The voices of Irish emigrants can be heard the world over. From classrooms to boardrooms, across the airwaves and Zoom calls, the Irish have a way of making themselves heard in any country they land in. And they have much to speak of.
Across the centuries, people have left Ireland for many reasons. Some sought out greater opportunity and experience - but for many others, it was a case of economic necessity.
Many emigrants from my generation left in the wake of the 2008 economic crash. As with previous waves in the 1950s and the 1980s, young people had little choice but to leave in search of work elsewhere.
Then, there are those who left for more personal reasons; to escape the suffocation of a society which upheld the strict moral code of church and state. This included the women who became pregnant outside of marriage, and the generations of LGBT people who had to leave in order to live a life which was true to themselves. These stories have begun to be told, but there are countless other unspoken reasons why people felt compelled to leave Ireland - and all those stories are our stories too.
Typically, when Ireland seeks to celebrate the diaspora, it tells only the stories of great success: US presidents and international businessmen, TV personalities and sports stars. But now, a new diaspora strategy from the Irish government seeks to embrace those who ‘left in crisis’ - to assist them in their communities around the world, and help them feel a little closer to home.
The success of this project is crucial to healing the mistakes of the past, and speaks to the future Ireland we all want to build; one which is broad and global in its ambition, and one which is accepting and welcoming in its spirit. It is right that the government should reach out to the diaspora at this time, so they can better connect with our society and further enrich our democracy.
In many ways, the diaspora has already begun to do this. In the past, generations of emigrants had to leave and never look back. Even those in more recent decades quickly found themselves out of step with politics and society at home. But as the twenty-first century has advanced, all of that has changed. Irish emigrants today are much more connected with their homeland.
The era of family WhatsApp chats and Zoom calls is one of instantaneous and constant contact - perfectly suited to the ever-chattering Irish. Modern phenomena like social media and the vibrant Irish podcast scene keep people connected with life at home in ways that were unimaginable even a few years ago, and people now want to stay involved.
In the landmark referenda on marriage equality and repealing the eighth, a relationship
was reestablished between Ireland and many of those who ‘left in crisis’. Just as emigrants came home to vote and join the sea-change that turned back the tides of historic injustice, people at home voted to send a message back out to the world that Ireland was now open and tolerant. It was the beginning of a reconciliation between a nation and the citizens it had let down.
And yet, citizens should not have to fly from the far ends of the world to have their say. It is right that the current government will hold a referendum on extending the franchise in presidential elections to all Irish citizens. Our head of state represents all citizens and so all citizens should elect the head of state.
It is a further positive that this move embraces citizens in Northern Ireland, along with those living abroad. Just like those who ‘left in crisis’, many nationalists north of the border have long felt forgotten by Dublin, with little stake in the country of which they are citizens. Unionists too should be welcomed into this conversation, for the island of Ireland is their home too. They should be afforded the attention and representation which they have found in scarce supply from Britain in recent years.
The new Shared Island unit - which plans greater cooperation between north and south - is further evidence that the Irish government is serious about island-wide integration, and is embracing the north symbolically and pragmatically.
We will need that pragmatism in the years ahead. Just as the Covid-19 pandemic has tested Ireland, it has also reminded us of the enduring connections between our diaspora and the people at home. It warmed hearts to see Irish medics returning from abroad to help with the efforts at home - this time returning in crisis, to give back where they could.
For many emigrants, a longing to return home has always been held in their hearts - and now, it is more often becoming a reality. In a post pandemic world, where many people can choose to live and work wherever they want, we should welcome back our emigrants to raise their families, build their businesses and share their experiences.
It is high time for this. Ireland sits on the threshold of major change. The years ahead will bring the challenges of rebuilding after the pandemic, tackling climate change, and laying the ground for constitutional change on the island. We need our best players on the pitch, and so it is essential that our talented and energetic diaspora is called up.
The voices of Irish emigrants can be heard all over the world. It’s now time they were heard just as loudly back at home.