Gerard Kiley bemoans the 'brain drain' taking place in Ireland as educated professionals seek a better life abroad
FR BRENDAN O'Donoghue kisses the altar at the end of the ten-o-clock Mass, turns to bless his flock, and then, chalice in hand, walks down the aisle of St Peter and Paul's Church in Ennis, County Clare, doubtless wondering how many of his congregation will have left his parish by the same time next week.
Each Sunday for many young people like Miriam Guilifoyle and Ann, her friend, Fr O'Donoghue's blessing has had a special meaning. It is the final memory that they will ever hold of him, and they will cherish it as a sort of spiritual farewell from the priest who baptised them, heard their first confession, gave them their first Holy Communion, helped them through confirmation and, in some cases, married them.
For Miriam and Ann are about to follow in the footsteps of thousands of modern day Irish emigrants and turn their backs on the country where 19 per cent unemployment, a VAT rate of 25 per cent and an income tax rate of 58 per cent have caused one of the biggest emigration problems for Ireland this century.
Between 1981 and 1988 over 100,000 people left Ireland and in the year up to April 1986 alone, a staggering 31,000 emigrants set off in search of a prosperity that Erin's Green Valley can no longer offer.
In the next five years, say emigration forecasters, at least half of the country's young people — 150,000 youngsters aged 15-29 — will follow them.
Ireland's main export has always been its people — there are those who would contend that the Irish are natural rovers.
Yet what has united Ireland in lamenting this present departure of youth is that the emigrant of the 1980s is not just the unskilled worker, the pick-in-hand Paddy leaving home for a new world of trenches, gas mains and building sites, but the academics on whom Ireland, like any nation, must depend for a quality of life in the future.
During the potato famine of the 1800s, entire families of hungry Irish took boats to America to labour in dockyards and to Britain where, in droves, they walked hundreds of miles from the coast to new industrial centres, to toil there in the heat of blast furnaces producing iron and steel.
In the fifties they tied their cardboard suitcases with orange box rope and set off by ferry to build Britain's network of motorways, council estates and high rise flats. The only academics to leave Ireland in any number were doctors and Catholic priests.
Today, the Irish emigrant is taking a jet across the world to practise medicine, law, accountancy, or to set up as a dentist, a vet, an estate agent or a chemist.
Last year one in five graduates left home to work abroad, mainly in the States. They included 15 per cent of medical graduates, a third of engineering and computer-science graduates, and half of those who graduated in veterinary surgery and architecture.
On average each graduate has cost the Irish taxpayer £21,000 to educate after 15 years of continual study, so, not surprisingly, high ranking among the catalogue of complaints levelled against the Fianna Fail administration is their apparent inability to remedy the injustice that allows a relatively poor country to provide the brains and talent for one of the richest in the world.
In December 1934 Eamon de Valera, founder of the state of Eire, said "No longer shall our children, like our cattle, be brought up for export."
More recently the Republic's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Brian Lenihan, stated of such children: " The world is now one world and they can always return to Ireland with the skills they have developed. We regard them as a part of a global generation of Irish people. We shouldn't be defeatist or pessimistic about it. We should be proud of it. After all, we can't all live on a small island."
His statement has been seen to reflect not only an official approval of the Irish brain drain, but also a disregard for the plight of tens of thousands of unskilled emigrants forced in desperation from their homeland to countries where many of them will end up as illegal immigrants struggling for survival.
Apart from the sixties when an industrial boom saw 100,000 return home, history has shown that the Irish emigrant, academic or otherwise, seldom returns.
At 22, Miriam, who has taken up a position as a psychiatric nurse at a New Jersey hospital might well develop skills even if she doesn't return with them. She is one of the professional young Irish people out to command a wage that Ireland can not pay but which America gladly will.
But Ann, 23 and without a profession, is destined to become one of the 150,000 illegal Irish immigrants in the United States whose unprotected status makes them vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers and puts them in the position of neither being able to afford medical fees nor being able to claim for them under the American social security system. Miriam and Ann's contrasting positions have been magnified by some political activity on the other side of the Atlantic.
Two of Ireland's greatgrandsons, Senator Edward Kennedy and Congressman , Brian Donnelly have sponsored an Immigration Bill that seeks to add another 50,000 annual visas to the present 270,000 which would mean an extra Irish allocation of up to 9,000 a year taking their new total to around 20,000.
The Bill incorporates a points system with the current "family re-unification" system to determine who can gain entry.
It has now passed the Senate stage and for procedural reasons
is jointly sponsored by Kennedy and Senator Alan Simpson and has become known as the Kennedy Simpson Bill. Its passage, though, has slowed and it has now been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary.
A prime speaker in various hearings to date has been that powerful political figure, Mayor Raymond Flynn of Boston whose city houses an estimated 25,000 illegal Irish immigrants.
There are many sorry tales that Mayor Flynn could spin to the hearings about the plight of those immigrants and he only needs to turn on the radio to find fresh material daily with which to arm himself.
Regularly the Boston Irish radio station, The Sounds of Erin, broadcasts tragic stories of illegal Irish immigrants such as the one about the trio who were burned to death in their substandard overcrowded downtown lodging house.
And in the Bronx area of New York, organised gangs have been mugging Irish immigrants in the knowledge that because they cannot open bank accounts they have to cash pay cheques in public bars. Their victims dare not report robberies for fear of being deported.
However, the Kennedy Simpson Bill contains no
sentimentality. A glance at the points table reveals that only the well educated and professional young Irish person will qualify.
Applicants aged between 18 and 40 need 70 points to qualify for entry. Two points are deducted for each year a person is over 40 and each of the categories for which points are awarded relate to educational achievements or skills needed in America.
Indeed, the US Secretary of Labour, William Brook, has admitted that America will absorb all the skilled people it can find in the coming years.
Determined applicants who fall short of the criteria will
almost certainly enter America too — though they will remain as illegal immigrants.
Recognising this, an Irish priest who works with
immigrants in New York, Fr John Gavin, secretary of the Bishops' Commission for
Emigrants, says that he and others involved in welfare work had suspected for some time that the official attitude was as Mr Lenihan had outlined it.
"Emigration is regarded as a safety valve to ease increasing unemployment. Mr Lenihan's remarks have disclosed a hitherto unpublished Government policy."
Today many of Ireland's young people are following the cultures and fashions of a world that can never reconcile itself with the Catholic ideals and values traditionally observed in Ireland as almost semi-official and which undoubtedly provided the emigrant of the past with a moral foundation that, paradoxically, lent a certain familiarity to the uncertainty of what lay ahead.
After all, the Catholic Church was universal and the world, in more moral times, could so
easily have been viewed by the emigrant of those days as simply an extension of Ireland. He could, and indeed did, use the values he had been taught to his full advantage in a world where such values were recognised.
Today's world pays little tribute to those whose lives have been shaped by doctrine and dogma and as a bastion against fluctuating moral conduct Ireland stands alone.
For that reason, perhaps, the
emulation of current secular values by the youth of so separatist a nation betrays that nation's dignity to the same extent that the dignity of the Red Indian of the American tamed West was betrayed when he put on a suit and strode into the saloon to sip whiskey with the white man.
No wonder Bishop Finnegan of Kallala said "Emigration is bleeding us to death as a people."