Ireland's diaspora go back home to join in the boom time

More than 25,000 former emigrants a year now being lured back to land of accelerating growth and severe labour shortages
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The Independent Online

In the poverty-ridden 1950s, the Irish left Ireland at the rate of 1,000 a day, bound for Britain, America and Australia. Now the human tide has turned with 26,000 immigrants a year being lured home by an unprecedented economic boom.

In the poverty-ridden 1950s, the Irish left Ireland at the rate of 1,000 a day, bound for Britain, America and Australia. Now the human tide has turned with 26,000 immigrants a year being lured home by an unprecedented economic boom.

With around 10,000 Irish immigrants believed to be leaving Britain for home every year, their absence might be expected to be felt. But this year's St Patrick's Day parades, festivals and events have never been more numerous or better attended.

In Birmingham, 75,000 people turned out to celebrate last weekend - a 50 per cent increase on the year before. In Manchester, the St Patrick's Day parade attracted 150,000 people. According to Michael Ford, of Manchester's new £14m Irish World Heritage Centre, the crowd was 50,000 up on the year before.

Irish community leaders say attendances are "gobsmackingly" high. All things Irish - music, culture, stag weekends in Dublin - are sexy, but a new assertiveness is also at play. "It marks an increase in confidence," said Mr Ford, who claims the peace process, though stalled, and the thaw in Anglo-Irish relations is allowing the Irish in Britain to celebrate their identity with new found freedom. The anti-Irish feeling which previously suffocated self expression, he said hopefully, is now in the past.

Mr Ford's new heritage centre, to be constructed later this year, is also founded on new confidence. It will tell the story of the Irish diaspora on the assumption that the long years of heartbreaking Irish migration are at last over. In the main exhibition, Ireland's economic miracle will be a harrowing epic's happy ending.

Gerry Kivlehan, the director of the London Irish Centre, said the Irish economic boom has robbed British-based companies of experienced workers in construction, catering and the caring professions where the Irish were always strong. British recruiters are now targeting Irish Centres to compete for the labour that is being lured back home.

Nothing looks like changing soon, though. The Irish economy shows no sign of slowing. The Irish government estimates it needs to find 200,000 more skilled workers over the next seven years. Demand will exhaust immigrant reserves and at least half the new workers are forecast to come from abroad. Irish representatives were in Wales last week, trying to recruit workers. The Irish can now afford to be choosy about what they do, so advertisements for bar staff are in foreign languages while Eastern Europeans now work the fields.

"Every day now we get inquiries from people thinking of returning home," said Mr Kivlehan. And while in the old days only the old ever thought of returning home, it's mostly the young now queuing up to ask advice.

Sally Mulready, a development worker for the Elderly Irish Network in London, said that the old have always nursed dreams of return. The reality is that most are simply too settled now to leave. "They came in their thirties and forties and now have children and grandchildren here," said Ms Mulready.

Nonetheless, she insists booming Ireland has a duty to elderly immigrants who do want to return. For it was they who kept entire Irish families and communities alive during the dirt poor years. It is estimated that immigrants sent the equivalent of £3.6bn back to Ireland between 1939 and 1975.

"These people look to Ireland not with a begging bowl but with a right to be acknowledged for the contribution they made and their enduring commitment to their country," she said.

Ms Mulready will celebrate her Irishness in style today, like more than a million other Irish immigrants across the country. But she will not let up in her campaign to force the Irish government to give the elderly more financial aid. It is only fair, she said, now that the old country has gown so wealthy.

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