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The Boston Phoenix Go East, Young Man

Green, green grass of home

By Ellen Barry

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  The Carrickmore returnees are just about unpacked. The McCrystals were the first to arrive home, and they helped unpack the McGinns, who helped unpack the McCartens, and so on until, now, when the McElduffs arrive, nearly 20 families will have left the same West Philadelphia neighborhood and resumed their lives within a 40-mile radius of one another in Carrickmore, County Tyrone.

The families had done well in America. They'd moved here in the mid-1980s, made some money, got settled, paid off mortgages. America was good to them, but now, with small children starting school -- at the point when they finally had to choose between countries -- all 20 families chose Ireland.

And now Brian McElduff, 35, whose wife and three children left for Ireland during the summer, is packing up what remains of his American decade.

"I guess everyone just decided they had done their time here and they were ready to go back," he says, not without a little regret. "Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm right, but I wanted the kids to know where they are from. In another 10 years it might be over."

The McElduffs and their Carrickmore neighbors are novel in their solidarity, but far from original in their desire to go home. With Ireland's economy having grown at a rate of 7 percent over the last three years -- faster than any other economy in Europe -- Irish emigrants are moving home from all over the world. Last year, the number returning to Ireland from overseas outstripped the number leaving. Tentatively -- as if the announcement would somehow break the spell -- officials are speaking of an end to the age of Irish emigration.

Even here in Boston, where Irish immigrants still line up for visas every year, the backward glance is increasingly purposeful. When then-social welfare minister Bernard Durkan visited America in the summer of 1996, he fielded so many inquiries about returning that the Department of Social Welfare's emigrant-advice service has followed up its pamphlets "Thinking of Going to London" and "Thinking of Going to the US" with a free booklet called "Returning to Ireland," which is widely distributed in the US and England. The booklet tactfully reminds returning emigrants of Ireland's unemployment rate (a disturbing 11 percent) and its income tax rate (as high as 48 percent), and gently informs readers that "it is important that you are prepared for the changes you will encounter upon your return."

If the boom has not depleted Boston's Irish-American community -- and by all accounts it hasn't -- then it has at least transformed the way emigrants think about the country they left behind. To wit: those who were planning on going home anyway are getting a clear message that now is a good time to do it.

"It's not lines out of the airport every night. It's more of a psychological change. It's a mindset," says Ciaran Byrne, who has been vice consul in Boston for four years. Durkan, on his visit here last summer, "was genuinely surprised that the scene was beginning to change in terms of people looking to come home," Byrne says. "I think it's something the government is very pleased with. It's a vindication of all the economic changes that have taken place since the '60s and '70s. This is a real turning point."

According to Noel Waters, an immigration specialist at the Irish Department of Justice, Equality, and Law Reform, there is no reason to think that the economic miracle will stop any time in the next five years. And until it does, emigrants will be toying with the idea of going back.

"It's definitely a hot topic," says Rosemary McDonough, of Boston's Irish Networking Society. "There is definitely an opportunity to take a chance, which is a word people wouldn't use before."

Ten years ago, of course, the Irish economy was worse off than almost any in Western Europe; incomes, measured by gross domestic product per person, were 63 percent of Britain's. But in the late 1980s, Ireland embarked on a period of economic growth that can be compared only with East Asia's, expanding so fast that it is known wonderingly as the "emerald tiger." Officials use the word miracle in describing Ireland's transformation, but the explanation lies largely in foreign investment, combined with a well-educated work force, cuts in social welfare, and relative wage stability.

The rise in incomes has not been lost on young emigrants, especially those in the booming construction and high-tech industries. And after a century of population drain, the tide is beginning to turn homeward. In the four years ending in 1991, an estimated 27,000 Irish moved abroad every year; in the four years that followed, that average dropped to 5000. Last year, more Irish arrived than left, and the government anticipates a similar return this year.

Chiefly, the returnees are coming from the European Union -- a full 50 percent were moving back from the United Kingdom -- but the trend has extended to the United States. In the 1995-96 period, 6000 people left Ireland for America, and 6600 left America to return to Ireland, in marked contrast to earlier years, when America netted 4000 Irish immigrants a year.

The return traffic has changed demographically, too. In the past, according to moving companies along the East Coast, long-time emigrants would return when they were ready to retire. This year's returnees, by contrast, are in the prime of their working lives, with young children born here. Although there are no numbers available for this 1997, shippers like Allworld Removers' Gayle Fuller -- whose company moved 15 carpenters' families back to Ireland from Nantucket last year -- are familiar with the profile.

"Most of them are young. They came here three, four years ago, and I think it's to a point that they're very homesick," she says. "They get torn, the poor things. They don't know whether to go or whether to stay."

For Mary, a 33-year-old from County Kerry who has been living happily in Dorchester for nine years, it came down to the children. She's moving back in part so that her three-year-old and five-year-old will grow up Irish, in Irish schools.

"They will have more freedom. You have to watch every move they make here," she says. "We're planning to move back before they get too much older. Forget going back after 10, anyway."

Mary's family is not unusual. To emigrant parents, Ireland sometimes seems like the best of all possible school districts -- a refuge from crime and drugs and the influence of mass culture. In her neighborhood, 10 young couples have moved back this year, selling their houses and investing the proceeds in land back home. (Sometimes they invest in a lot of land; one acquaintance bought five farms in his hometown in preparation for his return.)

Mary and her husband are planning to open a bed-and-breakfast in Dingle in a year or so, when the family gets settled. Her feelings are by and large optimistic, although she's anxious about the childrens' accents.

"When you come back, you're a Yank," she says. "I worry about that."

Reports from the other side are breathless and enthusiastic. Unpacked, Dublin's young professionals say the return is paying off; they describe a city bursting at the seams with nightlife and new money. Garret Pearse, 25, a software engineer who recently moved back after three years in Boston, found his new job in a week and a half. Deirdre Murphy, 25, walked into a job as a fund manager. And Marie Murray, 25, found a position as an occupational therapist two weeks after arriving home. For university graduates, it's a common story; they have never been such a commodity.

"If you think that you want to move home eventually, now is the time to do it. Jobs have never been so easy to find," says Pearse. "If you look around Dublin, all you can see is cranes."

Part of the buzz is generated by the returnees themselves, who are arriving back in a steady stream, lured in part by recruitment campaigns that emphasize "craic," which can be loosely translated as "fun." Old friends are resurfacing from every direction. Fourteen people graduated with Murphy in her university's department and seven of them emigrated in 1993; of those, five have now returned to Ireland to live, she says.

"There's a huge number of people coming back," she says. "Dublin is kind of booming at the moment."

The jobs are specialized, granted, but the advertisements have added some 15 pages to the Irish Times newspaper's job listings and are recruiting emigrants in England with the ringing imperative "Your Country Needs You." With the housing market booming, there's a market for skilled laborers ("Bricklayers are making savage money," says recent returnee Anthony Walsh), and Irish construction workers in America are beginning to think they could actually earn more working in Ireland. University graduates in the high-tech sector are an even bigger commodity; under a national agreement, computer programmers are assured a 20 to 30 percent increase in pay every year, says one returnee.

The downside is that Dublin has become expensive and congested, returnees say. People are buying houses on the far outskirts of the city at vastly inflated prices. Income taxes are still high and, realistically, most returnees are unlikely to make more money than they made in the States. Still, though, Ireland's bigger cities have taken on the excitement of boom towns -- people are a little more worldly, their clothes are more fashionable, they go out to dinner more frequently.

"Life has changed," says Neilus Reynolds, 32, who left Boston last year for his native Galway to open a pub. "People are taking more chances."

As more and more young people take chances, the stakes of emigration have gone down -- if America doesn't work out, there's always Sydney, or Dublin. At one time new arrivals were forced to make a break, as in the case of Owen O'Neill, circa 1906, an immigrant from County Kilkenny. When O'Neill left home, "a curtain fell upon his life," recalls his grandson, Kevin O'Neill, who now teaches Irish history at Boston College.

The break with Ireland was so painful for Kevin O'Neill's grandfather that he couldn't bear to look back. He became American. Late in his life, when he was twice offered free tickets to his hometown, Owen O'Neill flatly declined.

Compare O'Neill to Anthony Walsh, who left County Kerry in the early '90s, and became one of the cosmopolitan tribe who sometimes refer to themselves as "commuters." A year ago, when a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity arose back in Ireland, Walsh sat in his apartment in Brighton and flipped a coin.

The coin fell, and Walsh, now 27, is now settled in Killarney. The partial owner of a successful retail business, he still misses the close-knit community of his Boston life sometimes, but feels the decision was right from a financial standpoint. As he says, "the only reason I came back was business. There's no way in hell I'd make this kind of money in the States."

"It literally came down to a toss of the coin. The way I saw it, I could call home every week. I had great holidays, my [relatives] would come over for their own holidays, flights are quite cheap. I never once felt homesick. If I had stayed [in America] another year, I would have been there permanently," he says. "Both scenarios were good."

Whether it's the economy, or improved communications, or the $500 flight to Dublin, the meaning of immigration has itself been transformed. It was only five years ago that the historian Lawrence McCaffrey made this analysis of the Irish diaspora:

On sentimental occasions, new immigrants, like the old, shed tears for and sing sentimental songs about "that dear land across the sea," but for the Irish who have chosen to come to the United States, it always has been their land of opportunity and primary loyalty, and their journey to America has been a one-way trip. . . . Their lingering devotion to Ireland pales in comparison with their passionate love for America.

McCaffrey can be forgiven for judging by the past, when flag-waving Irish-Americans like the composer George M. Cohan took all comers in Yankee-Doodle-Dandy boosterism. But he's behind the curve. For many of the young immigrants who have headed back to Ireland in the last year or so, their time spent abroad was less a repatriation than a Grand Tour.

"Most people went for the American experience," says Deirdre Murphy. "I know a lot of people who have done the America thing and are now doing the Australia thing. But I think a lot of people see Ireland as the place they will go when they want to settle down."

And despite their unflinching intention to return, the new immigrants also sometimes keep their distance from Irish-American enclaves, and -- with the church's influence waning at home -- sometimes complain that Irish-American communities have lagged far behind on social issues. As one young returnee pointed out, gays and lesbians are free to march in the Dublin St. Patrick's Day parade -- just not in Southie.

"I thought that was so ironic. It kind of pissed me off," Garret Pearse says. "It's like a different kind of Irishness. [Irish-Americans] have to be more Irish than the Irish themselves."

And the entrenched Irish-American community -- which has built up a network of visa and job-counseling services and cultural programs -- is similarly ambivalent about the cosmopolitanism of the New Irish. Some find fault with the commuters for the nonpartisan ease with which they drift through Irish-American support system, and then move on to the next global hot spot.

"A lot of them haven't put enough back into the community, and the community has done a lot for them," says Paul Finnegan, the executive director of the Emerald Isle Relocation Center in New York. "I don't mean to say that the people who have come in the last few years are bad people. It's just an easy world to travel in."

But it is not -- as many returnees have found -- such an easy world to migrate in. People who leave America to return to Ireland still sometimes come back, licked by the weather or the water pressure or the emotional strain of straddling two countries. "It's nearly tougher leaving America than it was leaving Ireland," McElduff says. "One day before she left, my wife said to me, `It's not that I'm coming home. I'm leaving home.' We're going to miss America."

What can even be harder is returning to an Ireland that has become a slightly different place during the Mary Robinson era: less respectful of the church, more Westernized, faster-paced, richer, more expensive, and, some say, a bit more more sarcastic. Certainly different.

It's not always easy to adjust, some returnees say. Ireland's shrugging off of traditional influences has "taken the form of a kind of cynicism," says Pearse. "I never thought I'd say this," he adds wonderingly, "but I think the weakening of the Catholic church has caused some problems."

And if Pearse -- gone from Ireland for three years altogether-- was shocked, just think of the Carrickmore families, or others gone for longer.

"I had one of the worst plane rides of my life on a flight to Ireland where I happened to sit next to a woman going back to Ireland," says Kevin O'Neill, the history professor. "When I say it was the worst plane ride, I mean it was so moving and sad and terrible."

She hadn't been back to Ireland since she left as a 20-year-old, 40 years ago, O'Neill recalls. He spent the whole flight worrying, he says. "I was terrified for her."

Ellen Barry can be reached at ebarry@phx.com.


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