Not just a “lifestyle choice”…

Michael Noonan (via Wikimedia Commons)

I was going to hold my fire on Finance Minister Michael Noonan’s remarks on emigration being a lifestyle choice. Government minister is out of touch, what’s new? But then I heard this weekend that yet another friend is seriously considering leaving Ireland.

She’s not starving, or dying of cholera, or even unemployed, so I suppose Michael Noonan’s right. For her it is a “lifestyle choice”. Technically, most people who emigrate from this first-world, peaceful country is doing so out of choice and not necessity.

But it’s not that simple. Why do young people from France or Germany or the UK tend to stay in their native lands when the going gets tough? Why are Irish people so willing to emigrate?

Michael Noonan reckons it’s because we’re a small island and “a lot of people want to get off the island”. Makes us sound a bit like the magic spot in Lost doesn’t it? Ireland does, of course, have a history of emigration, stretching back to the Famine. People back then simply had no other choice, but emigration has never stopped since then (apart from the boom times). The reaction of a lot of Irish people has always been flight, not fight.

Michael Noonan is nearly 70 years old. He has witnessed the tidal wave of emigration of the ‘50s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Three of his five children live abroad. Maybe, like many of his generation, he sees confident, positive, well-educated twenty-somethings travelling a much smaller world than the one he grew up in. Maybe he just assumes that the Celtic Tiger cubs aren’t suffering the way that the naïve young men and women of the 1950s did.

Some people are leaving Ireland just to see the world. Some are taking advantage of the crippling recession to get out and see somewhere it doesn’t rain for twelve months of the year. Irish people of our generation are more worldly-wise and better able to negotiate big cities and strange places. The emigrants of previous generations were astounded by Paddington and Grand Central stations. It’s unlikely that today’s batch would feel the same.

But it is disingenuous to suggest that all of them are leaving Ireland because of these reasons. There are people who simply find it impossible to get a job. And what is really wrong about Michael Noonan’s comments is the implication that we should essentially raise our young people for export. It’s been overshadowed by the “lifestyle choice” remarks, but Minister Noonan also said that emigration was not being driven by unemployment at home, and it was important to make sure that Irish people were educated to a high standard. Why? To generously help other nations around the world with their skills and talents of course.

Emigration has skyrocketed (via Wikimedia Commons)

Of course people are emigrating because of unemployment. Where were all the people moving to Oz at the height of the Celtic Tiger? People took gap years, like ex-Clongowes boy Michael O’Leary, and J1s, but now they’re not coming back.

Ireland is stuck in this recession because of a lack of imagination. If you do things the way you’ve always done them, you’ll get what you always got. The same old politicians and civil servant mandarins are running the show. The same money wastages, fiddles, nepotism and jobs for the boys. When you look at the list of the high achievers who are second- and third- generation Irish, it’s hard not wonder what kind of a country Ireland might be had their parents been able to stay.

As we say goodbye to our friends and relatives, we know we’ll see them again. They’re not boarding the famine ships, they’re at the other end of a Skype connection. But it doesn’t make their departure any less painful or dispiriting. And what of the Ireland they leave behind? Stifled by tunnel vision as always, it’s hard to see much change.

This article was published on on January 23 2012.

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