Irish look to Scotland for work

Share this article

They never thought they would have to leave Ireland, the land of the Celtic Tiger, in search of work, but the plight of previous generations is now facing thousands of today's young Irish. Martyn McLaughlin talks to three who have decided Scotland offers a better future

IT seemed to be a closed chapter in the history of Ireland, a country where, at last, new generations could plan to make a living and raise their own families without fleeing for distant shores. But the nation's beleaguered economy has ensured that even in the 21st century, a new era of emigration beckons for young Irish men and women.

With scant prospects at home to secure employment as years of austerity beckon, increasing numbers of graduates and professionals are heading for foreign lands in search of security. While many are travelling to the likes of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, a sizeable number are making the short journey across the Irish Sea.

While the financial health of Scotland could hardly be described as buoyant at present, those incomers who have decided to settle here believe it to be one of the best options available to them.

At present, the Irish unemployment rate is more than 13 per cent, with the predicament facing younger generations even more severe – a third of those under the age of 25 in Ireland are out of work.

Some 65,000 people left in the years to April 2009 and April 2010, up from between 25,000 and 31,000 per year from 1996 to 2005. Quite how seismic the exodus will be remains to be seen, but the forecasts are grim.

Faced with a moribund jobs market upon their graduation, it is estimated that as many as 150,000 students will emigrate in the next five years, according to the Union of Students in Ireland. The nation's Economic and Social Research Institute painted an even bleaker picture earlier this year, putting the figure at 200,000.

Young Irish workers living in Scotland told The Scotsman this week of their sadness that plans to return home have been indefinitely delayed. Some spoke with regret that they may not be able to raise their family among loved ones, while others articulated a feeling of being "trapped" abroad. John Dolan, originally from Co Sligo in the north-west of Ireland, is one of those Irish emigrants to Scotland resigned to the fact that for the foreseeable future at least, he cannot go home.

He came to Scotland four years ago to study for his masters, attracted by the international reputation of Edinburgh as a "great student city" and the "better prospects" on offer.

Although it is his ambition to carve out a future in his homeland, the deepening financial turmoil means it is unlikely he will be able to do so any time soon.

"The way it's looking, I won't be going back in the short term," reasoned the 26-year-old. "There's a lot of uncertainty. I don't see any point in heading home in the next three or four years.

"I have family in Ireland, but you have to weigh up the positives and negatives. There's very little growth there and the prospects aren't good."

Mr Dolan, who works in the capital as a currency trader, said many of his Irish friends in Scotland also felt resigned to prolonging their stay here. He said: "I think a lot of other Irish folk are in the same position. When I came to Scotland, most Irish folk at university went home after a year or two, but now you're seeing them stay.

"In my age group, folk between 21 and 26, who are university educated, they're basing themselves in Scotland now. There's a feeling that there's a brain drain happening."

He added: "I have a group of around ten close friends, and seven of us are now in the UK. That's the kind of figures you're looking at. Most of them were in the same position as me, who decided there's more opportunity in Scotland. This country has its problems as well, but they are a lot more severe in Ireland." That sense of making the best of a bad situation was echoed by Liam Young. A teacher from Cork, he has contemplated moving back to Ireland, but after some pained consideration, came to the conclusion that there was "no point."

"To go back home, I'd be living with my parents and doing bits and pieces of work I could pick up, instead of having a full-time job," said the 28-year-old. "My brother has been out in San Francisco for a while, and like me, there's just no hope of him coming home."

Mr Young, who also lives in Edinburgh, admitted that with the Celtic Tiger now on the back foot, the reality of the repercussions proved hard to bear at times. "Although we love Scotland and we enjoy life here, it's hard knowing that decision has been made for you that you can't go back," he said.

While it remains to be seen how many Irish head for the exits to start anew in Scotland, their emigration to these shores is not a new trend. In the middle of the 19th century, vast numbers escaped the famine in their homeland, resulting in a spike in the number of Irish living here.

In 1841, census results showed that 4.8 per cent of the population of Scotland was Irish-born (126,321 out of a total population of 2,620,184). Within a decade, however, the ratio had grown to 7.2 per cent, and by 1951, the Irish population of Scotland stood at 207,367.

Emigration reached its apogee in the 1950s when 50,000 people left Ireland a year, and returned in the 1980s, when spiralling unemployment saw 35,000 depart annually.

For Mr Young, a maths teacher at Bathgate Academy, history is simply repeating itself.

"One difference between the Scottish and Irish is that the Irish generally have no problem in upping sticks, but it's still hard," he explained. "We do feel that we're trapped at the moment because we can't go home."

Eimar Murphy, a beauty therapist originally from Co Kildare, is one of increasing numbers of Irish people just thankful that Scotland has afforded her a new start.

Originally settling in Aberdeen this summer, she decided to relocate to Glasgow last month to flatshare with friends. The decision to emigrate and leave behind loved ones, she recalls, was not one fraught with difficulty.

"I was living in Kildare with my mum and dad like a prisoner with no spare money," said the 23-year-old. "There were no jobs available and I was thinking about leaving for a while. When things started to look bad earlier this year I just decided, 'That's it'."

She added: "I'm part of a generation of Irish people that will have to work and live away from the country."

The problems are not just confined to those from the south of Ireland. Gerry Dillon, originally from Newry, came to Glasgow 12 years ago to take up a construction job, and has enjoyed a fruitful career since.

He and his wife, who works in the banking sector, are expecting their first child next April, and they had hoped to return to Co Down to raise their family among grandparents and other relatives. Given the state of their respective fields of employment, however, it is an option they cannot even consider.

The 28-year-old said: "With the greatest of respect to Scotland, we want to bring up our child where our family and friends are. It's an important source of support, and of course it lets the grandparents bond with their grandchild.

"But the state the construction sector is in means it's a no-go. Northern Ireland depends a lot on the south for work. My family is all in construction, and they regularly crossed the border back and forth on contracts. That's just not happening now."

Throughout all the strife, those Irish in Scotland are torn between wanting to help their country, and the needs of their family. "There's a patriotic feeling that you have to help out but you have to think about your personal situation," said Mr Dolan.

Mr Young agreed: "For me, it's something of a crisis of conscience. I'm young, and Ireland needs young people with energy to take the country in a different course, but they're simply having to leave the country.

"In a village in west Cork near where I grew up, there was 30 men aged between 22 and 29 who left last weekend all at once. It's rough going."