By CONN CORRIGAN The Irish Times, Sat, Oct 18, 2008
THE US MAY be in the throes of a financial crisis, but business for Brendan Stapleton, the owner of Prime Cuts, a distinctly Irish butcher's in Woodlawn, the Bronx, is going well. "It hasn't been this good in years," he says. "A lot of old customers who had returned to Ireland are back, and there are a lot of young people around, too."
Stapleton says he is unsure of the visa status of his young Irish customers. "But ordinarily, at this time of year, they'd be gone by now."
Rory Dolan, the owner of a bar of the same name close by at McLean Avenue in Yonkers, says business has also been good for him recently. "I've definitely noticed more young Irish about the place. When you drive down the street, you see them - a lot of them wearing the county colours," says Dolan, who originally comes from Killeshandra, Co Cavan, but who has lost none of his accent.
Lisa Riordan, the 27-year-old manager of the Irish Coffee Shop, also on McLean Avenue, has noticed that there aren't nearly as many notices offering accommodation in the shop as there were this time last year, after the J-1 students had departed. Perhaps an indication, she says, that the demand for accommodation has gone up.
Not so long ago, locals in Woodlawn, one of the few places in New York where Heinz beans are displayed prominently in the convenience stores, were bemoaning the Irish exodus.
In 2005, Brendan Stapleton told the Los Angeles Times: "I'm thinking of getting out myself. I can't see a future here if the young people are gone." Today, however, because of the downturn in the economy at home, it appears that some young Irish are coming back. And according to Niall O'Dowd, chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR), many are coming out undocumented.
Speaking last week at the Blasket Island Foundation seminar on emigration, O'Dowd said: "The Irish immigrant centres all over the US are reporting a significant surge . . . and the anecdotal evidence in Irish neighbourhoods is backing that up. We are particularly seeing the traditional type of Irish emigrant - construction workers, waitresses - who are the first to experience the effects of the Irish economic downturn. We already have tens of thousands of undocumented whom we are seeking to help."
O'Dowd's comments resonate with some of the immigration centres, certainly in New York, although whether the surge is "significant" or not is debatable. Part of the problem in trying to move beyond anecdotal evidence is that quantifying the undocumented is notoriously difficult. "It's not as if they're lining up on street corners waiting to be counted," says Ciarán Staunton, ILIR vice-chairman.
Siobhán Dennehy, executive director of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, which has offices in Woodlawn and in Woodside, Queens, agrees that the numbers of undocumented coming out of necessity, rather than choice, is increasing. "It's definitely there," she said. "But we are not seeing a huge influx - it's certainly not to the same level as it was in the 1980s.
"The flow of immigration has changed dramatically over the past year," says Orla Kelleher, director of the Aisling Center, also in Woodlawn. "Over the past three months, we've witnessed the number of new emigrants coming into the centre double by comparison with this time last year when we started to survey new arrivals. Most are undocumented."
The Irish immigration centre in San Francisco has said there is a "definite increase" in the numbers of recent arrivals, using its services, while immigration centres in the rest of the US say that they are also seeing more undocumented Irish, although not to the same extent as in New York and San Francisco.
The Irish immigration centres in Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston, for example, all report an increase. As Thomas Keown, spokesman for the Irish Immigration Center in Boston puts it: "What we are seeing is not so much a swirling river, but a steady trickle."
ON A SUNNY WEDNESDAY afternoon this week, Paul (22), and Micheál (23) went to O'Neill's bar in Manhattan in search of a job. The two, who declined to give their full names, are over on a holiday visa, and arrived in New York on Monday. Paul recently completed a degree in business management. He "applied for every job" he could in Ireland, doing 11 interviews. "It was impossible," he said, with a strong Cavan accent. "I thought it high time to get out. It was just depressing living at home, with no work."
Micheál worked as a manager in a Drogheda hotel until it went into liquidation. He'd prefer to be working back in Ireland, where he was "on a very good wage". "I'm still young," he says. "I can work here for a year hopefully, and see out the downturn."
They had both heard the deportation horror stories. "We know not to get involved with the police," Paul said, adding that although they were both big drinkers, they knew they had "better be on their best behaviour".
Some undocumented had been working in the US, then went back to Ireland when the economy was doing well, before returning to the US. Bríd (29), from Glasnevin, came out to work in public relations in New York in 2000. She returned home in 2003, but found it hard to readjust to life in Ireland. "I felt a stranger in my own country," she says.
Despite the booming economy, after eight months looking for work, she returned to New York - this time undocumented - and found a job almost immediately. "What really bothered me was not being self-sufficient - I was on the dole and living with my parents. I just have a better standard of living here."
One of the obvious difficulties in coming to the US is that jobs are not as plentiful as they once were. A report out this week, for example, from New York Building Congress, a construction trade association, estimates that the numbers of construction jobs will fall 23 percentage points by 2010.
Orla Kelleher, however, remains optimistic. "In New York, there's always a job to be found if you look hard enough."
But not all parts of New York are seeing a resurgent Irish presence. At Aqueduct North, a Woodlawn bar that could have been teleported from a small Leitrim village, some had their doubts. Pat Gogan, a carpenter originally from Duleek, Co Meath, said that his union, which has traditionally been Irish- dominated, hadn't heard of any young Irish carpenters in search of work around the city. Dermot Coakley, originally from Ringaskiddy, Co Cork, the owner of a scaffolding firm, wasn't aware of Irish looking for work either. The two, who both live in Woodlawn, questioned whether there was indeed more young Irish people in this part of the Bronx, the last remaining Irish enclave in New York City.
The evidence from the GAA - a good barometer of youthful Irish presence - is inconclusive. John Larkin, the vice-president of the GAA of Greater New York, said that he wouldn't know until the season started again in spring whether many of the players who came over in the summer, a lot of whom were J-1 students, would still be around.
REGARDLESS OF THE EXTENT OF THE recent numbers of undocumented Irish who have come over, those who are there face considerable challenges. Some young Irish workers, however, feel that they have no choice. Gerald (20), from Co Monaghan, an apprentice plumber, was unemployed in Ireland for nine months prior to coming out to New York in April, "to test the water". After two weeks, he found a job. "I was getting fed up at home, lying about the place," he says. "I got work here and said to myself, 'What would I have to come home to?'"
© 2008 The Irish Times