Young people leaving Ireland: ‘I do love Galway but I’m emigrating for a better quality of life’

A newly qualified doctor and a nurse are among those preparing to go to Australia this month

An entire life packed into a suitcase, long hugs goodbye at Dublin Airport and a one-way ticket to the other side of the world. At the age of 26, three young people in Co Galway are leaving life as they know it in search for a higher standard of living thousands of kilometres away.

“It was never really set in stone that I was going to emigrate but there’s not a lot keeping me in Ireland,” says Evan Quirke, a newly qualified doctor who is soon departing for Perth, Australia. “I think there’s more pull factors to go to Australia than there is for me to stay in Ireland at this stage.”

Quirke – along with Brian Reaney, a hospital nurse, and Sarah Eisenberg, a retail buyer – is among thousands of Irish people who emigrate every year, with 59,600 having moved overseas in the year ending April 2022, the most recent figure available from the Central Statistics Office. Nearly half of those – 28,300 – were aged between 25-44.

The housing crisis, the cost of living, poor pay and working conditions, inadequate public services and a lack of things to do for young people that don’t involve alcohol are among the many reasons cited for emigrating. “There’s a big sense of unfulfilment and hopelessness with young people in their mid-20s in Ireland,” says Eisenberg, who is going to New Zealand before Australia.

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Like many young doctors before him, Quirke is heading to Perth seeking better pay and working conditions, and ultimately a better quality of life. He says his last year of work under the Health Service Executive (HSE) was “quite tough” as the Irish health system remains under “immense strain”.

“We’re severely understaffed when it comes to doctors,” Quirke says. “My most recent job there, some weeks you’d be working 70-80 hours and you just feel incredibly burnt out at the end of it.”

Systemic issues within the HSE are acutely felt by its staff, including Reaney, who is moving further east to Sydney where he will continue nursing. “I do love Ireland, I love Galway,” he says. “I’m just looking for, I suppose, a better quality of life.”

Reaney, who qualified two years ago, has a genuine love for nursing in Ireland and, despite the problems he faced, he loved the hospital he worked in: “Everyone knew each other, you’ll always see the same faces. You get on with everyone and you’re all in the same boat... It’s a good old community.”

So, why leave? “I came to the decision when I realised things here aren’t going to improve any time soon. I want to see how things are working in a different country and a different setting, and bring back those changes.”

Reaney says, from his experience, nurses in Ireland are regularly left with responsibility for 10-13 patients on their own, as well as managing a ward – answering questions and dealing with any issues that arise – while also training-in new international nurses.

“Can you imagine having 10-13 people’s families in your hands?” he says. “It shouldn’t be normal, but it is.”

In Australia, meanwhile, many Irish nurses opt for agency work, which allows them to choose when and where they work on any given day, depending on availability. Reaney’s nursing friends, who made the move to New South Wales before him, tell him the maximum number of patients they are asked to look after at one time there is seven. “The work-life balance is outrageously improved. They’re not experiencing the same amount of stress.”

For Eisenberg, it is life outside of work that she is seeking to enhance: “The quality of life and the cost of living situation aren’t manageable here any more.”

After eight years living in Galway, she says it is time for her to move on: “Between the housing crisis, the cost-of-living crisis, all the issues with [the cost of] car ownership and people emigrating and the long waiting lists for mental and physical health services, it’s all just compounding and getting worse and worse. And all those things come together and push people out of the country…why would I wait on a medical waiting list here for two years if I can live somewhere else and get seen next week at a fraction of the cost?

“It feels like for all the work I do and all the money I’m paying for different things, I’m not getting much of a return on investment.”

Eisenberg says housing is a big concern for young people, and the unreliable rental market stops her from moving elsewhere in Ireland: “I can’t even imagine potentially being on the property ladder any time soon with a single income. And I’m in a fortunate position now with my rental situation but if I get evicted tomorrow, the lack of rentals available and the price of them is so prohibitive that I wouldn’t even consider looking to move to Dublin if I wanted a fresh start and a different city. And it would be the same with Cork, really, and anywhere else [in Ireland].”

Figures released this week by Eurostat, the statistical body of the European Union, showed that 68 per cent of people aged between 25-29 in Ireland still live with their parents, nearly 26 per cent higher than the EU average of 42.1. Commenting on the figures, Labour Party leader Ivana Bacik said: “Ireland feels like no country for young people.”

That chimes with Reaney’s experience, who says poor housing conditions means he “had to move home, I can’t afford to be living out”, despite his full-time nursing role. “I’m missing out on a social life,” Reaney says, adding that’s he’s looking forward to “being able to afford to live independently” in Australia.

But it’s not all about housing. “There’s a lack of places to hang out, to meet people, to socialise or to go to other than going down the pub,” Eisenberg says.

“Similarly, at the end of the day everything closes quite early... unless you go down the pub. I think the connection between Irish identity and alcohol is probably reaching a bit of a head now, which then is compounded by the fact that our mental health service lists are so long – it’s creating a never-ending problem.”

Eisenberg says that her friends who emigrated before her have found there is more emphasis in other countries on activities outside of the alcohol scene, as well as better public transport to allow young people to travel and explore the country more.

However, despite having a new adventure to look forward to and a seemingly improved quality of life, the reality of emigrating means leaving behind the life young people have built so far and, more importantly for Quirke, Eisenberg and Reaney, the people they love.

“It will be sad,” says Reaney, about leaving his family. “I have a new nephew that will be born in about two weeks but I won’t be here... for the majority of his first few years. I have grandparents. We just got a new puppy.”

And for those loved ones left behind, there can be fear that their sons or daughters, best friends or partners, will fall in love with the new place they have moved to and decide to settle there – a possibility that none of the three young people departing Galway this month shy away from.

“Initially I would have always thought that I would want to come back to Ireland after maybe two years with a pocketful of money,” says Eisenberg, “but at the minute I can’t imagine that the situation here in Ireland will improve drastically enough to incentivise me to want to come back.”

Quirke has a similar outlook: “I haven’t ruled out settling abroad... I think I might be very well suited to the Australian lifestyle: it seems very easy-going; they’ve got a great health system out there. So if it came to the stage where I could get a training post in Australia, I could definitely see myself staying.”

Asked about the pressures facing its healthcare staff, a spokeswoman for the HSE says there was an increase in demand for its employee assistance programme – which provides counselling and stress management among other services – between January 2020 and March 2023, with staff reporting higher levels of stress, anxiety, burnout and emotional fatigue.

The health service says one of its key priorities, under its National Service Plan 2023, is to expand its workforce “by 6,000 people in 2023 while also recruiting approximately 10,500 staff to replace those that will retire or leave during the year”.

“Staff are putting in an immense effort in response to current system pressures and planned structural changes, working long hours to support patients and colleagues alike,” the spokeswoman said.

“The HSE is addressing complex challenges in workforce planning and recruitment while maintaining focus on strengthening the retention of the existing workforce. The ultimate aim is to become an ‘employer of choice’.”