After enjoying nearly two decades of an unprecedented economic prosperity at home, many Irish are now seeking to leave for greener pastures elsewhere as the nation finds itself on the brink of an economic collapse.

This new phenomena actually would restore the paradigm Ireland has historically been associated with ever since the potato famine of the 1840s -- a country of mass emigration.

Since the onset of the global recession in 2007, annual emigration from Ireland has steadily climbed from just under 15,000 to almost 30,000, according to the Central Statistics Office in Dublin.
This number is expected to significantly increase in the coming years as the Irish government’s austerity budget and deep spending cuts -- in response to terms of the massive bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF)/European Union (EU) -- chokes off economic opportunities at home and prompts large-scale departures.

In July (well before Ireland finally came to terms with its financial collapse and agreed to the EU/IMF bailout program), the Dublin-based Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) forecast that 200,000 people would emigrate between 2010 and 2015.

That includes Ireland’s best and the brightest.

Ireland’s college graduates see little hope of finding jobs under the fiscal squeeze, while Irish college students are facing huge increases in university fees.

Gary Redmond, president of the Union of Students of Ireland (USI), recently stated that “students are leaving to study or work abroad because of high tuition fees, but they’re also leaving after college because there are absolutely no jobs in the country at the moment. There are currently 100,000 unemployed graduates in the country. The higher education authority estimates that… every week, 100 graduates of the class of 2009 leave the country.”

Indeed, the USI expects that half of all of Irish graduates, amounting to about 150,000 people, will likely emigrate over the next five years.

While these numbers may seem small on an absolute basis, consider that the population of the whole of the Republic of Ireland is less than 5-million.

The deterioration of the Irish economy over the past decade has been stark.

According to ESRI, annual GDP growth in the country reached a lofty 9.8 percent in 2000, and then steadily decreased until it went into negative territory in 2008 (sinking 3.4 percent). The following year, the Irish economy shrank 7.6 percent. In 2010, Ireland is expected to show a slight (0.3 percent) GDP gain.

Meanwhile, unemployment, which hovered in the 4 percent neighborhood for the first seven years of the decade, spiked to 6.3 percent in 2008, then jumped even higher to 11.8 percent in 2009 and 13.3 percent this year (among the highest in the European Union).

It is also believed that more than 30 percent of Irish of working age under-30 are currently unemployed.

In addition, Ireland’s public finances have worsened considerably. As recently as 2006, the government enjoyed a surplus of 3 percent of GDP. Subsequently, deficits have risen rapidly, to the point where the government’s deficit reached nearly 20 percent of GDP this year.

Similar to what has happened in the U.S. and Spain during the financial crisis, Irish banks made too many bad loans, the once bursting-at-the seams housing market collapsed, and many homeowners became stuck with properties that cost more than they are worth.

The story of Irish emigration stretches back 170 years to the tragic days of the potato famine in the 1840s.

According to Kerby A. Miller, a professor of history at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo., and the author of several books about Irish emigration patterns, between 1845 and 1855 (the worst years of the famine), about 1.2-million people are believed to have died, while 1.5-million emigrated overseas, primarily to the United States (another 200,000 to 300,000 are believed to have moved permanently to Great Britain). All told, more than 2.1-million Irish (about one-fourth of the pre-famine population) left the country.

As a result, Ireland’s population plunged and has never recovered.

While those numbers are shocking, the famine tragedy began a tradition of emigration that has touched nearly every Irish generation ever since.

Emigration reached a peak in the 1950s when about 50,000 left annually. These figures tailed off in the following decade as the economy improved, but emigration returned forcefully in the 1970s and 1980s, when about 35,000 departed every year.

By 1990, as the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy roared and gave the nation a new found prosperity, emigration was reduced and in fact was greatly offset by large number of former Irish emigres returning to their homeland due to the nascent economic growth.

Now, it appears we have returned to the old cycle of economic distress and long goodbyes.

The question is, where will this new generation of Irish emigrants go to?

While the U.K. and the U.S. have traditionally served as the most popular destination for Irish emigrants, fragile economies and somewhat tougher immigration rules in these nations make them less attractive than Australia, New Zealand and Canada (advanced, English-speaking nations enjoying relatively healthy economies and which already have large, well-established Irish communities in place).

Although anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S. is clearly rising, Miller does not believe that necessarily applies to the Irish.

“I think the people of Ireland are relatively immune to the effects of the Patriot Act and other laws governing immigration,” he said. “I think of greater concern to potential Irish immigrants is whether or not they can find a job here.”

Still, it is getting harder to enter the U.S. with a work visa (regardless of national origin), suggesting that Irish emigration to America will probably be muted from prior migration patterns.

Similarly, the UK is currently facing its own government austerity measures and may be less welcoming of its neighbors from across the sea than before (despite the long history of movement between Eire and Britain).

In fact, the British Prime Minister David Cameron recently shocked some observers when he warned that Britain would face a “huge” influx of Irish migrants if the Celtic economy collapsed. He cited that as a principal reason behind the British government’s decision to contribute to the Irish bailout through a loan of up to 10-billion pounds to Dublin.

Also, some Irish may choose to relocate to other parts of the EU, given that with their ‘European’ status, the Irish can freely move anywhere within the Union to seek work. However, economic problems in many EU states may keep those numbers down.

By contrast, Australia and new Zealand are likely to be far more welcoming to Irish immigrants.

Indeed, statistics from the Australian Immigration Department indicate that Irish arrivals Down Under have increased by 50 percent over the past two years.

In fact, the Australian state of Tasmania has been actively encouraging Irish immigrants to apply for Australian visas, especially Irish professionals trained in health care, engineering, metal fabrication, among other fields, to alleviate labor shortages there.

Australian immigration minister Chris Bowen has indicated that the system will make it easier for skilled Irish migrants to enter Australia starting in July 2011.

However, the composition of young Irish emigrants is far different today than that of their fathers, grandfathers and ancestors, Instead of construction workers, domestic servants, laborers and bartenders, contemporary Irish emigrants are more likely to be highly-educated and well-trained, particularly in the fields of information technology. Indeed, according to the EU, almost half of Irish people between the ages of 25 and 34 have some kind of higher education degree, the second highest such rate in the Union.

Miller said he thinks that people of all social classes and educational backgrounds are likely to leave Ireland (although highly-educated and skilled Irish will enjoy the highest preference).

“The government’s draconian austerity programs will really hurt people at bottom of Irish society, but will also squeeze the employment opportunities for the middle-class,” he said. “Thus, I think we’ll see college graduates, as well as poor farmers and shopkeepers trying to leave the country.”