Ireland's Leaders Try to Woo Diaspora Back as Crisis Sends New Generation Packing

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Aidan Crawley / Bloomberg via Getty Images

A pedestrian passes a Training and Employment Authority office in Dublin on Feb. 28, 2012

Phillipa Barry came of age in an Ireland where fortunes skyrocketed, prospects were plentiful and jobs abounded. With a joint honors degree and a specialism in archaeology she looked forward to making her mark amid the boom.

Instead last week, the petite auburn-haired 27-year-old found herself queuing among thousands of others, some of whom arrived at 5:30 a.m. to secure a front-place position to attend a Working Abroad Expo in Cork, Ireland's second biggest city, and compete for job opportunities offered by Canadian and Australian exhibitors.

"The towns are deserted of people my age. Someone would have to emigrate or die before I get the job I want," Barry says bluntly. "I can either stay here on the dole or in a job which requires the Leaving Cert [equivalent to a U.S. high school diploma], which is a bit galling after six years of university, or I can move abroad to find work in my chosen field."

Here is the new diaspora and the challenge facing the Irish government. Tens of thousands of Irish people are now following in the footsteps of the 70 million–strong émigrés who quit the country's shores before them, this time prompted by economic disaster that came in the form of a collapse in the property market and the country's banking foundations as the global financial crisis took hold in 2007 and '08.

The subsequent recession, downturn in employment and government austerity measures demanded by the terms of a $92 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank in November 2010 have not just touched young graduates. "People of my parents' age keep telling me they would go if they could. I find that nearly sadder that the youth leaving," Barry says.

While Barry and hundreds of thousands of Irish people like her will spend this St Patrick's Day considering their prospects, 17 government ministers will set out on March 17 on an annual international charm offensive to 13 countries that now has a heightened imperative. The Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, known as the Taoiseach (pronounced Tee-shuck), will lead one group of ministers on a high-profile visit to the U.S. where he will present a traditional bowl of shamrocks to U.S. President Barack Obama and then attempt to lure some of the 34.7 million U.S. residents claiming Irish ancestry back to their roots via a number of initiatives aimed at harnessing their ideas, energy and entrepreneurship. The government has kicked off a huge tourism campaign marketing a global Irish homecoming called the Gathering, which is planned for 2013, while a genealogy project aims to trace and attract the descendants of people who left parishes in Ireland to entice them back to the Emerald Isle. Even former U.S. President Bill Clinton has offered his services: he recently hosted an economic forum in New York City to attract investment into the country.

One entrepreneur who did not leave has meanwhile launched a program called, which aims to attract companies that are expanding internationally by offering a finders fee of up to €150,000 ($196,000) to people who introduce them. Wicklow-born Terry Clune has set a target of securing 5,000 new Irish jobs in the next five years by this means and says he is confident that the famine which initially drove millions of Ireland's people abroad in the 19th century holds the key to the country's revival now.

"We can turn that famine to our advantage because in our time of difficulty with the economic recession, all those connections that we have overseas can be really beneficial to Ireland," Clune told TIME in determinedly enthusiastic tones. Sitting in a hotel lobby in Dublin, he detailed all the positives his country still offers: access to the E.U. market — Ireland is the only English-speaking country to use the euro — a highly skilled workforce, favorable taxation rates and an attractive regulatory framework.

Despite his reflections on Ireland's historical disaster, Clune says the country must look forward now and fix its problems. "Most people unfortunately are still looking backwards. If you look backwards at what you've lost it's very hard to see ahead. What people have got to do is forget it, move forward."

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