Ireland's young are on the march again

The financial meltdown is turning it into a land of emigrants once more
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It's a journey that every Irish family knows but thought was consigned to the past: the farewell trip to Dublin airport and economic exile. Frank O'Brien has recently bid goodbye to both his sons at the departures gate; his wife Mary was too upset to go with him.

"What really hurts is that my boys are the cream of the crop. We raised them well, we gave them the best education we could, both of them graduated with excellent degrees. Neither of them is frightened of hard work. And they are the ones who are now having to leave," said Frank, his voice breaking with bitterness and anger.

There is no consolation in the fact that their neighbours are all being forced to make the same dismal journey from places such as middle-class Greystones, south of Dublin, to the Irish capital's shiny new air terminal.

"It's a monument to the new Great Exodus, like some Victorian folly. You should see the scenes in there of people clutching one another and crying," Frank said. "We built museums dedicated to our emigration story because we thought that was over, but the wheel's turned full circle.

"My friends across the road, their three sons are all gone, and a few doors up they've lost a son and daughter too," said Frank, a university lecturer in international business relations. Both his sons – Michael, 29, and Stephen, 23 – are now in Vancouver.

"When Michael first told me he was going I said to him: 'Son, if I had a ticket I'd leave in the morning, because there's nothing to stay here for any more'. He's got about 20 of his friends from here all out in Vancouver too, so he's not short of company.

"But what's the chances of them ever coming back? Not in a long time, with ¤50bn required to fix the mess we're in. And sooner or later they'll meet lasses and, unless they're Irish too, we'll have lost them for ever. We are losing the brightest and best of an entire generation."

A Working Abroad exhibition at Dublin's RDS conference centre was thronged with that generation yesterday. The most popular destinations are Canada, Australia and the Gulf states.

No more will they be Kilburn-bound to join McAlpine's Fusiliers – the Irish "navvies" employed by Sir Robert McAlpine to build Britain's roads in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. These emigrants are young, highly educated and skilled, with ambitions which, now the Celtic Tiger has died, can no longer be fulfilled at home.

The Irish diaspora is celebrated in verse, song and portraiture with more than a touch of melancholy and many a sly dig at the British – their former colonial masters – as the source of all their misfortunes. But when this new era of emigration is recorded on Facebook and Twitter, future historians will know that they can only blame their own government and the greed created by a property bubble that grew to cataclysmic proportions.

"I've seen all this before," said Frank. "In the 1950s I rarely saw my dad between the ages of 12 and 17 because he was away working in England as a fitter. I got Christmas work at the post office because I was the best sorter of letters and parcels they ever had, and that was because I knew the names and places of every town in England because my dad worked in every one of them.

"Then you had it all again in the 1980s. Mary and I went off to work in America for four years. But we allowed ourselves to believe that it was over. I used to call Michael 'a pup of the Celtic Tiger'. Within two days of finishing college he had his first big job with a bank, and in less than a week his whole department was taken off for a weekend in Cyprus.

"That was his experience of finding a job. At least we tried to warn him that this wasn't reality. I think it was when I noticed a small terraced house round here on the market for ¤350,000 about five years ago that I realised it couldn't last."

His younger son, Stephen, also went into banking, but last Thursday – "Black Thursday" as it is now known – he left for the airport. When Brian Lenihan, the Finance Minister, was admitting the eye-popping figures required to bail out the Irish banks, Stephen was boarding a flight for New York.

Two years after the Irish government announced a frantic pledge to guarantee the loans of its five main banks, which had lent wildly during the exponential property boom of the previous dozen or so years, the total bill was finally announced three days ago: a cool ¤50bn to bail them out, falling – with luck – to ¤35bn if and when the state recoups some of the cash.

That equates to a mind-blowing 32 per cent of GDP or, put another way, a single financial black hole larger than the entire accumulated national debt until as recently as 2007. Globally such deficits have only been run up in time of major wars.

About 100,000 people of working age are expected to have left Ireland by the end of this year, with the official unemployment rate at 13.6 per cent. Unions are putting the real figure at 20 per cent. The last time Ireland emptied like this was during the crash of the 1980s, but smart economic reforms such as lowering corporation tax helped to attract huge sums of inward investment – often from the US – and gradually created what some dared to believe was a self-sustaining virtuous cycle which really took off in the 1990s.

The stream of returning émigrés turned into such a torrent that by 2008, shortly before he resigned as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern confidently declared that he had conquered the island's ancient curse – the export of its native people. On Dublin building sites you were far more likely to find chippies from Dudley than Dingle.

There were a few who thought it could never last. And, true enough, it hasn't.

Paddy McArt and his girlfriend, Corina Harper, are getting their bags ready to leave their homes in Donegal. "We're staying until after Christmas but we've got our tickets booked to Toronto," said the computer sciences postgraduate. "I was lucky that my parents could afford to put me through a master's course. I only stayed on because there was no work and there still isn't. Things are looking very bleak."

The couple considered Australia first but were told that there were already too many Irish graduates chasing jobs there.

As for becoming the latest generation forced to leave Ireland to find work, Paddy admits to mixed feelings: "There's definitely a depressing element to it, but at the same time it's exciting to go abroad and face new challenges. It's sad that there's nothing here for us. We would like to come back as soon as possible but realistically that's not going to happen any time soon. And if we get good jobs out there, who knows?

"A lot of aunties and uncles would have gone to England and America to work. I grew up hearing those stories, but I never in a million years thought that I'd have to end up doing the same thing."

Crunch in numbers

£52bn Amount Irish banks owe the European Central Bank

100,000 Number of people who are expected to leave Ireland this year

£29.6bn Loss to Irish taxpayers on Anglo Irish Bank alone

32 per cent of GDP: Ireland's budget deficit this year

£28.6bn Ireland's total tax take

345,000 Number of empty homes in Ireland in 2009

£35,612 Cost to each Irish household of the bank bail-out

10,000 People become unemployed each week

75 per cent Fall in value of Irish stock market since 2007

65 per cent Amount commercial property prices have fallen during crisis