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A scourge on society, not a choice of lifestyle

It's a national affliction. Over the years we have fled, not just in our thousands, or our hundreds of thousands but in our millions. Year after year, century after century, we Irish have become exiled from our own country, during periods of crisis, famine, endemic poverty and pathetic, irresponsible governance [that's the current wave].

As far back as the 9th Century we'd already gotten a reputation for getting off the island - Irish scholar Sedulius Scottus was asked if his own emigration was due to the "unsettled state of the country or the Irish habit of going away".

Back then there were Vikings and rival warring tribes, then the Normans, Cromwell, the Famine, the 800 years of subjugation and all the stuff which made Ireland a place any sane and slightly ambitious person would want to get out of as quickly as possible.

By the time we get to the 21st Century, we've ended up with an extra continent on the planet which could quite reasonably be called The United States of Irish Emigrants or The Continent of Those who Fecked Off.

We've spent years basking in the reflected glory of those who did well for themselves (we conveniently ignore the many more who died alone, in poverty and depression). There's been all sorts of histories and reports on what happens to the successful Irish when they leave this water-bogged island, but precious little about the people they leave behind; the ones who have to stay here, keeping a smile on their faces, knowing that their loved ones are across the ocean or on the other side of the planet.

As Dr Irene Mosca of Trinity College Dublin said this week: "Emigration is often discussed in terms of the people who leave . . . [however] there are real impacts on the people who are left behind."

Mosca is part of a team from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) who analysed the effect of emigration on the parents of children who have left.

She said: "Earlier studies on the impact of the recession in Ireland suggested that older people had been relatively insulated from many of the negative effects of the recession. Our report, however, shows a channel through which the recession has significantly affected the mental health and well-being of mothers in particular".

Mothers who saw their adult children emigrate during the current recession experienced a decline in their mental health - suffering increased depressive symptoms, mental and emotional distress and loneliness.

Usually if a mother complains that her child has emigrated and she misses them desperately - almost to distraction - she is immediately slapped down with phrases such as: "But, isn't it great that they could get away", or "Well, sure you can Skype them" or "What are you moaning about, as long as they are alive and healthy and happy?"

Mothers are no longer allowed to mourn their emigrant children (nor fathers either). There are no more American Wakes. Today we are supposed to shrug our shoulders and say, "sure it could be worse, at least they can visit us now and then and sure maybe they'll come back" - not likely. Emigration, we are told by luminaries such as Michael Noonan and Enda Kenny, is now a "lifestyle choice", something our lucky, pampered young people do for fun and experience and "to see another part of the world".

In Davos this year, Enda Kenny explained our extraordinary high levels of emigration as follows: "Many leave to get experience, many leave and go to places around the world and come back with that experience,"


I think our Government may need a dictionary in order to differentiate between the meaning of "gap-year" and "emigration". "No, no", they say. The proof is that many of those who leave actually have jobs here! What they don't say is that they're crap jobs, which barely pay enough for a weekly shop and a beer in the local, let alone rent for a flat or a 20pc deposit on a new home.

This week, new research shows that Ireland has the second highest percentage of low paying jobs in the OECD - just behind the USA. For a European country this is disgraceful. For a European country with a Labour party in Government it is sickening. It's hardly surprising that our children are getting away as quickly as Ryanair or Quantas will take them.

One of the saddest and most revealing aspects of the TILDA research shows up our reluctance to allow mothers to mourn their absent children. To grieve is healthy, to mourn what is lost is essential to our well-being. And yet we still don't take into consideration the devastating loss of emigration, not just on mothers, but on families and communities.

The research took deaths, the loss of close friends, unemployment, divorce, widowhood, retirement, disability and other things which can affect mental health into consideration. None had the negative impact that emigration did.

I always remember my mother speaking about the incredible loneliness and sense of loss she felt the first Christmas after my brother had left for Sydney and I had gone to Toronto. She never told us until years later, of course.

My friend Barbara Scully told me that when her eldest girl left: "We cried for 24 hours, then we went to dinner together and myself and my two daughters realised we had all sneaked into Carla's room and were wearing something that belonged to her". Both her and my own mother point out how difficult emigration is on siblings left behind.

Last year, nearly 90,000 people emigrated, how many young sisters and brothers felt their loss? Could that be connected to the rise in teen mental health problems?

The Government, of course, is hardly going to admit that emigration is the societal scourge it so obviously is -particularly as the Department of Social Protection was actively encouraging our unemployed to emigrate.

But if we are to address the increase in depression and similar mental health problems we need to admit that having our children move to the other side of the world to live is not the "lifestyle choice" that's proving healthy for any of us.