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Thousands of young Irish are leaving but it’s not ‘for the craic’

Laura Kennedy: More than 21,000 of Ireland’s young people received working holiday visas between July 2022 and June 2023. Apparently, this the highest recorded figure in 16 years

There are so many things Ireland is good at. Humour. Masterful literature. Beards – Irish men really are fantastic at growing them. The popularity of fulsome, seaworthy beards makes Ireland the envy of other, less hirsute, nations.

Persistence – we’re fierce good at that. The Irish are champion trudgers. We’ll trudge through whatever is thrown at us, from colonisation by the British, to the famine, to the narrative that Dublin is a major global city and yet you can’t get a train to the country’s main airport or tap on to a bus with your bank card.

A bus that may arrive when stipulated, but probably won’t.

What I just did there is particularly Irish. I began this column by generating an idea that I swear I’d intended to blossom into an actual point of some sort. Instead, it devolved into a complaint about our absolutely terrible buses and trains. Because (usually) affable complaining is in our national skeleton. We bond through relating to one another’s struggle, even petty struggles like a late bus.


Colleagues at the office kettle exchange evidence of the countless ways the company is being run into the ground by dullards and how Gary the manager (chief among them) clearly suffered a loss at his weekly ultimate frisbee game and we’re all in for it now.

And is it just me or are the mini Twixes in the staff kitchen “minier” than they used to be? At which point Mary from HR rushes in, crimson and panting from her sprint from down the hall upon hearing the conversation, to interject that she remembers a time when there were only pink wafers in the kitchen and isn’t it well for you with your marginally small Twix?

We are competitive moaners. Moaning that the 15a bus will only arrive if you burn sage, take off your shoes in the middle of South Great George’s Street and mutter an incantation to the Pagan Gods who kept things tipping away before the Catholic Church and Dublin Bus got the run of the place. Moaning that our politicians are a shower of ding dongs in ill-fitting suits who can organise nothing beyond tax exemptions for US tech firms.

It might be time to cease looking outward for explanations and question what we are creating for emigrants to return to

There’s always something to complain about.

We complain with an eloquence and good humour that endears us to one another and sometimes the rest of the world. We punch up, mostly. We get away with it. It’s the teacher. It’s the manager. It’s the Government.

We’re also great at making the best of things (there’s that trudging instinct). Historically, when things get dodgy at home, we’ll emigrate, establish community and prosper across the world. No keeping us down or some such. However, it’s worth questioning whether we should still have to be quite so good at this. We might aim some of the blame at the aforementioned politicians (and we do, with significant flourish and energy) but everything gets a bit squiffy when we consider the fact that we voted for them and their predecessors, and that Ireland looks the way it does with our collective, active participation and endorsement. Our leaders reflect our values and if they don’t, the inertia that led to their election reflects our values. We forget that bit sometimes.

The Australian department of home affairs reported that more than 21,000 of Ireland’s young people received working holiday visas between July 2022 and June 2023. Apparently, this the highest recorded figure in 16 years. That number is double the number granted the year before. For the last 15 years or so, we’ve had a strange tendency to consider “young people” as anyone under 40 – it makes the fact that Irish people delay parenthood into their 30s and the egregious disparity in home ownership between generations seem slightly less indicative of major issues – but I don’t qualify as a “young person”.

I’m 35. I emigrated to Australia from the UK last August, and I can see why actual young people are doing the same – because the cost of living here is manageable, rental properties are plentiful and affordable (compared with Dublin and London, anyway), and those who want to live alone or with a partner, rather than six friends, or to eventually start a family if they want to, might feasibly be able to afford to do that.

Online commentary I’ve seen around the news of this gigantic jump in figures – which is, of course, in part fuelled by the surging Australian appetite for both skilled and unskilled labour – has been depressing. Social media is rife with a lot of “they are choosing to leave for the craic”, or “this is what young people do – they travel” comments. The problem is that nobody emigrates unless leaving is better than what they have at home. Australia offers many pull factors but they only look attractive to Irish people when they consider the push factors at home.

We have a history of emigration, which makes us feel that more than 21,000 young Irish people going through the prohibitively complex process of obtaining and paying for an Australian visa tells us more about those individual young people than it tells us about the home they are yearning to leave in droves.

The reality is that we are not creating space for them in Ireland, and they are living in conditions that make a country 15,500km away seem distinctly more enticing.

Irish people have always emigrated, we think.

Most come back, we think.

It might be time to cease looking outward for explanations and question what we are creating for emigrants to return to.