Opinion: thousands of Irish emigrants have had to recalibrate their relationship with home since the introduction of travel restrictions

In the last few weeks, Irish media and social media has become obsessed with stories of foreign visitors landing at Irish sea and air ports. American tourists (or Americans assumed to be tourists) have been particularly vilified. I suspect that the 10,500 US citizens living in Ireland have had to spend a lot of time explaining that they have not just popped over for a long weekend. 

Like many thousands, perhaps millions, of Irish citizens, I have been anxiously watching all this from abroad. Despite the rhetoric of many politicians and commentators, not all Irish citizens live on the island of Ireland. Indeed, according to a 2018 OECD report, 17% of those born in Ireland live abroad.

It's been disheartening, if unsurprising, to see quite how little emigrants feature in Irish political life. Most Irish politicians pay only lip service to the diaspora for there are few votes in emigration. The Home to Vote movement of the Repeal the 8th and marriage equality campaigns is already a dim and distant memory.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Liveline, Katie Hannon speaks to Americans living here who are fearful of being mistaken for tourists.

The Irish government has created Kafkaesque levels of bureaucracy for any emigrant who might want to return home permanently. For centuries, Ireland has thrived on dispatching millions from its shores, but having them come back again has never really been part of the plan. As Eavan Boland put it in her poem The Emigrant Irish, those who have left are "like oil lamps we put them out the back, / Of our houses, of our minds".

Marc Scully of Mary Immaculate College Limerick has recently written about the Irish who’ve been living transnational lives. These are the Ryanair emigrants who’d never really left because it was as cheap and easy to commute between Dublin and London as it was between Cork and Dublin. For the last eight years, I’ve been one of those transnational Irish people working and living in two countries without every really having to think about where ‘home’ was. Ireland, its past and present, is never far from my mind as I teach Irish history at Liverpool John Moores University and all my research work is in Ireland. 

Until mid-March, I flitted effortlessly between the two countries and never regarded myself as an emigrant. But since then, I and thousands of other emigrants have had to recalibrate our relationship with home. 

In June, I watched my grandmother’s funeral mass on my laptop, and then her burial via WhatsApp. My grandmother was elderly, she had dementia, her death was expected, indeed welcomed, as a happy release from her suffering. And yet, it was really difficult not being there.

When everyone was in lockdown, it was easy to think that it didn’t matter where I was. Everyone was indoors and staying away from everyone else. Zoom chats, cocktails and quizzes had a fun, novelty value. But as lockdown began to lift, and family and friends in Ireland began to slowly emerge, butterfly like, from their lockdown chrysalises, it has become harder to be separated by the Irish Sea. Watching all my family enter the church was the hardest moment of this lockdown. I should have been there with them, but I wasn’t.

I wasn’t there because of the travel restrictions. The restrictions are designed to put off anyone planning to holiday in Ireland from abroad and to reduce the risk of cases of Covid-19 being brought into the country. Intellectually, I understand this, but it’s more difficult emotionally. I understand that there needs to be rules and regulations, but there should be space for some compassion in this. There already is flexibility, but it’s only for businesses or diplomats. If I had a HGV licence and a truck full of goods to deliver I could come and go as I please, but I don’t. If I was prepared to use the Northern Irish loophole and arrive there and travel south. I could have gone.

But playing by the rules, I would have been obliged to self-isolate for 14 days, meaning I couldn’t attend her funeral anyway or, if I had attended, risk a €2,500 fine or 6 months in prison. Very little of the coverage around travel restrictions considers travel for family reasons and there’s a big difference between returning for a funeral or to see family and visiting for a holiday. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sarah McInerney, a discussion on the 'Green List' for travel with travel journalist Eoghan Corry, infectious disease expert Jack Lambert and GP Maitiu O Tuathail

There is an aspect of much of the commentary about international travel that troubles me. There appears to be an assumption by many journalists, broadcasters and keyboard warriors that most new cases of Covid-19 have been carried in from abroad. The data does not back this up. On Today with Sarah McInerney on RTE Radio 1, infectious disease expert Dr Jack Lambert estimated that 12% of Covid-19 cases in Ireland are imported.

Even that appears to be an over-estimate: the latest data on the Covid tracker app shows 32% of the cases are through community transmission, 66% through close contact and only 2% as a result of travel. Indeed, the Government’s Covid-19 Data Hub shows that the transmission from travel abroad has never been higher than 3% since May, despite a recent increase in flights in and out of the country.

No doubt some community transmission has occurred through contact with people who have recently arrived in the country. Undoubtedly, there are some visitors to Ireland that are flouting the rules, but there are also 50,000 people flying out of Ireland every week and not all of these are embarking on "essential travel". Dublin Airport has daily flights to and from Fuertaventura, Palma, Malaga, Lanzarote, Bodrum, Alicante and Tenerife. These are holiday hotspots and, for the most part, passengers are holidaymakers not essential travellers. They are as likely, if not more likely, to bring back infections as Irish citizens abroad who have been isolating themselves in the hope of being allowed to return home. 

And this isn't just about Irish citizens returning home. There are over half a million immigrants living in Ireland, 225,000 of them from the United Kingdom or Poland. These immigrants have also been leading splintered lives.

While keeping transmission of the virus as low as possible is clearly extremely important, care also needs to be taken of people’s mental health. In the early weeks of the pandemic, people’s kindness to one another was apparent, but this seems to have been replaced by a rush to judgment and an eagerness to criticise without knowledge.

It’s right that Ireland isn’t flooded with holidaymakers from abroad and that mobility is contained. But perhaps instead of stigmatising the outsider, consideration could turn to ensuring that best practice takes place at home and that masks are worn, hands are sanitised and distances are kept. Ultimately, it’s the staying apart that might bring us closer together. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ