Sharon O’Flaherty is riding the bus to Limerick. She’s going to see her dying grandmother this Christmas. She hasn’t been home in two years.
“I was working for a company for five and a half years,” she says. “I got made redundant, and couldn’t find a job at an equal level. So the options were immigration, and it was basically take your pick: Europe, Canada or Australia. So I chose Australia.”
The 29-year-old now works as a recruitment manager in Perth.
“I have a mortgage in Limerick, being rented out, that I bought in the recession, and it still has dropped another $50,000,” O’Flaherty says. “I’m sitting in negative equity, working in Australia, to pay a mortgage in Ireland. It’s not a desirable situation.”
It’s also not uncommon. Ireland ended its dependence on bailout loans last weekend, the first euro zone country to do so. As eurocrats in Brussels celebrated the Irish success story, leaders in Dublin declared that unemployment was finally dropping, especially for young people.
But the drop has more to do with the exodus of Irish people in their 20s and 30s.
Piaras MacEinri, a migration expert at University College Cork says more than 70 percent of people who have left Ireland since 2006 are in their 20s.
“They’re just drawing on a very long, embedded tradition that, if things were bad, you just get out, you move on,” MacEinri says. “Of course, in a globalized economy, your debts follow you.”
The latest exodus came after the property market crashed in 2008. Ireland needed bailout loans — but the loans came with drastic spending cuts.
Stephen Kinsella, a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Limerick, says Ireland is no longer dependent on those loans, but many people are still drowning in mortgage debt and are facing a tight job market.
He says his students realize that — and that’s why up to 80 percent of them are planning to leave.
“My generation was the only generation that didn’t have to emigrate,” Kinsella says. “I think it’s a sign, a sign of something important in the structure of our economy, that the only time we were able to prevent mass emigration of our youth was during a construction bubble.”
The government is encouraging students to go into growing sectors such as technology — people like Chris Kelly, who lost his auto repair shop in the recession. He’s now 30 and majoring in technology management.
“To get any sort of a job now, you need a degree in something,” Kelly says. “So I decided to return to education and hopefully sharpen my skills.”
Others, like 20-year-old Stephen McGinnis, are sticking with traditional skills like carpentry. He knows he can’t get a job in Ireland — the industry has hit rock bottom — but he’s heard that Australia is eager to hire Irish woodworkers.
“You go out there, they’re looking for people to work in construction work on farms,” he says. “It’s just what we’ll do. It’s a job, at the end of the day. If we have to travel halfway across the world, we have to.”
Many students on the Limerick campus say they plan to leave for Australia, Canada or even Dubai.
But not Sean O’Mara, a 20-year-old studying music. O’Mara plays songs on his guitar that would make you a little homesick if you were Irish.
Sean is an optimist, and he says that after the pain of the crash, Ireland can only go up.
“Well, I thought about going for a couple of months, but nothing in the long-term really,” he says. “I’d like to go abroad to experience it, but I don’t think I could move away. I don’t know, I’m a bit of home-bird. I’d be a bit homesick, you know.”