Home is sweet for Ireland's children

An economic and cultural boom has turned the tide of emigration, writes Alan Murdoch
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The Independent Online
One of the greatest population upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries has all but come to an end, according to Irish census figures published this week. More people are returning to enjoy the country's sustained economic boom than are leaving.

In each of the last five years, the average number of those returning has been 637 more those leaving - a dramatic reversal of the mid Eighties, when 26,834 more people were leaving each year. Between 1982 and 1989, one in 20 of the population left what many then saw as a near-bankrupt state, with a foreign debt crisis, spiralling unemployment and penal levels of personal taxation.

Apart from one other brief period in the short-lived economic boom of the Seventies, the exodus has continued for 150 years. Pre-famine Ireland supported a population of 8.2 million in 1841, declining to 6.5 million in 1851. This week's census result shows the Irish Republic has 3,621,035 inhabitants and Northern Ireland 1,577,836 (1991 census). In the United States, more than 40 million American citizens claim Irish descent.

After independence in 1922, economic stagnation and limited employment for both graduates and unskilled labour drove thousands abroad to Britain, the US, Canada, and Australia. Census figures show this human procession peaked in the bleak years of the Forties and Fifties.

Depopulation was felt most keenly in rural parts of the south and west, marked by declining school numbers and increasingly aged populations. Dying rural villages entered the national culture in books such as John Healy's No One Shouted Stop and numerous plays, including Tom Murphy's Conversations on a Homecoming. "Emigrants' remittances" - funds sent back regularly by family members in jobs in the US - helped sustain otherwise deprived households.

But now it seems there could be a permanent reversal. Ireland's surging economic growth rate of 7 per cent is the highest in the European Union (1995 GNP volume growth estimate) while exports rose 16 per cent last year. Key successes have been in inward high-tech investment, tourism and service sectors.

The revival has also seen stereotyped foreign images of a misty country of bogs, dairy farms and narrow-minded Catholicism superseded by overseas interest in new Irish music, literature, art, theatre, and football.

Nowadays, more young Irish work nearer home in mainland Europe, and cheaper air transport allows more regular trips back, so departure is not as traumatic as 50 or 150 years ago. Then, parents knew the tearful "emigrant's wake" could be their final contact with a son or daughter.

Indeed, according to Jillian Mulcahy, co-ordinator of the High Skills Pool, which helps link prospective employers with potential employees, the average planned stay abroad for young Irish today is five to ten years, by which time the majority intend to return and settle down.

The pool was set up by Dublin Institute of Technology professors who were concerned at the numbers of graduates going overseas and the consequent brain drain.

"After three years we had 5,500 overseas Irish contacts. We also do an airport questionnaire at Dublin and Cork every Christmas, when thousands of people come home for the holiday, and we hold a recruitment fair the following week," Ms Mulcahy said.

A newsletter with 11 issues annually advises emigrants of new business start-ups, expansions and vacancies, while a magazine, Inform, reaches 6,500 graduates. The government is also encouraging the return of graduates, by developing a database identifying Irish working overseas; in effect, a worldwide Irish employment agency.