and going back to Ireland and maybe on to Germany and back to Ireland again,” he said. “It’s very refreshing to see it.”
Irish emigrants were being afforded the opportunity of honing their skills in other countries, and the more they developed the work ethic of the Americans and the Germans, the better it would be for Ireland when they returned, he contended. It was undoubtedly preferable that they should help themselves by working abroad rather than just drawing the dole at home.
Many people benefited from spending part of their young adult lives working abroad, because they not only developed a worth ethic but also a deep appreciation of this country. Michael Collins, who worked in England from the age of 15 to 25, was a prime example.
“Once,” Collins recalled, “a crowd of us were going along the Shepherd’s Bush Road when out of a lane came a chap with a donkey — just the sort of donkey and just the sort of cart they have at home. He came out quite suddenly and abruptly and we all cheered him. Nobody who has not been an exile will understand me, but I stand for that.”
I first read those lines as a student in Texas, and I certainly had no difficulty understanding what he meant. Probably the most impressive memorial to the Irish anywhere is the Great Hunger memorial in Battery Park, New York. In the heart of the city one suddenly walks into a vista of green fields with stonewalls just like the west of Ireland. People get the same sense when they view this as when Collins and his friends saw the donkey and cart.
For generations Ireland’s strongest asset was her people around the world. When it came to seeking support for the struggles at home, Davitt, Parnell, Pearse and de Valera all turned to the Irish in America for support.
In 1939 when Winston Churchill tried to persuade the British cabinet to seize Irish bases, he got no support. Even Anthony Eden considered the idea madness, because Irish-Americans would be so inflamed that they would undermine the vital American support on which Britain was so dependent at the time.
The British respected Irish neutrality, not because they were afraid of the Irish people, but because they were terrified of the influence that Irish-Americans might have on American policy. Irish people abroad are not just a national asset they are a national treasure, and they should be cherished and made to feel that there is always a welcome for them in this country. Indeed, serious efforts should be made to ensure that if our young emigrants return in two or three years time with work experience, employment preference would be given to them.
“The world is now one world and they can always return to Ireland with the skills they have developed,” the late Brian Lenihan said in the Newsweek interview. “We regard them as part of a global generation of Irish people. We shouldn’t be defeatist or pessimistic about it.”
“We should be proud of it,” he added. “After all, we can’t all live on a small island.” His final remarks set off a firestorm of criticism at home.
The island is clearly not too small to provide all our people with a living, as was demonstrated at the height of the Celtic Tiger when emigration was reversed. Thousands of former emigrants returned home, and hundreds of thousands of people from all over Europe came to this country as immigrants.
While the Celtic Tiger may have been slain and gutted by greedy bankers, developers and politicians, it did demonstrate that there is room for all of us here. But people need to pull together now to revive the economy.
During the week Jimmy Deenihan, returned to Tralee as a cabinet minister for the first time. He was attending a public meeting called by a new task force to try to combat the local employment situation by generating the jobs that will stem the need for emigration.
“The best news that I have heard today,” Deenihan said, “is that Denny Reen is making a comeback.”
Denis Reen, a retired local dentist, is heading the task force. He was a driving force in the Rose of Tralee Festival in its glory days in the early 1970s. He then became the driving force in the construction of Tralee’s new golf course at Barrow in the early 1980s. It is now widely regarded as one of the finest links courses in the world.
In the 1980s when the Rose of Tralee Festival got into trouble, Denis became involved again and helped to revive it. Then in the midst of the recession of the late 1980s he set up a task force to try to revive the fortunes of the town. This led to the establishment of the Aqua Dome with the aim of helping to enhance a tourism infrastructure in Tralee. It has been a brilliant self-financing success.
When President Bill Clinton first came to Ireland in 1996, a deputation from the council presented him with a silver model of the Jeanie Johnston, a famine replica ship being built near Tralee. Such vessels were usually called coffin ships, but the original Jeanie Johnston had the distinction of never losing a passenger at sea.
Clinton promised to meet it when it sailed to the United States, but the project ran into one delay after another and ended up costing around €15 million instead of the projected €2m. By the time it was finished, Clinton had long left the White House. Denis Reen, who had nothing to do with the Jeanie Johnston up to that point, was called into to rescue the whole thing.
He organised the ship’s North American trip with 23 stops extending from Florida to Canada. At many of those stops Irish festivals were held, and some 90,000 people paid to tour the ship in museum mode.
As a result the ship covered all the costs of the actual trip and received free media publicity for Ireland that would have been prohibitively expensive.
In the USA alone, there were over 80 slots of television coverage, while the trip to Canada was that country’s the most televised Irish visit ever.
Denis Reen and the new task force have not announced any new plans yet, but with his proven track record, they deserve full support. Indeed, people can look forward with a sense of real confidence.