Emigration: It’s not getting any easier

16 Mar 2011

Emigration: It’s not getting any easier

There’s a story told of a man from the west of Ireland stepping onto the platform in Euston Station, London after a long trip on the mail boat and the train. Like most arriving in London, he’s left the pain of emigration somewhere on the Irish Sea and he successfully suppresses these feelings with the belief that untold opportunity and wealth await him. He is laden down with his cardboard suitcase which contains a change of clothes and a few other rudimentary items. Under the same arm is a turkey that hasn’t been plucked, its limp head hanging out of the newspaper that it is wrapped in. His other arm delicately balances a smoked ham and a tin of Jacob’s biscuits, all destined for the relations of various neighbours from his home parish. He takes two steps up the platform and spots a twenty pound note on the ground. Finding it difficult to pick up the note with his excess baggage, he mumbles to himself, ‘‘ah sure, I’ll come back tomorrow to collect a few of them”.

Emigrants today may not have turkeys and hams under their arms but they still carry what we have come to know as a cultural identity which can be a burden and a gift, depending on circumstances and context. One can become aware of one’s cultural identity when placed in a new environment. The way I work, sleep, eat, drink, learn, sustain friendships and the values that I hold dear are often only highlighted when I encounter someone or somewhere different. Subsequently, the migrant journey is a constant conversation between what is new and what is familiar. This conversation gives you a sense your own difference, a difference that can only be explained by your cultural identity which is exposed to you like never before because of your new environment.  Furthermore you question whether you want to retain or left go of your difference. This process can be referred to as the dialogue between integration and particularity. In this context ‘integration’ is the desire to become part of the place you now hope to call home and ‘particularity’ refers to the cultural identity that you can’t really shake off because it is who you are.

Settling down, never mind emigrating, has unique challenges these days. In times gone by people got on with things, there was little else to do. Their heart often tugged them homewards but their surroundings soon brought them back. Today there is an expectation that a person can occupy two spaces at the same time with ease. Technology has us living in two times zones at any one point in time. As a result ‘getting on with things’ can be more difficult.

Technology use can inadvertently cause distress: you can wake up in the morning to a missed call from a friend or relative who was overexcited as they relayed in their message how much ‘craic’ you are missing at such and such a social event at home. When you are told not to worry about a sick parent, you can’t put it aside that easily anymore; ‘they’re fine’ doesn’t wash with the fact that you haven’t seen them on Skype for the last few weeks. Sometimes you’d love to be free just to get on with settling but technology keeps pulling you back, tugging at your heart strings, drawing you into a different time zone when you are trying to ready yourself for action in a world of new opportunities.

When our Euston Station character stepped off the train, there is no doubt that he knew something about the country he was travelling to. This information gave him a sense of security which helped to get him over the first few hurdles until he began to listen and learn. As we face a new phase of Irish emigration people would be foolish to think that today’s more technology literate ‘sophisticated’ generation won’t encounter their own problems.  Indeed the dialogue between integration and particularity may be more difficult for them than it was for previous generations.

Many others stepped off trains thinking they knew the way things worked in their new country. From the many stories that were told at home, the letters that were written, the programmes that were watched or listened to, the potential emigrant created a sense that they had it ‘sussed’; that they knew what they were heading into. Present waves of emigrants have more access to information about destination countries than past generations. They may not believe that the streets are paved with gold did but they still have expectations and dreams that will eventually engage a new reality.

Whilst preparation is very important for the new emigrant, no amount of research time spent on online search engines can give the smells, tastes and hazards of a new land. No amount of guidebooks prepares you for the interactions with people of another land where frankness can be confused with rudeness and laughter seen as dismissive and uncaring. No amount of self-help books can capture the right way to say that final good bye in the airport to those that matter. Neither will these books help you overcome the sense of sheer confusion when you wake up midway through a long-haul flight realising you are not going home in two weeks time. This confused, uncomfortable semi-slumber finds you asking yourself ‘what the hell am I at?’ for the first time.

Whatever about the personal struggles that the emigrant experiences there is no doubt that external factors such as immigration policies can inhibit or enhance this struggle. Policy regimes are much stricter than those that existed in the past. Today, policies focus more on protecting the possessions and welfare benefits of the residents of a country than supporting opportunities for potential immigrants. In previous eras countries that needed immigrants had, for the large part, open-door policies. Where this was not the case there were opportunities for sponsorship by a family member who was already a citizen or resident of the country. Today the scenario is quite different. Borders are less porous and citizenship is more difficult to achieve. People still take risks. They travel on holiday visas, overstay and become illegal. If caught they are deported and receive a bar which means they are not allowed to enter that country for many years. This is particularly tragic when many of those that are illegal could have entered their chosen country legally if they had taken time to carry out some basic research.

This inability to learn from the mistakes of past waves of emigration is in evidence in various ways. One group that comes to mind is the many Irish emigrants to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s who made very little provision for their later years. Those that worked for ‘the lump’ followed the work wherever it would take them. Being paid in cash in a public house meant that the wage was short lived and quickly absorbed by the cash register. One might think that such circumstances are a thing of the past.  Today many Irish working in the Middle East are there for as long as their work permits are valid. As soon as their employment comes to an end, they have no status and will have to leave the jurisdiction. Where do they go?  We are all too familiar with the scenario whereby when you reach a certain age your prospects of employment are lessened.  But what is the emigrant has made no provision for the day when there is no pay cheque? The country that offered employment with little hope of integration is no longer concerned for the emigrant’s well being. These subtle policies are signals to emigrants that it is time to move on. If the emigrant is Irish and has lived outside Ireland for a long number of years it is most likely that the emigrant has made no social welfare contributions in their original country.

Despite these challenges, fans of globalisation advocate the benefits of living in two places in the world at the one time. However the ultimate question lurking behind the ups and downs of the migratory process is the existential question which asks ‘to whom do I belong?’ The answer to this question is not found in technology or policies but in the human heart.  The challenge to today’s emigrants is the same challenge that faced emigrants in the past.  At the end of the day if an emigrant is fortunate enough to live in a place where they can put their hand on their heart and proclaim ‘I belong here’ then they can safely say that they have found their home in the world.

Fr Alan Hilliard is a priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin and Coordinator of the NOSTRA programme at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. Fr Alan has recently completed a Masters in Social Science from UCD entitled Mind the Gap: Social Cohesion, Migration and Immigration.