Tanaiste Mary Coughlan has come under fire for her recent comments, during a BBC interview, about young people emigrating from Ireland. Coughlan appears to suggest that emigration is a welcome rite of passage, and that current emigrants from Ireland have the social capital to allow them to move freely. Her comments have been criticised by fellow politicians, and by letter writers to newspapers who claim she is understating the crisis of emigration.

The outrage about Coughlan’s comments stem in part from a refusal to acknowledge that emigration from Ireland continued during the Celtic Tiger era. Indeed, geographer Bronwen Walter has pointed out that many of those who emigrated from Ireland to the UK in this period ”were facing a range of experiences of disadvantages and limited options for improving their lives” (2008: 189). These emigrants, and the social and economic conditions that led to their departure from Ireland, are among the hidden stories of the Celtic Tiger.

One consequence of the denial of recent emigration is that emigration statistics, limited though they are, are being used to construct a contemporary moral panic.  Yet, even in the middle of the Celtic Tiger era, thousands of young Irish worked in Australia, New Zealand and Canada on one-year working holiday visas, and their migration was celebrated rather than seen as a cause for concern. There has clearly been an increase in this type of temporary migration (see Figure 1), but from an annual base of over 10,000 over a sustained period.

Figure 1

Similarly, there is as yet no clear evidence for a significant increase in Irish emigration to the UK, at least in terms of National Insurance numbers issued to Irish nationals (see Figure 2). In other words, accounts of the increase in contemporary emigration from Ireland need to take into consideration the baseline levels of emigration during the Celtic Tiger era.

And what of current, well-educated emigrants from Ireland, with their degrees and their Phds? We have to hope that their experiences do not mirror those of well-educated immigrants to Ireland, whose qualifications and experiences were often discounted in Celtic Tiger land. Research by the ESRI, for example, highlights the fact that it is difficult for many immigrants in Ireland to gain access to more privileged jobs (e.g. managerial, professional), regardless of their qualifications.

It appears, from CSO publications, that there is an increase in emigration from Ireland. Just who those migrants are, and their reasons for and experiences of migration, are questions we still need to answer.

Mary Gilmartin