At the time, I was not aware of just how Irish I am, so didn’t pay much attention to Ireland’s joining what was then the European Economic Community EEC. It was also such a long way away, and overshadowed by Britain’s accession at the same time. Denmark joined then, too, but for us Britain’s accession was the big news. That’s because until then it had been one of our two biggest trade partners and to trade more with the rest of the EEC, it was now cutting us loose. Following a short spell of chatter about lack of loyalty, fairness and so on, we got on with making our fortune elsewhere, thanks in no small part to our deep reserve of inherited Irish ingenuity. 1950s and 1960s Australia was infused with Irish culture: the “Australian” folk songs we sang at school had a distinct, Irish lilt and Guinness was the Sunday treat of choice. Irish accents were heard everywhere, as new migrants continued to arrive. We didn’t think much about any of it.
But, although migrants were still welcomed throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the number of Irish among them dwindled. At some point, it is hard to say exactly when, young people whose parents had migrated from Ireland, started to go back – and not just for holiday or to see what their ancestral county was really like or trace their genealogy. They began to move back permanently. When their parents came to Australia, Ireland was poor. In 1973 its GDP per head was US$3,079. That compared to Britain’s $3,427, Australia’s $4,764 and $6,726 in the USA. Yet by 2020, Ireland’s GDP had grown to US$83,813, compared to Britain’s $40,285, Australia’s $51,812 and $63,544 in the USA, according to MacroTrends.net. Ireland had become rich. Instead of losing its talent to other, more promising countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Ireland became the land of opportunity. Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders of Irish descent and otherwise went there to make their careers.
Britons and others attributed their growth during the same period to Thatcherism: a brand of neo-conservatism that let unproductive and uncompetitive firms and industries fail or be shut down, while privatising government-run businesses, such as telecoms and railways. But as Ireland managed an even more dramatic turn-around – at least as gauged by growth in its GDP – than Britain, and did so without Margaret Thatcher, it seems that Thatcher could not have been the whole story. As my countrymen disembarked from their flights and took the taxi into Dublin, they were greeted with smart new motorways and other impressive, newly constructed infrastructure. Did Ireland spontaneously see the light and somehow come up with allocate vast sums for new public services? That of course is possible, but the suddenness of the transformation argues for a powerful catalyst.
It’s possibly no coincidence that, a decade or so later, a similar transformation took place in Spain and Portugal – after they too joined the EEC, now the European Union. Along with all that shiny new infrastructure and other public investment, Ireland, as well as in Portugal and Spain, underwent a social transformation. They joined other rich countries in recognising divorce, allowing abortion and advancing the equal rights of minorities, such as homosexuals, among other things. No longer poor and charming, they became exciting and extroverted, confident and charming. Ireland was, and is cool – and not just in terms of its thermometer readings. No wonder people wanted to live there: opportunity and quality of life are a powerful combination.
We are a numerous bunch, we of the Irish diaspora. Our Irishness is to be celebrated, now more than ever.
In partnership with the Irish Foreign Ministry as part of the Communication Europe Initiative, our Ireland EU 50 series is a selection of unique stories from writers from Ireland and elsewhere. The CEI was established in 1995 to raise awareness about the European Union and to improve the quality and accessibility of public information on European issues.