America’s newest immigrant: The Irish

Barry McNally left County Monaghan, Ireland in July, after he was laid off from his job as a carpenter.

He came to New York City on a three-month tourist visa, returned to Ireland briefly when it expired and then came right back to the Big Apple as soon as he could.

McNally, 25, is part of a new wave of Irish immigrants who are fleeing the economic collapse of Ireland. And, like their ancestors centuries before them, many of them are hoping to find a better life – or at least a temporary paycheck — in New York City.

“I absolutely saw Irish immigration to New York grow in the past year,” said Orla Kelleher, who runs the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers. Yonkers, and its neighbor, Woodlawn, is home to a large Irish community.

New York saw Irish immigration numbers spike in the 1980s, when the country went through a similar economic depression, but the tide briefly reversed during Ireland’s boom years leading up to 2007.

“Until two or three years ago there were more Irish people returning to Ireland than there were people coming here,” said Kelleher. “But unfortunately, I think a lot of them are finding it was a bad move. There are little to no prospects for anybody to find work there.”

Irish immigrants, legal or otherwise, are now competing with other undocumented immigrants and out-of-work Americans for jobs in a stagnant economy.

“The vast majority of (Irish immigrants) have a college degree or a masters,” said Kelleher. “And if they do have legal status — and many of them don’t – they still have to settle for a job in the construction industry. But having work for only two or three days a week is far better than sitting at home at Ireland.”

Bailout means little right now

Ireland just accepted an emergency, controversial $111 billion bailout from the EU, but even with it, “it will take three to five years before the people of Ireland see a positive difference in their lives and their wallets,” said Kelleher. “The depression happened a lot faster than the recovery will take. And if you ask anybody living there it’s a depression, absolutely.”

Undocumented Irish

“Some U.S. legislators were shocked the Irish were part of the undocumented community,” said Kelleher. “We’re a small number by comparison with other communities, but the number of undocumented Irish here is greater than the population of some counties in Ireland.”

“I’d say as much as 90% of those coming over here don’t have papers,” mused an Irish bartender at Rambling House, a popular Irish hangout in Woodlawn. “It will pick up again in March – they come over here for St. Paddy’s Day and then they don’t go back home. Home’s (screwed).”

“There’s no jobs”

Tara Skehan, 24, left Waterford, Ireland in October and came to New York. Like many fellow  Irish ex-pats, she now lives in Woodlawn, the northern tip of the Bronx. A trained accountant back home, she found a temp job in an Irish shop. “Most people who are recently out of college don’t have a chance of getting a job, not even a part-time job in a supermarket,” said Skehan. “I want to stay here and work for a couple years but if I have to leave America, I’ll go to Australia.”

Celtic flight

Number of Irish-born leaving Ireland expected to double next year:
34,000 residents left Ireland in 2010
60,000 expected to leave in 2011

Unemployment nearly doubles for Ireland’s young:
Unemployment among Irish aged 15 to 24:
13 percent in 2008
24 percent in 2009

Source: Financial Times/Dublin-based Economic and Social Research
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