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WhoAmI

Generation emigration: Irish expats on their national identity

What happens to your national identity when you move abroad? Life Links takes a look at Ireland, a country with a rich history of emigration, to find out how its latest wave of emigrants feel about their Irishness.

Marianne Cassidy in Switzerland (Photo: Sarah Minty)

Marianne Cassidy says she feels “more Irish” now she lives in Switzerland. “I'm always excited to meet someone from my home country so we can complain about the lack of proper milk and wax lyrical.”

It was 2010 when 26-year-old Claire Delap decided to leave Ireland. Having completed her final exams at University College Dublin, just two years after the beginning of the country’s financial collapse, she thought she would not have the same opportunities in Ireland as elsewhere and needed something new.

“Dublin just felt too small,” she said. “I wanted to see the world.”

Claire is one of around a quarter of a million young people who have left Ireland since the start of the economic crisis in 2008. Making new homes around the world, many of her generation have been forced to think about their national identity in a new light in the face of new cultures in their host countries and derision of the situation in Ireland.

Claire Delap (Photo: privat)

Claire Delap lives in New York, but she says she still misses Sunday dinner and spending time with her family. What else does she miss? “The Irish sea! The easy way of life.”

“The economic crash was all people would ask me about,” said Claire, who moved to New York in the US to become a TV producer. “It seemed to be almost all they knew about Ireland at the time. There was a period when I had to defend Ireland a lot from ridicule.”

Ireland’s long history of emigration is probably best illustrated by the large number of Irish pubs beyond its shores. From the potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century to the previous recession in the 1980’s, Irish people have long been leaving in search of a better life.

But the latest wave of emigration is different. This generation of young people believed their prospects were bright. With the rise of the “Celtic Tiger” economy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, unemployment dropped to a record low, salaries rose exponentially and property prices surged.

Well educated, and the first generation to grow up during an economic boom, Ireland’s twenty-somethings were dubbed the “Celtic Tiger Cubs.” But then it all went belly up. After years of reckless lending by Irish banks, the economy collapsed. The subsequent bailout Ireland received from European institutions totaled €67 billion. The loss of economic sovereignty was not only a national humiliation; it was also a stark awakening for the Celtic Tiger Cubs. They left in droves.

Peter Scargill (Photo: privat)

Peter Scargill has fully embraced life in Leipzig. He’s learnt German and plays clarinet in a jazz band. But one thing he says even the Irish pubs in Leipzig can’t provide is a decent pint of Guinness stout.

“I didn't feel I could brag about our economic success any more; the Celtic Tiger seemed like an embarrassment that I had enjoyed growing up as a cub,” said Claire.

Defending Ireland Abroad

It is not only in the US that the disparaging comments have had an impact on Irish national identity. In 2011, Peter Scargill, also 26, moved to Leipzig in eastern Germany and experienced similar animosity.

“People used to complain that Ireland was taking money from Germany with the bailout,” he said. “As an Irishman, I felt it right to correct them and try to defend Ireland.”

And it isn’t just misconceptions about the bailout and the economy Irish emigrants have had to face. Although Ireland has been independent for the best part of a century, the belief that it still belongs to the United Kingdom (UK) is relatively widespread. There is also the confusion about Gaelic, the country’s official language, known in Ireland simply as “Irish”.

“I find myself speaking more Irish,” said Malachy McDermott, 27, who left Ireland for London in 2013 and now works as a payroll administrator. “It’s become more important for me to define myself as Irish.”

Malachy McDermott (Photo: privat)

Malachy McDermott is a payroll administrator in London, but says Ireland will always be his true home. He misses spending time with his family, but says he definitely doesn’t miss the public transport.

Still, Malachy is keen to move away from what he calls the “stereotypes of the hard-drinking laborer of the past”. Instead, he wants to project a “more intellectual and proud form of Irishness”, something he says is espoused by Irish nationalist and revolutionary Padraig Pearse and writer James Joyce.

“Losing my accent”

Like Malachy and many other young Irish emigrants, Marianne Cassidy, 26, who left Ireland more than three years ago, says the experience of moving abroad has re-focused her attention on her own “Irishness”. After a stint living in the US and the UK, Marianne moved to Switzerland, where she works for the United Nations.

“I definitely feel more Irish since I’ve moved,” she says. “I've also gotten a rather humbling sense of how insignificant we are on a global scale, particularly because there are many people out there who are confused or indifferent about Ireland's relationship to the UK. I have people who know I'm Irish casually ask if I'm ‘going home to the UK’ for the holidays.”

However, for others, the move has made them feel they are losing such “Irishness”.
“I definitely feel less Irish,” said Susan Paton, 30, who moved to Salisbury in southwest England in 2009 to work as a microbiologist. “I feel I’m losing my accent and losing touch with Ireland of today.”

Some try to stay connected to their home culture by meeting fellow Irish expats and partaking in Irish traditions.

Rosemary Bourke (Photo: privat)

Rosemary Bourke is a teacher in Hong Kong. She does not want to go back to Ireland. “Everyday there were petty scandals sweeping the government and little being done to shape better opportunities for the very well educated that remained in the country.”

Rosemary Bourke, 33, left Ireland in July to work as a kindergarten teacher in Hong Kong. Though she mixes with many nationalities there, she enjoys watching hurling (a traditional Irish sport) with her Irish friends. After all, she says: “It’s not every day you bump into an Irish person in Hong Kong.”

“Not an expat”

Meanwhile, other emigrants have thrown themselves enthusiastically into the culture of their host country.

“I’ve been invited to family Thanksgiving dinners, Halloween parties, American football games,” said Claire in New York. “I don’t feel [like I’m] on the outside. I’m not an expat. I think lots of Brits and Irish here tend to stick to themselves, but I’m a big fan of the Americans.”

Still, there are some Irish pastimes, and stereotypes, that die hard. Despite the number of Irish drinking holes abroad, many emigrants say the quality of stout outside the Emerald Isle leaves a lot to be desired.

Peter in Leipzig claims that not one of the city’s Irish bars can pour a decent pint – thankfully, he has acquired a taste for German Weissbier – but it is not the drinks, rather the accompanying banter, that many say they miss.

“Social relations are very informal in Ireland and Irish people tend to be very funny,” said Daniel Watts, 26, who is temporarily back in Ireland after studying abroad in the Netherlands and working as a teacher in Spain. Marianne in Switzerland, on the other hand, says she misses the “firm handshaking” of home: “Cheek kissing scares me!” she admitted.

“Interference of the Catholic Church”

Marianne Cassidy (Photo: privat)

Marianne Cassidy left Ireland three years ago and after living in the UK and the US, now lives in Geneva in Switzerland. “I speak fondly of my country to almost everyone I meet,” she said. And what she misses most is the self-deprecating humor.

Still, seeing Ireland from an outsider perspective has not always been a positive experience for emigrants. In 2012, Ireland’s ban on abortion came under the spotlight when Indian woman Savita Halappanavar died in an Irish hospital after being refused a life-saving abortion.

“I suddenly had friends and colleagues accosting me to clarify the situation,” said Marianne. “A few were convinced they had misunderstood the issue, because they couldn't conceive of the idea that there is basically a blanket ban on abortion in Ireland.”

After years in the UK, Susan is happy to have left behind the influence of her home country’s official religion, Catholicism: “The interference of the Catholic Church in matters influencing women and homosexuality. It disgusts me.”

Back in Ireland after years abroad, Daniel is equally clear on what he sees as the negative aspects of his native culture: “Parochialism, small mindedness and an inability to see beyond the local vicinity - never mind other countries.”

So, as Ireland shows tentative signs of economic recovery, are the Celtic Tiger cubs tempted to return home?

“Not if I can avoid it,” said Rosemary in Hong Kong. “I’ve too many bad memories in recent years.”

For others the pull of their native land has never weakened.

“Ireland is my cultural, spiritual and actual home and always will be,” said Malachy. “I will definitely go back.”

Why I wanted to tell this story

Originally from Ireland, I emigrated to Germany two years ago to follow my dream of becoming a journalist. Like so many of my friends at home, I had mixed feelings about leaving. It makes me sad to see how much talent Ireland is losing to emigration. But seeing how well young Irish people are doing abroad makes me proud.