Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Irish in exile again

I was in my local Coles supermarket in Melbourne the other day when the girl at the checkout asked me if I wanted a bag. “Are you from Derry by any chance?” I asked, recognising her accent. “No,” she replied dismissively, “I’m from Letterkenny.” I thought she could have given me that one considering the fact that we were both exiles ten thousand miles from home, but, no, for her the fifteen miles separating Derry and Letterkenny was still crucially important.

Eventually it will sink in that we’re not in Ulster anymore, but perhaps it will take a while. A quick drive up the M79 from Melbourne takes you to Taradale where you’ll find yourself in an area that looks exactly like Donegal. The rolling hills are filled with sheep, the trees are thick with crows and magpies and there was so much rain this winter that the grass turned almost emerald. Of course the illusion is somewhat shattered at dusk when the big grey kangaroos come out. Still, in my neighbourhood of St Kilda there so many Irish people working in supermarkets, cafes and restaurants that Australian accents are definitely in the minority.

Irish emigration to all corners of the globe of course is not a recent phenomenon but in the last decade it did become a good bit rarer. The period 1997-2007 may well go down in history as the only time in the last two thousand years when Ireland has had both peace and prosperity. And while peace looks as if, fingers crossed, it is here to stay, prosperity has gone for the immediate future. With hindsight it is now obvious that Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy was not based on low corporation taxes and a young, highly educated workforce; rather it was a bubble dependant largely upon property speculation and ever increasing house prices. Like all great Ponzi schemes the Irish real estate boom deflated over night taking the rest of the economy with it.

Before the mid 90's, if you were jobless in Belfast or Dublin the first thing you had to do was get the ferry to Liverpool or the plane to New York, but for a while there around the turn of the millennium even beleaguered Northern Ireland had net migration as young people stayed at home and the construction industry attracted Poles, Czechs and Romanians. It was a novel situation and its all over now. There isn’t much of a construction industry these days and the young people are leaving Ireland in droves.

I was the same when I was an Irish illegal immigrant in New York in the 1990's. I didn’t mind working in pubs or in dead end minimum wage jobs because, hell, it was the Big Apple, where they made Annie Hall and The French Connection. On my first day in the job in the Upper West Side Barnes and Noble Bookstore, the wonderfully tall Carly Simon came into my section and asked me for my advice on a really good novel. (I recommended Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which in retrospect might not have been quite her thing.) In my first year in New York I mostly hung out in the Irish neighbourhoods of Queens and the Bronx but after a while I stopped going to Woodside and Riverdale and Second Avenue. My feeling was that I’d come three thousand miles to get away from dodgy pork sausages and limp soda bread. Why hang out with a bunch of pasty Micks drinking terrible Guinness, when I could be playing pick up soccer with Brazilians and Mexicans in Central Park? Why eat Irish stew when there was Peruvian lomo saltado and Korean kimchi to be enjoyed?

It’s the same Down Under. Australia is a good place to be a new Irish immigrant. The Irish are well liked and there are Irish bars, an Irish newspaper, Irish produce stores. The new wave of Irish emigrants will, I suspect, adapt pretty quickly to their straitened circumstances and the period 1997-2007 will be seen as some kind of strange aberration in the long storied history of the Irish in exile. The planet will be a better place with sunburned Paddies popping up everywhere to take your order and tell you about the specials. In any case the young and jobless have little recourse left but to go. Famously James Joyce urged the young to flee Ireland “as though from a country that has undergone the visitation of an angered Jove.” Change Jove to the bankers of the EU and IMF and you have the current situation to a tee. And if the new immigrants, like the girl from Letterkenny, are feeling homesick then some Denny’s sausages and a quick run up the M79 to Taradale might do them the world of good.