Emigration is back. As a recent episode on RTE's "Prime Time"  showed in moving terms, what is most striking is how familiar it all seems. The same images of sorrowful parents, the same destinations, the same mix of fatalism and determination on the part of young people who probably thought that such events belonged to their parents’ time,, not theirs.

The conventional wisdom, espoused by many people including the present writer, was that mass emigration from Ireland was over. We now have smaller families; Ireland is a wealthier country; people are more educated and have better opportunities in a sophisticated modern economy. To cap it all, recent large-scale immigration cemented the impression of a country which had definitively turned the corner on a past marked by centuries of involuntary exile. From now on, others would come here. If we left, henceforth it would only be by personal choice.

What went wrong and how much of it was self-inflicted? One issue stands out immediately: the pernicious effects, in this as in other matters, of the speculative property bubble. Two EU countries had levels of employment in construction in recent years which were significantly greater than the EU average – Spain and Ireland. In both countries, more than a quarter of the entire male workforce was employed in construction – an unsustainable level. Today, these two countries have the highest unemployment rates in the EU, even if Ireland’s rate, at less than 13%, is some way behind Spain’s record figure of 19%.

The latest CSO migration data brings the picture up to April 2009, when the current crisis had arguably only just begun to bite. On the surface, it is not even all that alarming. The 18,400 Irish people who emigrated in the previous year were actually balanced by an equal number of returnees. There is nevertheless one striking factor: male emigration, more or less in balance with female emigration in recent years, jumped sharply. Moreover, there can be little doubt that the trend since then has been an upward one.

Such statistics have a human dimension. Last winter I was in the West Kerry Gaeltacht, an area with few sustainable economic opportunities outside the summer services offered to tourists and aspirant Gaeilgeoirí. I heard of many young men who had left education early in order to work in the booming construction industry. Now those same young men are leaving, cheated of a future in Ireland, just as people did in the 1980s and the 1950s. This time, in destinations such as Britain, increasing competition with workers from other countries is fostering a “race to the bottom,” making the chances of securing a decent and well-paid job that much more difficult.

In the 1980s, unwise macroeconomic policies combined with a painful restructuring of the Irish economy to create a downward employment spiral at the very time when the 1960s baby-boomers were entering the labour market. The result, inevitably, was rising unemployment and rising emigration. Almost half a million people left; much of this involuntary emigration was arguably unnecessary.

This time around, Irish economic recovery is likely to begin later and at a slower pace than that of other countries, including Britain, the US and most of continental Europe. It has been argued that Irish emigration will resume on a smaller scale than before - on the grounds that jobs in other countries are also scarce – but the significantly higher unemployment rate in Ireland is nonetheless likely to fuel a growing outward movement as people decide to take their chances anyway. Construction workers will be joined by tens of thousands of young women and men, many of them educated at considerable public expense. As the size of the Irish public sector is also reduced, teachers, nurses and other graduates are going elsewhere. A historically embedded culture of emigration is re-surfacing, creating a whole new cycle of departures. To be sure, many will prosper and some will return. But the human cost of involuntary displacement and undesired exile will inevitably be high for others.

What of the role of official Ireland? In the 1940s, the main worry of some Government officials and politicians was that the demobbed Irish returning from post-war Britain would bring the threat of social unrest and make demands on an impoverished exchequer. In the 1950s, Alexis Fitzgerald thought (admittedly in a minority view) that emigration was a good thing, telling the Emigration Commission that “high emigration... releases social tensions which would otherwise explode and makes possible a stability of manners and custom which would otherwise be the subject of radical change.” In the 1980s, Brian Lenihan famously praised the new mobility and said that we could not all expect to live on one island. The present Government has had little to say, to date, about the possible consequences of an upsurge in emigration, but it is doing little or nothing to prevent it. A less complacent attitude is now called for, both in retaining and upskilling as much of the workforce as humanly possible and in supporting those who have no choice but to leave.

Piaras Mac Éinrí is a lecturer in migration studies in the Department of Geography, University College Cork

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