‘Now the brains are coming back’

‘Now the brains are coming back’


After Sarah O’Connell graduated in June 2011 with a degree in renewable energy, the only relevant work she could find was through a JobBridge placement with Limerick County Council. She wasn’t entitled to any social welfare benefit, so to make ends meet, she took a job in a call centre.

Working 60 hours a week “for pittance” was wearing her down, so when a conversation with five friends in a similar position led to a plan to move en masse to Australia, O’Connell jumped at the chance.

“Australia could offer someone in their 20s everything that Ireland couldn’t at the time,” she says. “I travelled around Sydney, Perth, Broome and Darwin, and walked into job after job easily.”

Two years later O’Connell moved on to Christchurch in New Zealand, found a “career” job she loved as an energy adviser and decided to have a baby with her partner. “But there was always the pull of the people you left behind, and I knew the minute my daughter was born that she needed to be brought up in Ireland. Home is where the heart is for me, and I just needed to be here.”

In March, O’Connell and her now two-year-old daughter arrived back to Limerick for good. She wasn’t the first of her emigrant friends to move home, and she won’t be the last, either; more of them are looking to move back to live and work here, drawn by much improved job opportunities, and a desire at this time of their lives to be closer to family in Ireland as they start families of their own.

Sarah O’Connell (with her two-year-old daughter), who returned to live in Limerick after two years in Australia, and four in New Zealand
Sarah O’Connell (with her two-year-old daughter), who returned to live in Limerick after two years in Australia, and four in New Zealand

It’s a story that will be familiar to families all across the country. When researchers from University College Cork’s Émigré project went knocking on thousands of doors in 2012, they found 17 per cent of all households had lost at least one member to emigration in the six years prior. One in three adults had an immediate relative leave.

As unemployment peaked at about 15 per cent that year, the emigration wave also reached its zenith in 2012, with a total of 83,000 people leaving Ireland, 49,700 of whom were Irish. It was the highest gross emigration figure in more than a century, up from just 36,000 of all nationalities at the height of the boom in 2006.

Escape and adventure

At the numerous working abroad recruitment fairs held around the country in those years, finance graduates lined up alongside nurses, tradesmen, accountants, teachers and engineers of all ages. Some had lost their jobs or were hanging on by a thread. Those still working were simply looking to escape the drudgery of a country mired in recession and negativity, or a bit of adventure.

Australia, Canada and New Zealand were waiting to welcome them with open arms, to fill skills and experience shortages in their hospitals, construction sites, hotels, banks, and oil and gas fields. The UK’s proximity to Ireland and abundance of job opportunities across a wide range of sectors, particularly in London, ensured that the country remained the most popular destination for Irish emigrants, while new Irish communities grew in locations across the Middle East and Asia, of teachers and construction professionals in particular.

Over the past decade more than 370,000 Irish people made that move abroad. A telephone survey by Ipsos/MRBI of more than 1,000 of them for The Irish Times in 2016 revealed that the vast majority were happy in their new homes, with better job prospects, higher salaries and a better quality of living than they had had in Ireland.

Central Statistics Office figures show the number of people at work in Ireland is now almost 20,000 higher than it was before the economic crash

But the desire to return to Ireland remained strong, even among those who were prospering overseas, with just one in five respondents to the Irish Times survey saying they didn’t see themselves ever returning to live in Ireland. While family was the main motivation to come home, work opportunities and improvements in the Irish economy were significant factors they were waiting on before making the move.

Trends in economically motivated migration usually lag behind unemployment changes, so just as it took a few years for the numbers leaving to rise after the recession hit, the flow of people out of the country – both Irish and of other nationalities returning to their home countries – also took time to turn as the economy recovered and unemployment dropped.

Approaching full employment

This week, the Central Statistics Office published figures showing that the number of people at work in Ireland is now almost 20,000 higher than it was before the economic crash, and unemployment is below 6 per cent, down from a high of almost 15 per cent at the height of the recession.

At the same press briefing, a separate set of statistics showed that more Irish people are now returning to live here from abroad than are emigrating, for the first time in a decade. The numbers have finally caught up.

In the 12 months to April, the number of Irish people leaving the country dropped by 8.1 per cent to 28,300 – 100 fewer than moved home in the same period.

The Government was quick to claim both sets of figures as the recession’s final death knell.

“Nine years after the crash and the pain of forced emigration, more Irish citizens [are] now coming home than moving abroad,” Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tweeted, linking to an Irish Times news report on the CSO figures on Tuesday. “We’re on the right track.”

Reading the figures from Melbourne this week, chief executive of the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce Barry Corr was not surprised. “So many people did not come here by choice. They came knowing they wanted to go back,” he says.


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