Going Home to a Foreign Country

by Kieran Healy on November 10, 2004

There’s a nice piece in the Times about Irish emigrants returning home from New York because they think they can do better these days in Ireland. (Many of them do, though very low-skill service jobs are done by emigrants from Eastern Europe and elsewhere.) The article gives some sense of the surprise many of them feel when they see how much the country has changed. That used to take a generation or more to happen — one of our American cousins, returning to Ireland in 1978 after nearly fifty years in San Francisco, lasted only three days before the presence of televisions and the absence of livestock in the house caused him to fly home in disgust — but now returning emigrants can get culture shock after only a few years away:

bq. Counselors in immigrant advice bureaus on both sides of the Atlantic say that many returnees will have a rude awakening in Ireland — especially those who were stuck in the underground economy in the United States, unable to travel abroad for fear of not getting back in. The Irish government now puts out brochures warning that they will find not the Ireland of memory, but rather a fast-paced multiracial society where their dollars are weak against the euro and affordable housing scarce.

I go back as often as I can, in part to inoculate myself against misplaced nostalgia for the ole Green-n-Lovely. With typical good timing, I left Ireland in the Autumn of 1995, more or less exactly when the things were really starting to pick up. My younger brother had left the year before that, coming to college in the U.S. on an athletics scholarship. When he graduated, he convinced a big financial services company to sponsor his work visa and he got his green card last week. By contrast, my youngest brother and my sister left school a few years later and never gave a thought to emigrating. Neither of them even bothered to go to University and both have good jobs. Quite a transformation from a world where, around 1990, Career Guidance Counseling amounted to a recipes for leaving the country efficiently, and getting a Summer job stacking shelves in a department store required a family connection.



C. B. Brown 11.10.04 at 1:56 pm

It’s really dramatic. It sort of brings up the question of change happening under people’s noses or so fast that they notice, and my Irish friends and acquaintances (and when I visited this summer) all seemed to be invigorated by the progress (I can only imagine what my grandfather would say about his homeland). Stories of 300 people on the waiting list for a job cleaning bathrooms have been replaced by stories of U.S. Tech companies building offices and the receding strangehold of the Irish terrorists.

It will be interesting as new problems and social dynamics spring up.


Matt McGrattan 11.10.04 at 2:15 pm

I have a few friends from Belfast who ended up in Dublin during the big IT boom of 4 or 5 years ago, all of whom have since returned to the North as the property and cost of living rises in the Republic made it too expensive for them.

For them things changed quickly but they changed so much that things went ‘through’ being great and ended up at the ‘London’ end of the scale. :-) [i.e. replete with good jobs but with vastly over-priced housing and cost of living issues…]

I have no idea how typical their experiences were.


maurinsky 11.10.04 at 2:21 pm

My father came to the U.S. in 1963 from Galway – where his family farm had no electricity or running water in the house. He lived in Brooklyn, within view of the Brooklyn Bridge. I’m sure it was a huge culture shock to him.

He didn’t go back to Ireland until the 1973, but it was still the same. We all went back in 1988 – by then, the house had electricity and running water. Since then, he’s gone back at least twice a year, and every time he goes, he stays longer. He tells us that it’s not the same Ireland he grew up in, but he doesn’t feel culture shock when he goes there.


Kieran Healy 11.10.04 at 2:30 pm

[i.e. replete with good jobs but with vastly over-priced housing and cost of living issues…]

Yes, I know of academics living in London or other large English cities who have been offered jobs at Trinity or UCD and found that they just couldn’t get into the Dublin housing market. I’m from Cork city, and the prices there are appalling as well. There are well less than 200,000 people living there, but modest 3-bedroom houses in Estates built in the early ’80s are on the market for around 500,000 Euro — pretty much as bad as trying to find a place near Berkeley.


bull 11.10.04 at 2:48 pm

All that EU money, you know.


kevin donoghue 11.10.04 at 3:28 pm

It is unsettling even for those of us who were never out of Ireland for very long. Egos, like property prices, seem somewhat swollen. As JK Galbraith remarked, a boom greatly increases the supply of people who feel they were destined to become rich without effort.


Mrs Tilton 11.10.04 at 3:38 pm

My cousin spent a spell ‘commuting’, if one can call it that, between Roscommon and his job in Dublin. Frightening.


P O'Neill 11.10.04 at 3:43 pm

It was noteworthy that the same day’s NYT had an article about how US grad school applications from abroad have fallen steeply, attributed to tight visa controls. Some of the “I’m leaving for Canada” stuff last week was doubtless exaggerated — but for people less attached to the country, or those not here in the first place, the consequences of 9/11 and Dubya are already quite clear.



Giles 11.10.04 at 4:40 pm

“That used to take a generation or more to happen ”

Of course this is not a surprise to East Asia where generational changes are common – Hing Kong was notably poorer than home when I lived there as a kid but is now noticably richer than the UK.

Ireland is interesting in that it is the first European Country to undergo rapid convergence i.e. ~8% growth. For the sake of Eastern Europe lets hope it isnt the last.


markg 11.10.04 at 4:55 pm

Disclosure: I left Ireland to live in the US in 2001 (my wife is American), so my perspective is rather different than that of people who left in the 80s/90s.

There were many reasons beyond economics why people emigrated – social, cultural, etc. I would suggest that for US emigrants at least, these were at least as important as economics. I seem to recall reading that even at the height of emigration in the 90s, over 75% of US-bound emigrants left jobs in Ireland. In contrast, emigrants to Britain were much more likely to be unemployed people – that is, their motivations were more heavily economic.

From speaking to Irish emigrants here in the US, I feel that there is a sense in which they resent the changes in Irish society. Partially, I think, because it represents a standing challenge to return and partially because it invalidates their reasons for leaving in the first place. There may also be an element of resentment that these changes happened without them – less qualified friends now have better jobs because they stayed, etc.


Whoa 11.10.04 at 5:04 pm

The article gives some sense of the surprise many of them feel when they see how much the country has changed. That used to take a generation or more to happen — one of our American cousins, returning to Ireland in 1978 after nearly fifty years in San Francisco, lasted only three days before the presence of televisions and the absence of livestock in the house caused him to fly home in disgust

Huh? A San Franciscan in 1978 had culture shock when faced with TVs and a lack of pigs and chickens in the house?

Oh, and when does one use “immigrant” and ?emigrant” ?


Ray 11.10.04 at 5:11 pm

The San Franciscan had culture shock, presumably, because the last time he was in Ireland there were pigs but no TVs in the house.
An immgrant is someone coming in to the country, an emigrant is someone exiting a country. Markg above is an Irish emigrant, and a US immigrant.


Aidan Kehoe 11.10.04 at 5:13 pm

Oh, and when does one use “immigrant” and “emigrant” ?

“Immigration” = “inward migration,” “emigration” = “outward migration” (because “exmigration” gets cumbersome to pronounce.)

And the San Franciscan probably went back looking for the culture of their youth, rather than another San Francisco.


john b 11.10.04 at 5:14 pm

Giles – Hong Kong is richer than the UK in approximately the same sense that monkeys fly out of my arse (UK GDP per head was around US$30K last year; Hong Kong’s was US$21K).


kevin donoghue 11.10.04 at 5:29 pm

John B, you are doing Giles an injustice (unless there is some sense in which monkeys actually do fly out of your arse). The ratio of UK GDP to HK GDP is surely affected quite a lot by exchange rate movements. On a PPP measure Hong Kong is “richer” (insofar has higher GDP means richer).

In other words, your statement is true if monkeys fly out of your arse but they don’t fetch as much in the pet-shop.


billyfrombelfast 11.10.04 at 6:07 pm

Another Paddy in New York here, one who left in the late nineties. I’m a quantity surveyor, so of course it wasn’t for economic reasons at all (I fell in love . . . ) and similarly to Kieran, my younger siblings never even considered it. Of course the Walsh/Morrison system doesn’t exist any more either.

Up around Woodlawn there are a lot of people who have been “planning to sell up and go home” for the 7 or 8 years of my acquaintance with them. Of course it will never happen. They’re mostly union wood floor and drywall carpenters – very well paid. The adjustment required for people in those trades moving home would be pretty difficult, I would think.

I’m a well-paid professional here, but even with my Manhattan salary the cost of houses in Dublin scares the bejaysus out of me.


burritoboy 11.10.04 at 7:00 pm

Same thing happened in Israel, by the way. Same time frame and same initial cause (expansion of technology industry into somewhat cheaper English-speaking nations), from what I understand.

Israel’s economy declined after 2001 though due to Intifada II and not having the “gateway to the EU factor” that is working for Ireland.

Of course, Israel was a more developed nation than Ireland before, but the change was extremely noticeable.


Justin Mason 11.10.04 at 7:24 pm

I’m midway through a stint in the US, after following my gf here in 2003, planning to return to Ireland in a couple of years.

One thing — the “high property prices” meme going around isn’t 100% accurate. In fact, the property prices are still less than many of the world’s major cities, like LA, SF, and (of course) London. They *are* high, a lot higher than they used to be, pre-boom — but compared to other cities, as a proportion of salary, they’re not crazy. Here in Southern California, about 40 miles from LA, I’m paying almost double the figure I paid in Ireland.

I’m looking forward to getting back — although being away has changed me a lot. I’m not sure how easy the reverse culture shock is going to be…


Urinated State of America 11.10.04 at 7:26 pm

“All that EU money, you know.”

More like interest rates being too low in Ireland and to high for Germany

The culture shock is even stronger for us from the North. I left Northern Ireland (Newry) in 1986 to go to college in England, when the IRA were bombing the shit out of the town center to get $$$ from exortion, troops were on the street, unemployment was 25%, the place was a real fucking shithole. I left for the US in 1993.

Now you go back, and unemployment is <5%, there are part-time jobs for teenagers, there is a Sainsburys and Tesco's and a six-screen cinema, there are no troops on the street, and the small supermarket round the corner has an entire fucking display of *Thai sauces*. House prices are also expensive, more than, say, Newcastle in the north of England, but not at the psychotic levels of Dublin. Belfast also feels very, very prosperous.

My hopes of being the prosperous urban sophisticate impressing the bog-trotting locals are sadly dashed.


dsquared 11.10.04 at 8:07 pm

On a PPP measure Hong Kong is “richer” (insofar has higher GDP means richer).

In the specific case of HK, I’d guess that it doesn’t; GDP doesn’t account for net transfer payments overseas and I would guess that these would be substantial and negative in the case of HK since so much of the capital stock is owned by foreigners.


Giles 11.10.04 at 8:32 pm

PPP GDP figures are
HK -$28,800 (2003 est.) CIA
UK – $27,700 (2003 est.)

Penn World Tables
UK 22188.2315 PWT
HK 26698.5073 PWT

HK 22,706
UK 21,136

In fact I can’t find a source with UK GDP higher than HK. I think the mistake people often make with UK GDP is to do comparisons with London GDP – which is about 150% of the national level.

Anyway better start eating bananas now John B before we hear a great ripping sound followed by oh oh oh!


Giles 11.10.04 at 8:55 pm

immage if you’re interested here


P O'Neill 11.10.04 at 9:12 pm

Actually, UrSA’s comment reminds me — the NYT article is a little sloppy (or written by the Shinners) in that it mingles the experiences of people north and south of the border even though the conditions (not least with the peace process and the currency) are somewhat different.


anon 11.10.04 at 9:14 pm

I’m a currently employed computer professional in California, academic background, American — two hundred and more years ago grandpa Philip left county Cork to watch General Washington’s inaugural from the cheap seats.

And I’m generally against the pastoral fantasy world-view of most Americans, and have been known to mock those identifying in any way with “the old country” if it was more than three generations in their family’s past.

But I’d always hoped I might prosper sufficiently to relocate somewhere else in the world where I could settle down and make sense of the milennial world culture. Preferably someplace bucolic and green with a slow pace of life. Yes, I admit it, I’ve cherished pastoral fantasies of early retirement to Ireland. (And in retrospect it’s obvious that these have been subconsciously encouraged by the Irish film industry.)

The discussion above — which I follow with interest since, as I’ve said, I think a lot about the changes associated with the milennial world culture — makes me realize I’m kidding myself. If I want to retire to an unspoiled rural backwater, given the choice of anywhere in the world … I should just go back to Pennsylvania.

No complaints, just making the observation! :-)


Justin Mason 11.10.04 at 9:42 pm

anon: yep, or to the rural Irish equivalent of Pennsylvania. it still exists, just shrinking…


john b 11.11.04 at 12:03 pm

I’m skeptical of PPP conversions; while they’re a necessary evil when looking at how poor developing economies really are, the inaccuracies introduced when comparing developed countries are generally on a par with the price differences you’re trying to measure.

And in a country such as Hong Kong, where trade is the main thing driving the economy and imports are *higher* than GDP, exchange rate fluctuations aren’t academic as they are for Americans. The HK$ has depreciated by 12% against the £ even *since* the 2003 figures I quoted, and this will have had a real and significant impact on Hong Kongers’ purchasing power relative to Brits’.

So… hopefully all this will ward off the monkeys.


Matt McGrattan 11.11.04 at 12:33 pm

“And I’m generally against the pastoral fantasy world-view of most Americans, and have been known to mock those identifying in any way with “the old country” if it was more than three generations in their family’s past.”

Three generations is a bit generous. :-)


MarieS 11.16.04 at 9:44 pm

I left in the early eighties for economic reasons but I have returned every summer (for about five weeks) since 1989. Yes the country has changed but mostly for the better. I may be packing off my draft-age son in the near future but thankfully he won’t experience any culture shock. He loves the greyhounds!!! However. I’m staying right here to help reclaim our country fron the wingers!!! Fight On!!

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