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


Immigrants are leaving Ireland in their thousands, the Irish Independent reported on Christmas Eve.

The basis for this claim? A recent report by the CSO on the number of active PPS numbers. The CSO found that over 960,000 PPS numbers were issued to foreign nationals aged over 15 in the period from 2003 to 2008. Of these, just over 425,000 were recorded as active in 2008. The obvious conclusion, at least according to the Irish Independent, was of an exodus of recent migrants.

Yet, if we examine the CSO report in more detail, these conclusions are not quite so obvious. First, the report is based on active PPS numbers, which means a person is in employment or has some engagement with the social welfare system. There are a number of reasons why someone might be living in Ireland yet not have an active PPS number, for example full time students, full time home makers or retired people in receipt of pensions from other countries. In other words, an inactive PPS number does not mean that its holder has left Ireland. Second, PPS numbers may well have been issued to people who travelled to Ireland for a short period only, such as students who came to Ireland to work during summer holidays. The seasonal peaks in the issuing of PPS numbers since 2003, in particular the summer peak and the winter drop-off, suggest that such seasonal migration may well have been more prevalent than was realized (see figures for Polish nationals below, extracted from the Department of Social and Family Affairs).

Reports on the exodus of recent immigrants from Ireland serve an important political purpose. The Irish government has long acted under the illusion of temporary immigrants, motivated solely by economic considerations. When work dries up, the assumption is that these economic migrants will leave the country. This illusion negates the need for any long-term planning around migration or integration. Yet, as the CSO report ultimately shows, reports of an immigrant exodus from Ireland are premature. Instead, many recent immigrants continue to stay in Ireland – trapped, perhaps, in negative equity in the country’s ghost estates. We need to realize that tales of their mass departure are just that – empty tales, with no basis in fact.

Mary Gilmartin

Castlebar, Portlaoise, Sligo, Mullingar, Kilkenny, Letterkenny. These six towns have most to fear from the public sector pay cuts just announced by Brian Lenihan. The reason? The proportion of workers employed in the public sector – around 40% in each of these towns, according to CSO data from the 2006 Census (see Table 1). (more…)

Borders, as we know, offer many opportunities for the entrepreneurially-minded. Those activities, unlike the cross-border shopping referred to in an earlier post, are not always legal. A recent Prime Time Investigates suggested that there may be growing instances of social welfare fraud along the Irish border. Michael Taft’s analysis on progressive-economy takes issue with this comment. He points out the geographies of social welfare offices (just two for the whole of Cavan, for example): taking these geographies into account gives a completely different shape to the story. As Taft points out,  it’s more important to try and understand the spatial differences in live register increases, a topic we will return to on Ireland After Nama at a later stage.

Mary Gilmartin