November 11, 2004

· Sociology

There’s a nice piece in the Times about Irish emigrants returning home from New York because they think they can do better these days in Ireland. (Many of them do, though very low-skill service jobs are done by emigrants from Eastern Europe and elsewhere.) The article gives some sense of the surprise many of them feel when they see how much the country has changed. That used to take a generation or more to happen—one of our American cousins, returning to Ireland in 1978 after nearly fifty years in San Francisco, lasted only three days before the presence of televisions and the absence of livestock in the house caused him to fly home in disgust—but now returning emigrants can get culture shock after only a few years away:

Counselors in immigrant advice bureaus on both sides of the Atlantic say that many returnees will have a rude awakening in Ireland—especially those who were stuck in the underground economy in the United States, unable to travel abroad for fear of not getting back in. The Irish government now puts out brochures warning that they will find not the Ireland of memory, but rather a fast-paced multiracial society where their dollars are weak against the euro and affordable housing scarce.

I go back as often as I can, in part to inoculate myself against misplaced nostalgia for the ole Green-n-Lovely. With typical good timing, I left Ireland in the Autumn of 1995, more or less exactly when the things were really starting to pick up. My younger brother had left the year before that, coming to college in the U.S. on an athletics scholarship. When he graduated, he convinced a big financial services company to sponsor his work visa and he got his green card last week. By contrast, my youngest brother and my sister left school a few years later and never gave a thought to emigrating. Neither of them even bothered to go to University and both have good jobs. Quite a transformation from a world where, around 1990, Career Guidance Counseling amounted to a recipes for leaving the country efficiently, and getting a Summer job stacking shelves in a department store required a family connection.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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