Repatriation of Elderly Emigrants Proposed

'The Irish Times' August 2nd 1999


Remittances boost to economy is recalled

There is a compelling ring of justice about suggestions emanating from Mayo that the country should at last do something concrete to help long-term emigrants in Britain who yearn to return home for their final years.

The scale of the contribution made to the national economy by emigrants remittances in the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's has been highlighted by former Mayo Person of the Year, Dr Séamus Caulfield. He has called for an imaginative and generous gesture by the State in this, the International Year of the Older Person.

Over two decades the emigrants sent back more than £300 million in small remittances to their families, money that not only kept the local economy ticking over in coastal areas from Kerry to Donegal, but also helped to keep the national debt in check.

With the national coffers now brimming over, Dr Caulfield suggests that in next December's Budget, the Government "should consider repaying a small part of this interest-free debt we have had for almost half a century."

Over five years, he proposes, an 'Emigrants Remittances Fund' of about £13 million a year should be shared out between appropriate bodies in Ireland and Britain to help the surviving emigrants, whose health and social problems were described at a recent Mayo Assocaition convention in Manchester.

He points out that the "Many Young Men of Twenty" celebrated in John B. Keanes's powerful drama of emigration are the "now somewhat diminished in numbers Many Old Men of Sixty" of whom a certain number might, with limited assistances, manage to realise their dream of ending their days back home in Ireland.

Those emigrants of the 1950's and 1960's made an enormous contribution, both to the land of their birth and to the land they helped to rebuild after the second World War. Dr Caulfield notes that the annual accounts of Government up to 1970 clearly record the scale of the "Emigrants Remittances" sent home in single pounds, fivers and occasionally, tenners.

In 1961, for instance, the £13.5 million recorded as Emigrants Remittances almost equalled the total cost of primary and second level education in the Republic (£14 million). By 1970 the contribution from emigrants had risen to more than £24 million.

Several other prominent Mayo figures have supported Dr Caulfield's proposal and added further ideas. Mr Paddy Moran, chairman of the Mayo Association in Dublin, suggested that a group of the older emigrants could be flown back to Knock airport on a fact-finding mission.

In Mulranny, Co Mayo, a practical project is already established which has enabled some long-term emigrants from the area to return.

The St Brendan's Village Project, a community housing and care initiative for the elderly founded by local GP Dr Jerry Cowley, has provided housing for several people who wished to return from unsuitable or difficult situations in Britain.

The village includes a 'high-support' integrated unit with capacity for 30 elderly residents, and 16 houses which provide 'low-support' shelter for those older people who are able to cater for themselves.

The project, involving about 25 staff directly as well as a FAS scheme, has become the biggest employer in the area and is based on the concept of reintegration of the elderly in their own community, says Dr Cowley. "The idea is that no matter how old you are there's a place for you in your local community."

He asserts that, nationally, the elderly are the forgotten people, the people with no voice and whom the system has failed. "When people can no longer cope by themsleves in the community, they have to go to a faraway place where they know nobody, and like the old Indian, they just lose heart and die.

"This is the alternative to that. Not alone do we keep people locally, but we've actually brought them back from institutions as well. If you have services locally you stop the vicious circle of depopulation and people will come and settle, so this is also a formula for rural regeneration."

St Brendan's village is home to elderly returned emigrants

The St Brendan's project has attracted international attention as a blueprint for care of the elderly in the community. Three examples of elderly returned emigrants who have been housed there demonstrate its impact.

Mary Caffrey (nee Keane) left Achill Island in 1934 aged 13 to go into domestic service in London. She was the second eldest daughter of six children when circumstances compelled her emigration. "There was nothing in Achill in those days, " she says.

At the age of 15 she went to Scotland to work on potato farms, and she got married there as the second World War was starting. She spent 28 years in Scotland and had her two children there.

Her husband died in 1970 and she went to Manchester, where she had relatives. Her son and daughter eventually married there, and she was housed by the council. "I've lived on my own in a high-rise block since 1974," she adds, "but Manchester was getting very, very bad and you were always looking over your shoulder. I also lived with my fear of getting ill - which makes you ill anyway." Mary is delighted to have been accepted recently to occupy a small house in the secure environment of St Brendan's village. "Here you are respected and treated with dignity," she says.

Pat Gallagher, aged 75, and his widowed sister, Mary Harris, aged 82, share another St Brendan's house. Pat left Curraun, Achill, in 1940 at the age of 16 and travelled and worked with various contractors in Britain. He also worked at picking potatoes in Scotland and has been an emigrant for 58 years.

He linked up with his sister, who had a council house in Fife, when her husband died in 1981, but both of them were anxious to return home, and they applied to St Brendan's after a relative wrote to them about the new project.

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Repatriation of elderly emigrants at St Brendan's Village, Mulranny, Co Mayo, Ireland