DUBLIN, Ireland — Decades ago, people often snickered that Ireland's No. 1 export was people. Irish emigration--and the joke--is on the rise again.
About 14,000 Irish emigrated to other countries in the year ending in April, 1985--more than double the previous year. Thousands more are believed to be flocking to the United States to work as illegal aliens.
Altogether, legal and illegal emigration for the year 1984-85 may have been 25,000 people, the most since the 1950s and '60s, Labor and Public Service Minister Ruairi Quinn said.
"Unemployment, high taxation and family restrictions are the main reasons people go," said Kate Shanahan of the Youth Emigration Action Group, a government-subsidized organization set up to advise people on the pitfalls of unprepared emigration.
Ireland's unemployment rate is 17%. In some rural towns, it's as high as 40%. A walk down Dublin's O'Connell Street reveals large numbers of idle young people.
In addition, Ireland has the youngest population in Europe. More than half of the nation's 3.5 million people are under 25.
"It's an attitude here," Shanahan said. "There's a lot of cynicism--the country's going down the drain, there's no incentive to do anything for yourself."
"You get so fed up with the place you just want to get out," said Clare Cullotty, in her early 20s, who along with Miriam Slattery works with Shanahan in the action group.
Rent Allowance Difficult
"It's hard to get a rent allowance here," Shanahan said. "If you're still living at home, your parents sort of look at you when you're 18 and wonder, 'What are you still doing here?' It's the people with the get up and go that leave."
Most legal emigrants head for London, where they believe jobs are more plentiful and where they can be given an apartment and a weekly paycheck under the British welfare system.
Illegal emigrants often go to the United States on tourist visas and stay, working at odd jobs, usually in heavily Irish communities in Boston and New York.
U.S. Allows Few
"I don't know anyone who's gone over (to the United States) legally," Cullotty said. Slattery and Shanahan agreed.
Only 1,397 Irish were legally admitted to the United States as residents last year, contrasted with an average of 40,000 a year in the first decade of the century, 21,000 a year between 1921 and 1930, and 7,000 a year between 1956 and 1965.
In 1965, U.S. immigration law was amended to give people from nations outside Europe a better chance to enter the country. Soon the number of qualified Asians and Latin Americans increased dramatically, and they began squeezing out Europeans.
Unless they are spouses, children or parents of U.S. citizens, most Irish citizens must wait for years to enter as resident immigrants. Under the 1965 law, the Irish ancestors of John F. Kennedy and President Reagan probably would have been denied entry.
The law discriminates against "the people who built this country," said Michael Flannery, grand marshal of the 1983 New York St. Patrick's Day Parade. But hopes for change appear doomed by Congress' inability to agree on immigration reform.
The U.S. Embassy in Dublin in the last year received a 50% increase in the number of requests for American immigration visas and is so backlogged that it is still working on 1983 requests.
"Now that the (Irish) economy is down again, emigration is going back up again," an embassy spokeswoman said.
She said about 45,000 non-immigrant visas were issued last year to Irish men and women who said they wanted to vacation in the United States.
"How many of those people came back, who can tell?" the spokeswoman said.
"Emigration is a very volatile issue here," she said. "Economically forced emigration is not a pleasant situation. It takes it into a political sphere."
She and the women at the action group said that emigration now is unlike it was in the 1950s because Ireland is losing more than its farmers. It is losing its best and brightest young people who have technological skills.
"Fifty percent of college graduates in 1984 were unemployed last year," Shanahan said. "About 20% of those with master's degrees left the country. There are qualified solicitors (lawyers) who are working in bars across the street."
Educated Get Preference
The better educated are chosen first for legal U.S. immigration. "Ireland is losing its more technically motivated," the embassy spokeswoman said.
Shanahan said the Roman Catholic Church and government officials are reacting to the new emigration trend as if it were the same as in the 1950s and '60s.
"They were people who never wanted to leave," Shanahan said. "They were trying to save money to come back here. Most of my friends (now) are not thinking of going for one or two years. They're thinking of going for good."
Irish-Americans find it hard to understand the desire of the young people to leave Ireland, Cullotty said.
"They see Ireland as a romantic place," she said. "They don't understand there's no future here."