The bitter hierarchy of emigration

The bitter hierarchy of emigration

THERE  is an unavoidable synchronicity about the timing of RTÉ’s decision to close its long wave radio broadcast serving those in Britain. The announcement was made more or less around the time that we were feting the Irishness of yet another President of the USA.

Joe Biden’s Famine era ancestors are, it seems, worth celebrating but the thousands and thousands who went to Britain far more recently are not worth broadcasting to. As The Irish Times put it: “For RTÉ, the service used by an unknown number of listeners in the Irish community in Britain, the sums required to maintain it crept past the point of logic and affordability as long ago as 2014. To keep the long wave service on air would be unreasonable.”

There is, of course, a debate around finance and technology involved in this but I can’t help but argue that this is really about something else.

Or, at the very least, it is symbolic of something else.

There is political and strategic kudos in our endless courting of US Presidents. There is economic and business cleverness in embracing the huge Irish American diaspora. But Birmingham, Manchester, Coventry, Hackney and Kilburn have never quite had the same status, have they?

They don’t have any of the romance or the glamour. Let us be honest here. Emigrating to America was an achievement in itself. In all its sadness it was still a victory of sorts. Emigrating to Britain was a defeat, the act of those who had lost. This is not the fault of our American cousins, this is simply reflective of the Irish psyche. We will embrace whole heartedly an American whose ancestors emigrated in the 1850s but can’t afford to broadcast to those who went to Britain in the 1950s.

There has always been a hierarchy where Irish emigration was concerned. There was, of course, the invisible Irish hierarchy of class. Some people left and some people didn’t. Some people had to leave and some people didn’t. It is not a coincidence that there have been in Ireland’s history political dynasties in both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Families connected to the operation of power in this country who weren’t marred by emigration but instead took up positions of hereditary influence. The Lenihans, for example, the Coveneys. The departing Late Late Show host Ryan Turbridy, privately educated at one of our most exclusive schools, is from a family enmeshed in the power brokers who founded this State.

I’m not sure emigration, at least one where there is no other option, has ever been a feature of Turbridy’s life. Again nothing on him personally, just the way emigration here has worked.

Then there was the hierarchy of departure. Going to America, to the shining city on the hill, was a part of Irish romanticism, however much there were broken hearts in reality. Going to Birmingham or Coventry, Leeds or London was an act of desperation. A reminder that Ireland had failed so much it had to turn to those we had kicked out to take us in.

So turning off the long wave broadcast to the UK isn’t just about finance and technology however much the smug lines of an Irish Times columnist might suggest. The cultural significance is unavoidable. That generation of the 1950s, abandoned to emigration so that others could stay at home, was never valued in Irish life. It was forgotten and written out even as it’s money came home and kept the country afloat. What this country owes that generation is incalculable even as it makes it clear it doesn’t even owe it an easy way of hearing what we here are saying.

The forgotten generation is now just not worth the money. It doesn’t, you see, make any sense. Just as it didn’t make any sense to invest in a generation that was only ever fit for the boat. We have never offered them much and we are hardly likely to start now. We know the value of a lot of things in this country. We sure as hell know the value of an American President over a Mayo pensioner in Manchester or a Cork pensioner in Coventry. We don’t really though, much to our societal shame, know a lot about what things are worth.

Joe Horgan tweets at @JoeHorganwriter