More people emigrated than in recent years with 59,600 persons departing the State compared with 54,000 in 2021.

While economics and figures are bandied about what is rarely discussed is the emotional effect of this loss – the “migratory mourning” of those who left and those left behind.

Now one concerned citizen is taking a closer look. Upon seeing the TILDA report entitled “The Emigration of Adult Children and the Mental Health of their Parents”, Father Alan Hilliard, a board member of the Irish Episcopal Council for Emigrants, was moved to write a piece on the topic for the Irish Times “Generation Emigration” series and he was heartened by the response.

He told IrishCentral “Even though the journey [of migrating] might be primarily economic, and primarily driven by a desire to be better or be somewhere else, it is a journey of the heart.”

He continued “When you get over there there may be a sense of acceptance and a great new life, but mourning is always about adjusting. You're always adjusting – adjusting to your own identity, your new identity, adjusting to the fact that you can't run home.”

“We've always focused on the journey of the emigrant and never focused on the impact of who's left behind or never looked at the effect on the heart of one who returns home. The fact that things are different and you think they're going to be the same. The fact that your experiences have changed you and people might not like that.

“There's a loss in there. There's a huge loss. It can never be the way it was. If you see migration as that then the phrase 'migratory mourning' makes sense.”

When asked where the 50,000 Irish undocumented lie in this idea of “migratory mourning” Hilliard’s response was simply “that’s the ultimate in a broken heart.”

Though he like many others believes President Obama’s immigration executive order is the first step in the right direction, a step toward the reform of a broken system he said, “I know they won't be jumping for joy. I know from having worked with people in prison.

“When the judge brings the gavel down and says 'not guilty' they don't even raise their head. They've been let down too many times. I know they won't be jumping for joy. They've been hurt too often. They'll be cautious.”

The Irish are no strangers to homesickness, being away from home and craving the comforts of your familial home. However, the idea of “migratory mourning” is rarely discussed. The psychological effects of loss imposed on those emigrants miles away from home, those fortunate enough to return home, and the heartbreak of those left behind.

Hilliard said that as a pastor he has a different perspective from academics. Listening to members of the diocese and students he began to see patterns and notice this loss and emotional strain weighing on people.

Dealing with migratory mourning can simply be equated to experiencing a death in the family, a great loss. If these emotions are not dealt with it can cause huge emotional and psychological distress for all involved.

In his recent article Hilliard referred to a father of two grown men, who had both emigrated, who was brought to tears by just speaking about their familial situation.

“That man could have been any of a few of spoken to recently,” said Hilliard. “I heard a story the other day of a man who left Ireland in the 1980s and his father never said anything, anything to him. And then when he was on the boat in Dun Laoghaire he saw his father standing on the pier. It’s heartbreaking.”

“If you don't negotiate all these emotions they can do so much damage.”

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He recalled a line he heard at a conference on the mental health of Irish migrants. It was a quote from a medical report from 19th-century Britain. “It went something along the lines of the 'Irish people complained of a pain of the heart of which there was no medical cause' and I just thought, well that’s it!”

Hilliard was also keen to point out that the varied experiences of migrants must be considered. Put simply he said, “What you're really talking about is the golfing end of the parish and the pitch and putt end of the parish. There are certain people for whom emigration is just so easy. It's part of a decision. You’re not locked into it. You're wealthy. For the guy who arrives 'off the boat' with nothing it's a different story.”

Again there are those who left Ireland over the last few decades by choice, but Hilliard points out that choice is a luxury and not everyone was so lucky.

“For many there was no choice. Poverty is lack of choice, be it that you have to eat potatoes every day because you can't afford anything else or you be it because you have to emigrate.

“People who have to emigrate because of debt or lack of opportunity are living in poverty whether we like it or not.”

In his Irish Times article, Hilliard also referred to American Civil War soldiers being given medical leave to visit with friends and families having been diagnosed with “nostalgia”. The fear was that the soldiers would become so despondent that they would be killed in battle rather than fight for their families.

He found this reference in a book called “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan J Matt, which rather than dealing with the concept at a psychological level looks at how it has been dealt with throughout history. It seems that in our new expanding globalized economy this is something that we have overlooked and quite possibly cannot continue to do so.

Hilliard points out that while history may not deal with the emotional journey of Ireland’s emigration through the centuries, our music and poetry does.

“Luka Bloom sings a lot about home. It's very interesting. Our songs and poetry have captured what was lost. Even in terms of Irish history there was the formal account of history and then there were the songs. It's the songs that often keep the stories alive.”

This loss and despair illustrated so well in Irish songs has an emotional effect on migrants and their families. It often ends in destructive behavior or simply unchecked self-preservation.

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“What happens to the migrants is they don’t realize it's a journey of the heart. They end up drinking and drug taking to deal with it,” said Hilliard. “These are reality-altering drugs. You're doing it because you're not happy where you are. If you don't do that work on the heart, just as if you don't do that work after bereavement, you'll feel it.”

Yet again, these effects are not confined to the migrants themselves. The loss and grief trickles down.

He continued “I've seen a lot of Irish families with problems and I have to say of lot of them have problems because they haven't taken account of the impact of migration. They haven't negotiated it.

You get what is called the R.E.S. (Returned Emigrant Syndrome). which is someone who feels guilty about living away from home, comes back for two weeks and sorts out the house. They complain, "I don't know what they've been doing, my mother and father are living in a mess."

“They come back for two weeks and think they're sorting it all out and then when they leave the family's almost relieved.”

“They feel guilty, but no one ever brings it up, and then they go back to all their friends and tell them all about sorting out the family. They just feel like they have to do something.

“There is un-negotiated trauma when it comes to migrants. That loss that never goes.”

Even those who have lived away for decades, settled and had a family far from home still deal with this ongoing loss.

“The big trauma that happens with migrants is the second parent dies and then there's nowhere to go home to,” Hilliard said.

“Then people can tend to move into denial which is okay, you should never question people's surviving mechanisms, but they stop writing and stop keeping in touch. It all becomes too hard. They just cut off and get on with it.”

Times have changed now in Ireland. “Green shoots” seem to be confirmed all around and the economy is bouncing back slowly. However those 400,000, for the most part, are still abroad. It is now that the messages of emigrants not making it home for Christmas begin to pull on the heart-strings, many saying they’ll be back next year or they just can’t afford the journey home.

However, Hilliard is optimistic. He said that even since the publication of his article he’s seen more emigrant tales that say, “Know what? It's great over here, but it's not brilliant.” He believes that somehow often people simply need permission to say “I am homesick”, “I’m upset” and express their feelings.

Dealing day to day with foreign students in Ireland, Hilliard said often they arrive into his office tied up in knots with anxiety. He simply listens and says “you’re homesick” and within minutes they’re in floods of tears.

* Originally published in 2016, updated in Feb 2024.