Of all the con tricks played on Irish emigrants, possibly the biggest one was when some government office decided to designate them a diaspora back in the 1990s.
The term supposedly describes all Irish emigrants and their descendents in countries like the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, the Middle East and anywhere we’ve fetched up, which is everywhere.
The term diaspora suggests that there may have been some order to the flight. It suggests that the channels of communication between the nation of origin and the individual emigrant are still open.
It suggests a vast global network of interconnected Irish people exists, whose skills and resources are available to the old country at a moment’s notice.
But when you consider what prompts all these globetrotting expeditions, when you reflect that they are more often of necessity rather than choice, you begin to discern an enduring truth about the nation that your previous experience might have prevented you from seeing.
That would not have been your fault, exactly. For as long as the Republic has existed it has created a hostile climate for all kinds of people — intellectuals, agnostics, feminists, gays, single mothers, the poor and so on.
If your face didn’t fit the standard narrative you were stamped for export. Exiles in their own country, in this way generations found themselves exiles in another before they even knew what hit them.
So Irish emigration isn’t a spirited tale of the principled spirits taking their agency in their own hands. More often it has been the first reaction to a kind of social or economic asteroid strike. People were forced to emigrate by circumstance, usually when the experience of recession or repression or both became intolerable.
Everyone knows this. Everyone knows the particular anger that a lost life, the one you might have lived in Ireland, can engender.
Take a walk into any pub in Kilburn and just ask about it. Request a show of hands in Woodlawn. It doesn’t always matter that you’ve found a thriving new life in a new country, because the corollary of that is that you had to surrender the one you were born to.
And when you have voted with your feet don’t think the Irish government will let you vote any other way afterwards. The portcullis that fell as you cleared immigration will probably not lift again in your lifetime.
Since most Irish emigrants are barely adults before they leave they haven’t had the time to understand the exact nature of the exchange that they’re participating in. They’re far too trusting of their own abilities and of their nation.
Ireland has the highest net emigration in Europe. Try to put that in context because Ireland is a tiny island on the fringe of the continent. This generation and the next one have been saddled with the private banking debts that our government has insisted the Irish people pay.
One in four young Irish people are unemployed. One in four Irish people struggle with mental health issues. To up the ante, the government has slashed unemployment benefits and made biting cuts to health care.
Ireland is celebrated as the number one place in the world to find an adaptable workforce, but the truth is the workforce has only been asked to adapt to low wages and shorter contracts.
Meanwhile down the road the massive tech and medical corporations who offshore here evade billions in corporation tax. They and the Irish government make no significant investment in Irish college graduates futures. Nothing is changing.
I have sat in the drawing rooms and mansions of the Irish establishment enough to know that the answer will never come from the gilded class who can walk between the raindrops and the economic shocks. It will only come from us.
Maybe the first thing we can do is stop buying brand Ireland, and stop believing in the sainted diaspora, because our government clearly doesn’t.
Maybe we should try to help those who want to stay do so, the better to fight for the change that will never otherwise occur.
We have all gone much too quietly into that good night of emigration. We’ve kept our traps shut too long too. It’s not doing us or Ireland any good.
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