"Save me from emigration" were the words plastered across a billboard on a prominent Dublin street in May 2011. A young man on the brink of leaving the country, made a final attempt to find a job in Ireland’s dwindling economy. That young man was lucky but for others emigration is still a reality.
Over the past two centuries, no other country in Europe has been affected by emigration as much as Ireland. Since 1800, some ten million people have left the island – a staggering figure considering the current population stands at some six and a half million.
In 2008, former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern proclaimed that he was proud to have "brought an end to the days of forced emigration”. Fast-forward five years and the emigration rate is at its highest, since current records began, in the late 1980s. A recent report from the Émigré Project at University College Cork underlined my country’s complex relationship with this harsh phenomenon. It documented the age, education, and destination of Irish emigrants and sketched-out some of the motives that make people leave. For me, it was about grasping opportunities not available at home. Most emigrants, the report says, are enriched by life abroad. But of the people Ireland's emigrants leave behind, 75 per cent believes that emigration weakens Ireland at a time when the country struggles to stay afloat. While some undoubtedly bask in the light, enjoying new opportunities in far away places, others are unable to escape the shadow, constantly aware of the void once filled by those who have left. As an emigrant it can be easy to forget what you have left behind. Almost 40 per cent of recent emigrants, however, would like to return to Ireland. I count myself among them. At the moment, though, for many us leaving Ireland – or returning to it – isn't a choice that's in our hands.
President Kennedy - on a visit to Dublin in June 1963 told his Irish hosts - “Most countries send out oil or iron, steel or gold, or some other crop, but Ireland has had only one export and that is its people.” Ireland is proud of the people who represent it in every corner of the world – it is not known when or if they will return but in the meantime I will continue to take pride in Ireland’s greatest export: as JFK knew only too well, its people.
Barbara Feeney is an associate producer for Monocle 24