DUBLIN, Ireland — Large-scale emigration, the curse of Ireland for centuries, has suddenly returned after two decades of population growth. And it is going to get worse, judging by statistics published last week showing that the economy contracted in the second quarter of 2010, dashing hopes that a recovery was under way.

According to the Irish Central Statistics Office, the country is experiencing the highest level of net emigration since the end of the 1980s, a decade remembered for the semi-permanent queues at the American Embassy of people seeking visas. In the 12 months to April this year, 65,300 people left Ireland for good.

With arrivals exceeding departures during the last two decades the population increased phenomenally from 3.5 million to 4.5 million. Among the arrivals were Irish emigrants returning from abroad to benefit from the booming economy. With virtually full employment, government teams even traveled to New York and other American cities to recruit nannies to come to Ireland to care for the children of working parents, reversing the historic flow of workers between the two nations.

The United States has always been the favored country for Ireland’s poor and huddled masses, especially during the Great Famine of the mid-19th century when about one and a half million people left the starving country for good, mostly on “coffin ships” sailing to New York and Boston.

The economic downturn has also meant that the large-scale immigration to Ireland from Africa and eastern Europe during the Celtic Tiger years — at one time there were more than 250,000 Poles living in the country — has gone into reverse.

Foreign nationals were the first to start leaving; now it is the Irish themselves.

The new wave of emigrants, however, is not composed of the poorest or most destitute. The best and brightest are leading the way, mainly young college graduates who cannot find work in a country that has lost one in eight jobs since 2007. Today, with U.S. work visas harder to obtain and a high unemployment rate in the United States, young people are looking mainly to other English-speaking countries for economic refuge, mainly Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. 

Laura Cross, a 22-year-old biochemistry graduate from Dublin, is typical of the emigrants. Cross has been seeking work in vain since obtaining her degree in May and is now heading for a new life in Canada. The only job she could find here was as a shop assistant working one day a week, she told the Irish Daily Mail, which on Sept. 22 devoted its front page to a splash heading: “Exodus of Our Young.”

Another typical, highly educated emigrant is Mark Byrne, 26, of Dublin, a graduate with honors in mechanical engineering from University College Dublin. Mark told me that since the start of 2009 he has been looking for a job that would provide him with a technical challenge to match his abilities and desire for job satisfaction, but “basically it was fruitless.” Almost all his applications went unanswered. He is leaving shortly to explore prospects in Australia and New Zealand, and will settle wherever he finds a challenging job.

The heartbreak and hardship of the departures, now numbering 500 young people every week, have reopened a wound in the Irish psyche that never really healed after the Great Hunger because the population kept declining despite high birth rates. The daily sight of tearful parents again waving goodbye to their 20-something sons and daughters at the airports has given rise to much hand-wringing.

Irish Times economics editor Dan O’Brien, writing under the headline, “The Export of our Children Makes a Return,” lamented that “after two decades of population growth, Ireland’s long-term pattern of decline (in population) looks set to return.” He pointed out that among the 27 European Union member countries, Ireland has the highest rate of outward emigration, the lowest death rate and the highest birth rate, but that the surge in emigration comes close to overwhelming the other two factors.

Today Ireland is still the second richest country per capita in the EU after Luxembourg, but it is saddled with massive debt due to reckless lending by banks, which are now being propped up at huge expense by the taxpayer. Building work had dried up and businesses are unable to expand, or even stay viable, because of the banks’ inability to provide capital. The government has so far spent 33 billion euros ($44 billion), or 20 percent of its gross domestic product, rescuing the banks, with the disastrously managed Anglo Irish Bank the chief beneficiary. The Government’s National Asset Management Agency, funded by taxpayers, is currently buying loans from the banks with a book value of €81 billion, at a discount of about a half of their value.

The government of Prime Minister Brian Cowen now spends much of its time trying to figure out how to squeeze more money from the population. It has stated that it will seek to claw back at least another $3 billion from the population through spending cuts in its December budget. The result will be more despairing young people heading for the airports.

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