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The Irish Times

Friday, March 20, 2012

Off to New York with the iPaddies.

AT 53 YEARS of age I’m planning on leaving the country again, returning to New York city where I worked for more than a decade. I will be taking my carpentry tools, my arms, my shoulders, my back – the legs will follow.

There’s nothing in Ireland left to build, and no money left to pay for it. Strangely enough, everybody says they’re “tipping along”.

“Are you busy?”

“I’m tipping along.”

It’s like something a blind man does on a pavement filled with potholes. We’re coming to a ferocious intersection full of honking horns, raised voices, sirens and bicycle bells. Beware the kindly German woman who offers to help you across the street; it’s Angela Merkel. You’ll be abandoned in the middle of speeding traffic. Watch out for the Renault with bad brakes; that’s Sarkozy.

We keep hearing about the “brightest and the best” streaming out of the country in a blaze of Victorinox luggage and Trinity scarves: the young things with confidence and purpose. These are not emigrants of your father’s generation; these kids have seen the world before they even get there, through Facebook and MySpace and LinkedIn. They network, and they work the Net. These aren’t just Paddies, these are iPaddies. These are the highly educated, highly motivated, highly driven, relentlessly high-spirited A-students of today. And I’m one of the other guys.

Mind you, when I left school in 1977, being stupid wasn’t considered such a bad thing; in fact, there was a certain demand for the dumb. Who else was going to work with asbestos, fibreglass insulation and lead-based paint? If you didn’t have a whole lot up top to start out with, there really wasn’t that much to lose. And let’s face it, if you’re going to make a career out of sawing up sheets of MDF, it’s probably better that you can’t even pronounce the word formaldehyde.

We are told that the quality of our human exports is constantly improving. Our emigrants are hip and ironic and work for Microsoft, but there are 50,000 people leaving the country this year, four planeloads every week, and not all of them will be firing up the particle accelerator at Stanford.

Some of us will work with drywall, oak flooring and rebars. Some of us will wash windows and sweep floors on construction sites. Some of us will erect scaffolding, and a few of us will fall from it, like birds weighed down by hammers.

Most newspaper reports talk about the cleverness trickling away, but nobody seems to care about the muscle wastage. Books are fine, but they’re not worth a damn without decent shelves, and right now a lot of the shelf-makers are packing their bags.

Good riddance to the yobbos who robbed us during the boom years, you might say, but in five years’ time, when the last of the electricians is gone and your electric blanket turns into a smouldering defibrillator, you might have a different tune to hum.

The thing is this: you won’t even notice us as we slip away because we don’t stand out. Gone are the donkey jackets and the muddy boots and the sideburns that look like giant upended apostrophes. Rare are the wind-burned cheeks and muddy fists the size of bowling balls. As we take our seats on the Airbus, we look much like everybody else, and although its unlikely we will ever be confused with the brightest and the best, we’re not exactly the dullest and the worst.

We won’t pinch the stewardess, hijack the plane, or demand an in-flight breakfast roll wrapped in a copy of the Sun. Most of us won’t bend to pick up our luggage and reveal ass-cracks, hairy backs and Manchester United underpants. We will behave, and then we will be gone.

The last great wave of unemployment peaked in 1989; I remember it well because I surfed it, and it didn’t feel like this. It didn’t feel historic or epic in proportion. It felt like it would end, sooner rather than later, and then we would all come home and live happily ever after.

We would have kids and they would be educated and the cycle would be broken. It was an interesting theory. I might share it with the bright young man beside me when we touch down in JFK airport. Outside the terminal, the bright young man will look around excitedly and shout, “I’ve arrived.”

“I’m back,” I’ll whisper.

He will probably pay $90 to a limo driver and get dropped off in the wrong neighbourhood. I’ll pay $15 for the bus to Port Authority. Twenty-four hours later he will be trading bonds on Wall Street and I will be riding upwards in a service elevator on Park Avenue. The lift operator will most likely be Irish, same age as me, and when I sign my name on his clipboard he will ask: “How are you doing?” “Tipping along,” I will say, “tipping along.”