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Spectre of emigration stalks stricken Ireland again

24 November 2010, 11:03 CET
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(DUBLIN) - Fleeing for a better life abroad had seemed a closed chapter in Irish history but the searing economic crisis is once again sending Ireland's young people heading for the exits.

For centuries Ireland had been a country of emigration, with tales of escaping the Emerald Isle ingrained into its music and literature.

The "Celtic Tiger" boom years reversed the flow, with immigrants flocking to its shores and boosting the population.

Now, with Ireland forced to turn to the European Union and the IMF to bail out its debt-ridden economy, a new generation may follow the paths of their kin in fleeing to Britain, North America, Australia and elsewhere.

"A lot of my friends are leaving. A lot of people in their 20s and 30s who are very educated are leaving," said Elaine Byrne, a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland's oldest university.

"I teach a class in politics, and we did a poll recently in the class, and almost everybody put up their hand and said that they were leaving."

Trinity's leafy, august squares give little indication of the economic chaos which has enveloped the republic.

But as years of austerity beckon, more and more Irish people, including many of its young graduates, are looking at leaving.

Having won a place at Trinity, ranked among the world's top 100 universities, 18-year-old Kevin Fitzgerald thought he would like to stay in Ireland, but now believes packing his bags is inevitable.

"I just thought I'd be here for good. I'm from Ireland, I'd love to stay here, but if there's no jobs, we've no choice -- we're going to have to go abroad. We need to make a living," he told AFP.

"The way companies are pulling out of Ireland, I think I may have to look abroad, because there's just not enough jobs here.

"To see so many people unemployed, my age, under 23... it's just not looking good."

A third of under-25s are out of work, and Ireland's Union of Students estimates 150,000 will choose to leave over the next five years.

"I thought everything would be under wraps, the Celtic Tiger, everything was booming. That's what you get for just living on banks," Fitzgerald said.

When Ireland's property bubble burst three years ago, the banks were hit hard and the country was plunged into a deep recession.

Last month, a trade fair in Dublin offering the tantalising possibility of a new life in Canada, New Zealand and Australia was packed with 5,000 people.

The reversal of fortunes has been dramatic.

The 1845-1851 potato famine saw between half a million and 1.5 million people die and a million more forced out of the country.

Until the sudden prosperity of the "Celtic Tiger" economy in the 1990s many continued to leave.

Then, with jobs suddenly abundant, Ireland experienced the largest population growth of any country in the EU and in 2006 Ireland's population reached its highest level since 1861.

The balance of migration has already turned, with net migration now negative and at its lowest level since 1989.

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.

Mountains of debt and swingeing budget cuts have already left growth prospects for the near future looking bleak.

Ireland can ill afford its brightest and best once again looking across the seas to seek their fortune.

Student friends Kevin Gleeson, 19, and 18-year-old Padraig Ryan are also concerned for their futures.

"We don't really know what's going to happen, in terms of where we're going financially," Gleeson said.

"Career-wise, we're thinking emigrating is the only way. You know, here, jobs..."

Ryan added: "It's kind of a joke. It's just fairly ridiculous.

"Paying for colleges is so expensive. Emigrating really is the only option in some cases."

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