Once Again, Ireland’s Young Prepare To Leave

Once again, Ireland's young prepare to leave

Ireland enjoyed a boom like no other in the last 10 years, fuelled by foreign investment and runaway property speculation. But it is all over now, and the desire to emigrate, set deep in the nation's psyche, has taken hold once more.

Tracy McVeigh
The Observer,
Sunday 28 February 2010

In the tiny sub-post office at Liscarney, on the road out of Westport, under the snow-touched pyramid of Croagh Patrick, postmaster William Joyce is considering his schooldays. “In my class maybe a third left. It was America then.”

Joyce, 54, got married and stayed put. “I've the farm as well as the post office and the wife works; one job is not enough around here.” His three teenage sons are at college, the first generation of the family to reach further education. “I knew the boom wouldn't last. All the young crowd working on borrowed money with two cars to every house, out every weekend, they didn't see the day coming when it would have to be paid back. They knew nothing else. But the minute the banks stopped, everything stopped.

“Now it's people coming in here for the social welfare and the young lads are all looking for visas for Canada.” His youngest is thinking of Germany. “I wouldn't stop them, any of mine. What am I going to say when I know myself what it's like on 60 acres of worthless land? Travel is education.”

Cattle farmer Richard Duffy has come in and is nodding. “If I'd worked as hard as I've worked in any other country I'd be a millionaire three times over,” he says. “You can point at the banks and the developers for all these people left with huge debts, but the government here makes up its own way as it goes along. But you have to put some blame on the people for taking it lying down. If this was France or Spain we'd be having a revolution.”

Ireland, which went from being one of Europe's poorest countries to one of its richest in less than a decade, has hit the bottom. Gross domestic product fell 7.3% last year. This month a report by financial experts Davy Research concluded that the republic had largely wasted a decade of high income during the boom, with private enterprise investing its wealth “in the wrong places”.

Most people blame the government for spending too much and regulating too little, and allowing construction to dominate. There is weariness with an almost tribal political system that has seen the same people returned to power over three decades. But now the real human wrench is under way: the first generation to have enjoyed the benefits of the wholesale reversal of Ireland's recent wretched history is leaving.

A Boston Globe headline recently declared that: “The Irish are coming again”. About 60,000 Irish citizens have moved to Australia, Canada and New Zealand in the past year alone. The number granted residence visas for Australia increased by 25% last year to 2,501. Another 22,786 people aged under 35 took up working holiday visas. A seminar held in Dublin by Australian Visa Specialists last month attracted “a phenomenal response” with long queues of mostly young families and single men. In the US, where new visa restrictions are making immigration far tougher, there are already an estimated 50,000 “undocumented” Irish immigrants. There is pressure on the Obama administration to give them an amnesty.

In Westport, a pretty town on the beautiful coast of Co Mayo, unemployment figures out last month showed a leap of 9.1%, with nearly 2,000 now jobless. And the figure is continuing to rise. “It means Westport is an unemployment blackspot,” says Michael Ring, the Fine Gael TD (MP) for the town. One of his constituents has just left his cramped office: she had come for advice on how to tackle the repayments on her 260% mortgage now she had lost her job.

“The big worrying trend is unemployment, especially the over-25s. We have people emigrating now because that's what we have done since the foundation of the state, but a lot of doors are closed; its much harder to get into America or Britain. Everyone in this country is frightened: we have never seen a recession hit so fast,” he said. “There are houses around here half-built that will never be lived in. Negative equity is bad enough but here, where the banks weren't even looking at incomes before they loaned out money, it's criminal. We went mad and now we've gone down the pan.”

Over the past few years Westport has been a thriving tourist town, its economy touched and turned to gold by the raging success of Ireland's boom. Hundreds of Polish and Latvian workers flooded in to fill jobs in the thriving service industry the 11 hotels and numerous restaurants and bars and, the fastest-growing industry of all, house-building.

Local young men and women had left their parents' farms and gone off to college and university, or trained in the construction trades. Carpentry, building and plastering had suddenly all become a ticket to a startling wage packet. Culture flourished, in music festivals and art shows: a talented bunch of locals star in their own online soap opera, the Covies. A whole generation was educated, employed and aspiring. Unlike their parents, they were able to go abroad with a return ticket for a holiday.

The population of Mayo had started to rise after 150 years of steady decline triggered by the famine of the 1840s, which wiped out a third of the population, and subsequent shockwaves of emigration that emptied the west of Ireland and swelled the workforces of newly industrialising England and America. A county that had nearly 400,000 people in 1841 was down to 109,000 in 1971. But then came the Celtic Tiger, and then, as it waned, the second boom, in property.

Around Westport the landscape boasts spanking new white-and-yellow houses, with colonnades and arches and pristine PVC window frames, poking out of the tussocky fields. New driveways have filled up with giant cars, safely away from the mud of the sheep-filled paddocks with their old dry stone walls. The paths inland through the Delphi valley, where hundreds of famine victims seeking food lay down and died on the hike from landlord to landlord, are now trails for mountain bikes and walkers that lead to revamped hotels with spas and eco-credentials.

While in Dublin much of the property speculation was in the commercial market, in rural Ireland with no shortage of land it was in houses, and everyone with a few euros in the bank became a part-time builder. But now many buildings stand empty, while for the owners of others the mortgages will be crippling. Prices have fallen so far that a plot of building land in Athlone valued at 31m in 2006 was reported last week to be worth 600,000.

Ger Scahill, 25, used to earn good money in the construction business. So much so that he bought himself a plot of land with a loan from the bank. He had a mortgage approved for the house he planned to build on it. “I just wanted to make sure I was building something up for myself, I could maybe rent it out and go away for a year or so and have something to come back to.”

But his timing was off, the bust had begun and the bank pulled the plug. It left him with an empty plot of land and repayments of 850 a month. Now unemployed, he gets an 800 dole cheque each month.

He says: “So I'm stuck here for a bit, but a lot of the lads have gone, especially in the last while. About a quarter of those I was at college with have gone. I've three friends in Canada who seem to be doing OK. My girlfriend is mad to go because all her friends have gone too. My dad was always saying about saving for a rainy day, but you didn't see this coming.”

One of Ger's sisters, Laura, had already gone to England. For their mother Ena there are mixed feelings. She and her husband, also named Ger, themselves spent three years in England before coming back to raise their four children in Westport.

“On one hand our family now have seen the good times and that's all been taken away from them and that's hard,” she says, sitting at the table of the large comfortable house the couple built and run as a B&B.

“But I was one of 11 raised on a tiny place on the side of Croagh Patrick and five of us left the country. It's part of our heritage that young people leave. I think its great for everyone to travel but I'd like to see them come back. Laura would love to come home but she can't right now.”

Ger senior is far more hearty. “It's a great time to go, get some experience of the world. This is a reality check and it's good for our country. In the past days people had to go on a one-way ticket, there was no coming back. We should learn from the Latvians and Poles who came over here and lived on a shoestring and were happy here and then went back with some money in their pocket.”

At its height, Westport played host to more than 1,000 eastern European workers. Most of those who came have gone back, or moved on to other European countries where there might be jobs to be had. In a newly built flat near the centre of town Aneta Dobrowolska, 24, is visiting her friend Piotr Kubasik, one of the hardcore of east Europeans who are hanging on.

Kubasik lost his job as head chef when his restaurant closed before Christmas and now has two days work a week at a cafe. He's going to hang on until the summer if he possibly can. “I'm not ready to give up on it yet,” he shrugs. Dobrowolska has had a baby with an Irish man. “I guess that means I'm staying,” she says. “I'd like to give back to this country, I am at business school and we have a lot of ideas in that class I tell you.”

The spirit of entrepreneurship has carried the Irish into the boom and many hope it will carry them out of the bust. Older people are showing signs of getting a little frustrated with the shell-shocked boomers, or Tiger cubs, as some commentators have started to call them. Bill Cullen, a self-made Dublin millionaire, last week caused a storm when, exasperated by young unemployed people bemoaning their lot on a TV show, called them a mollycoddled generation.

“I certainly don't feel mollycoddled and you can't forget that a lot of people missed out on the boom years completely,” says Ruairi McKiernan, the 32-year-old founder of SpunOut.org, a youth web-driven organisation based in Galway City. “There's a lot of unskilled unemployed and there are stiff immigration controls and a global recession they can't get past in Boston or Sydney. That's a lot of young men susceptible to mental health problems and the suicide problem is already huge. But sometimes at our lowest moments of crisis is where there is an opportunity,” he says.

“Emigration is a safety valve that Ireland has always used. It's sadly ingrained in the culture, but while we bang on about the glory days when the Irish built this and the Irish built that, you have to remember not everyone did well, we often made up disproportionate numbers of homeless, particularly in London.

“We shouldn't accept that losing our brightest and best is always progress. Certainly people go away and thrive in dynamic places but we are appealing to people to stay, to make a stand. This is a time when Ireland is totally leaderless, [there's] chaos at the helm, with the church, state, unions and banks all scrambling to put out the fires they helped start,” he says.

“Our parents were too frightened to challenge the status quo. A lot of that was because of the power of the church, but now that's tumbling then maybe this is our time. We can't keep on pointing the finger, we've been really, really placid, using pubs as health centres for self-medication. This is a huge opportunity. We are a young, well-educated people and this is our pivotal moment.”

While other European economies Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy have crashed into similar crises, it is in Ireland that the people themselves have felt the pain the most. But the length of the boom years, has also given them the best education. At Trinity College Dublin, the students hurrying across the sleet-slicked 18th-century cobblestones seem confident about their futures in carefully chosen, recession-proof professions. Accountancy is doing well; anyone studying architecture has long since jumped course. Many are staying on for longer than they planned. Almost all are considering a period abroad.

Professor Philip Lane is head of the economics department. “As far as the international situation goes we are worse than Greece because the Greek household hasn't suffered so much; the closer analogy is probably Spain. Boom and bust is nothing new and nor are banking crises. The scale and speed of the downturn here was the dreadful thing and the huge reliance on construction. The big lesson has to be regulation.

“For our students it is tough; there are huge generational issues. The lottery draw here was what age you were: that was what mattered in the damage done. Those in their twenties and early thirties have been hammered. But nations survive,” he says.

“Emigration is hard-wired into the Irish and they will go and continue to go. The issue there is that the people who leave may never come back and it's the lonely guy in the East End bedsit in London that we should be worrying about,” says Lane.

Back in Westport, in Matt Molloy's pub in Bridge Street, 80-year-old Mick Lavelle nurses a mug of tea, and the reputation of being something of a sage. On request, he sings The Millionaire, his song about a Westport man who dreams he's won the lottery only to wake up to the shock of his miserable reality.

“They're saying it's a song for Ireland today and its meaning for the young men isn't lost on anybody, but nor would it have been lost for me as a young man when I was travelling about the world. We'll go off and build the world and then come home where we belong,” he says. “I did.”