- The Emigration Statute, Cobh, County Cork.
For the longest time it could honestly be said that Ireland’s greatest export was her own people. There is a huge amount of truth in this and in fact one need only look at the Irish global diaspora to see just how far and wide the Irish have cast their net. The diaspora is often spoken of with a perverted sort of pride by the Irish at home. But that pride, I believe, is nothing more than a disguise.
What is it disguising?
In a word, pain.
I am 32 years of age and I truly believed that I might live my lifetime without seeing the horrors of mass emigration being visited again upon my country, my family and my friends. Well, that belief is now torn to tattered shreds and what I am now experiencing has only hardened a strongly held view-point of mine: that immigrants should never be the objects of vilification or of ridicule by the indigenous people of any nation.
Leaving your home nation at heart is an excruciatingly painful action. A horror story played out not inside the pages of a novel but in the real world with real world consequences. We, the Irish, have for generations experienced those pains and yet at the height of the boom years I often heard foreign nationals ridiculed or vilified.
“Fuckin’ Pols taking our jobs.”
“Fuckin’ Nigerians scrounging off of our country.”
Despite our own experiences of the horrors of emigration having been as recent as the 1980s and even the early 1990s we had buried those memories beneath a blanket of newly minted superiority. We had forgotten that within our nation’s living memory are signs in London saying
“No dogs, no blacks, no Irish.”
We had forgotten the Paddy jokes that were a staple of music hall, comedy club and sometimes even television comedians. We chose to forget that emigration hurts amid our new-found sense of privilege.
But now we’ve found ourselves remembering those pains as a new generation who never had to cope with the pain of emigration before now find ourselves staring down into its abyss which until recently we had bridged over with our total belief in our ability gainfully to employ our own.
I never allowed jokes at the expense of immigrants to be uttered under my roof. I like people from other nations. They help us to grow as a people, not only culturally, but also they help us to grow more tolerant of the differences in others by bringing into stark contrast the differences that mark the separation even between one Irish person and another.
I truly believe that the arrival of so many eastern Europeans, Africans and other nationals of less tolerant regions of the world to our own shores had a sobering effect on our own civil rights activists when they saw how we were not that far ahead of some very unpleasant places. This in some small way helping to galvanise an even greater struggle for LGBT rights, the rights of women and children etc.
I believe that those same foreign people have also helped to create a broader Irish palate for foods, drinks, art forms and all the other elements that going into making the lifeblood of any nations culture.
Just as alloys of different metals often tend to become stronger and more useful, Ireland’s immigrant population has helped to make us a stronger and more rounded nation.
But they did this at a great personal cost. They left their homes, their families, their lives, their loves and their dreams for the hope of employment on our shores. Some of them found what they sought, others didn’t and moved on to other even more distant shores. They took the jobs that we Irish didn’t want anymore and they more often than not did them extremely well.
But it cost them and those who love them pain, horror and suffering. Try to imagine Christmas without your family while you live alone in an apartment in a strange country. Now imagine Christmas without your favourite person while you fear for their happiness and even safety in a country that isn’t their own. Some of the Irish made jokes during the boom times and forgot their own experience of this.
I never accepted jokes at their expense before. I’m now even more vehemently against their utterance.
Even though I was a child in the tail end of the last period of mass Irish emigration I never truly understood what it really meant until just lately. I knew in a sort of academic way what it entailed and the sheer loss to a small nation such as ours that any mass migration of young people represents. It was an academic understanding.
It isn’t anymore.
My knowledge is now personal, not the knowledge of raw data and distant, hazy memories.
Someone I love is leaving, the first of my circle to do so.
I wish I could magic things better in my country. Not for my country, but for my friends and my family. I wish they could stay. I wish I didn’t have to worry about my sister’s welcome in the country which she hopes to soon call home. I wish we could live on the same continent so I can see her, so I can help her and her I, so this looming gulf won’t be there.
You see what I’ve learnt is that not only the people leaving lose a great deal from their lives but also that the people staying behind are horribly reduced by their loved ones being absent.
P.S. All that said I hope and pray to any God who’ll listen that your life there will be everything you dream of. And you know that I’ll never stop being here for you and that I will visit as often as I can.