By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - When Toby Gilbert decided to emigrate last year, he did not choose Australia over Dublin for sunshine and sandy beaches. He just wanted a few more free hours to see his wife.
Fed up with working punishing hours and barely seeing each other, the two doctors were among almost 50,000 Irish people who left the country permanently last year, a near four-fold increase since Ireland's economic crisis began in 2008.
But just as worrying for a country keen to turn another chapter in its painful history of emigration around, the couple are part of a growing cohort of graduates who are leaving jobs, rather than benefits, to seek better opportunities abroad.
"It was becoming an unliveable situation," said Gilbert, 31, of the grueling hours that saw Ireland referred to the European Court of Justice last week for breaking EU working time directives for junior doctors.
"You could walk into any hospital at 10am and find a dozen doctors who had been working from 8am the previous morning and who likely would be there until 5pm. They were absolutely Victorian work practices, it defied belief."
Like the Gilberts, almost half of Irish emigrants were in full-time jobs before leaving, a recent study at University College Cork (UCC) found, suggesting that the damage wrought by Ireland's economic crash and resulting sharp budget cuts may play just as key a role in emigration as high unemployment.
The health sector is an especially acute example of where the severe cutbacks that followed a spending spree during the 'Celtic Tiger' boom years have led to an exodus, often dejected doctors. Almost one-in-ten emigrants had qualified or worked in the health and social work sectors, UCC's study said.
Hospitals have been left struggling to fill consultant vacancies while overworked junior doctors went on strike for the first time in 25 years last month. With over a third of next year's government spending cuts to come from the health budget, there is little appetite to return home.
"For doctors working abroad, all of us have to be mentally prepared that we might never go home," said Ciara Freeman who left Ireland two years ago and now happily works in London despite earning 30 percent less than her counterparts at home.
"I would never say never to going home, I love Irish patients, I love Irish people but the opportunities are not there any more."
Emigration has long been a hugely emotive issue in Ireland, from the million or so who fled the Great Famine of the 1800s to the nearly half as many who gave Ireland the ignominy of being the only country in Europe to see its population decline in the 1950s along with East Germany.
Ireland's government, riding a wave of acclaim in Europe as it becomes the first country to exit an EU/IMF bailout, knows putting the brakes on emigration is a far bigger issue at home with prospects of a decade-long flight similar to the 1980s, when recession led to the last period of prolonged emigration.
Its bid to turn Ireland into a technology hub, wooing the likes of Google, Facebook and EBay, may be bearing fruit after data on Tuesday showed unemployment fell at its fastest pace in four years to 12.8 percent.
The jobless rate is now just above the euro zone average and down from a high of 15 percent. Were it not for emigration, which is the highest per capita in Europe, the rate would have touched 20 percent, the IMF estimated last year.
However the encouraging data also showed that the number of people in employment between the ages of 25 to 34 continues to fall, a consequence of the estimate in the UCC report that over 70 percent of emigrants depart while in their twenties.
A more tangible recovery is needed to reverse that trend, according to the managing partner of Ernst & Young Ireland, one of the "Big Four" accountancy firms that is specifically targeting emigrants to help fill 80 new positions.
So far five Irish nationals have agreed terms to come home from South Africa, two from Malta and one from Dubai. There is huge interest in the firm's Australian office, a big hub for Irish emigrants from all sectors, but reluctance too.
"They all talk to their families about coming back and I still think the general consensus if you talk to your mum, dad, siblings or mates from college, they're probably all saying it's not great yet," said Ernst and Young's Mike McKerr.
"They're not coming back into a booming, dynamic, fast-growing economy where they're going to have great careers so there is a risk of a lost generation here."
"NO POSSIBILITY OF GOING HOME"
While financial services firms have proven resilient during the downturn in Ireland - Ernst & Young's Irish workforce is higher than it was before the crisis - other reeling sectors are nowhere near as equipped to start bringing emigrants home.
Servicing a government debt set to peak at 124 percent of annual economic output this year will keep a lid on spending for years, offering little relief in areas like education where teachers have been leaving for Britain, frustrated by a freeze on recruitment and promotions at home.
Ireland's banking crisis has seen some banks fail, foreign operators exit the market and others severely downsize. Thousands of jobs have been lost with more likely to come.
The prospects are toughest of all for the estimated one-in-five emigrants who worked as builders, tradesmen or architects at the peak of Ireland's boom when construction accounted for a quarter of gross national product (GNP).
The government is trying to revive activity with new tax breaks but any recovery will take years when just under 8,500 house were built last year compared to the 23,000 built on average in the 1970s, when Ireland was a much poorer country.
For Brian Collins, an architect who helped London's Gaelic football team hit the headlines this year when they won a first Irish championship match in 36 years thanks to an influx of talent, the prospects in Ireland are virtually non-existent.
Only a handful of his 60 classmates who graduated five years ago found work at home and of the few others that remain, one owns a cake shop, while another designs mobile phone apps. For the rest, home will remain just a place you visit.
"I don't think any of us have ever really openly discussed the possibility of going home because it was just such a distant possibility when we came over here," Collins said.
"Even in our mindset, there wouldn't be a remote possibility. If I was looking for a job as an architect, I just wouldn't know where to start."
(Editing by Anna Willard)