|Some won’t make it home for Christmas. (pic: reuters.com)
80’s Ireland. Boatloads and busloads take the return journey home for Christmas. From Dublin, from London, from New York City, they return to the fold. Press photographers gather in airport arrivals halls, both hopeful and confident of snapping some tearful reunions.
Some do not return home. Some because they cannot afford to, either financially or legally, as many are in America as illegal immigrants and leaving will mean never coming back. Some because they don’t see Ireland as their country anymore. Politicians have failed them, their friends have emigrated too, and their parents leave them feeling nothing but a vague guilt for deserting them.
But for those who do return, two weeks over the festive season leave them feeling like they will never leave home again. They start to feel once more that they belong in Ireland. This emotional attachment is at its most potent as the lights come on in a club, and people stagger to attention for the national anthem. Sinne Fianna Fáil, atá faoi gheall na hÉireann. Soldiers are we, whose lives we pledge to Ireland.
But they are not soldiers, they are young Irish people living in the harshness of the 1980’s. They may pledge their hearts to Ireland, but perhaps never again their lives, because their livelihoods lie elsewhere. In the cold light of January, bags full of their mother’s cooking, jacket pockets lined with surreptitious tenners from their oul fella, they return to be swallowed up in the anonymity of the foreign metropolis’ where they have found jobs, if not an identity.
No photographers turn up at the airports in January. There is a significant difference between tearful reunions and tearful goodbyes.
We do not live in the 80’s anymore, but we do live in a recession that has swallowed up this country’s youth once more and spat them in all corners of the globe. Like their predecessors a generation ago, many will make the trek home for turkey this December, and like their predecessors a generation ago, many will not.
But in this age of constant communication, is the physical absence of someone felt as keenly as it was 30 years ago? Families across this country can sit down this Christmas Day in front of their turkey and sprouts, and wave happily to their child/sibling as they don surf shorts and a Santa hat on Bondi Beach. Skype, Facebook, and Google + have made this world a smaller place, and lend a hand to lessening the impact of loved ones not being around the house this Christmas.
But no amount of technology can ever make up for having everyone around the dinner table Christmas day. A full house may mean that – as sure as brussel sprouts will be sneakily discarded – there will be arguments, fights and fireworks. But a house full of the noise of arguments is infinitely more preferable to one where the only sound is the ticking clock, a constant reminder of time spent apart.
There are reasons why people don’t come home this Christmas that are far removed from the reasons of the 80s. To many the recession is not a hinderance, but an opportunity to broaden their horizons and take in foreign lands before they tie themselves down in a job. The fact that there may be no job to tie them down is not something which concerns some of them unduly as of yet.
We are in recession much in the same way we were a generation ago. But there are key differences. Ireland back then was never all that prosperous to begin with, and the 80’s recession was akin to jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Now however, there is the feeling that for the Celtic Tiger Cubs it is out of the cotton wool and into the harsh realities of a decimated economy. Why would recently graduated Irish university students stay in this country to become government artists, drawing the dole, when they are offered the opportunities to utilise their degrees in far flung locations like Korea, Japan, Australia. The latter has always been a go-to place for the Irish in times of turmoil, the two Far Eastern countries the recent recipients of an Irish Diaspora simply because they require native English speakers who will teach them the language in return for decent wages. For many it is a no brainer to leave this island for pastures new. And why would they endure the long trek home to be reminded of the harsh realities they have left behind?
Closer to home, there are Irish people all over the United Kingdom who cannot make the short hop across the Irish Sea because they have to work over Christmas. The UK is in the grips of a recession also, and if keeping your job means having to work Christmas Eve and St Stephen’s Day, then perhaps a Christmas spent alone in a British bedsit is a necessary evil.
Even those who stay behind may soon find that their reason for doing so will be yanked from under their feet. Many Irish graduates undertake further study, in order to stave off the inevitable fruitless job search and to make themselves more employable to surviving businesses. Yet there are talks of cutting funding completely for postgraduate studies. What the government will save in money it will lose in talent, as some of the brightest young minds of this country will have no choice but to shine elsewhere.
This Christmas spare a thought for those who will not be home. Spare a thought for those who will be also. For while two weeks will pass as though they have never left these shores, they will nevertheless pass quickly and then it will be back across oceans and continents for our youth. Mothers will weep, fathers will proffer a stoic handshake, then the plane will take off and take Ireland’s youth with it. This is not the country we envisaged a decade ago, but it is the hand we were dealt by those in power and those with power. All we can do is welcome back with open arms those who will emerge through the arrival doors in airports like contestants on Stars in Their Eyes, and keep in our hearts those who can’t.