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    Is “emigration” taboo?

    By Noreen Bowden | October 3, 2010

    I was browsing the website this evening. Launched this summer, the site bills itself as “the Irish Government News Service”. Searching through the archives, I found that it only had two mentions of the world “emigration”.

    In the first instance, it used the word in reference to a history exhibition. In the second, the last sentence of an article notes that Tanaiste Mary Coughlan had answered questions on emigration. There is not a single article addressing the issue of rising emigration, nor, as Irish migration expert Piaras Mac Einri noted some time ago in a radio appearance, has any government leader addressed the topic in any significant way.

    Considering the fact that the rise in emigration is a particularly common theme in news articles being written about our economy, this is somewhat surprising. Is this a taboo subject in government circles? In contrast,   “unemployment” appears 19 times, and “crisis” in 42 articles.

    “Diaspora” appears six times. In Ireland, “diaspora” is the sanitised version of emigration. The diaspora is the global community of Ireland-lovers we turn  to in times of economic crisis. They’re the resource that Taoiseach Brian Cowen aptly called “huge and willing” last week, as he launched the Smart Economy strategy. We started using the term in a big way in about 1994, at around the time our Celtic Tiger was summoning our emigrants back home to work. At the time, it was as if we could finally think about our diaspora because we were finally becoming rich enough to think that no one was going to have to face the pain of involuntary departure anymore. With the lifting of that pain came an ability to face its mixed legacy: millions of people scattered around the world who felt a connection to Ireland – and who in recent years we’ve found we can tap for expertise, for investment, for tourism, and much more.

    Emigrants, in contrast, are often conceptualised as needing support. The funds distributed by the Irish Abroad Unit to the vulnerable, first-generation members of our diaspora are referred to as the “Emigrant Support Programme“, for example.  (These funds were cut 14% last year, in a time of rising need.) More than one commentator has called for banishing the word – for example, journalist Karlin Lillington, who thinks it’s too “emotive” and “used to score political points”; and noted Irish-American philanthropist Loretta Brennan Glucksman, who was quoted in the Irish Times as saying, “we should eliminate the word ’emigration’ and make it a two-way street” (though with no context, it’s difficult to know precisely what she intended).

    I think we should face up to it. Relabelling the phenomenon – or ignoring it altogether – won’t make it go away.  One only need look at today’s Irish Times to realise that it has reemerged as a subject in need of consideration – and we have reason to be concerned about the urgency of the pressures some people are feeling.

    When Bertie Ahern left office, he claimed the ending of involuntary emigration as one of his greatest legacies. Now that that’s turned out to be as much of a chimera as the rest of our economic miracle, it’s a little disquieting to see that this historically painful aspect of our current crisis is becoming off-limits for official discussion.

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