Ireland's young face familiar choice: Stay or go?

Carrying cardboard boxes groaning with crockery and clothes, Kylee O'Brien clears a space at her makeshift market stall and lays out her wares — trappings of a life in Ireland brought to an abrupt end by the country's economic crisis.

The 34-year-old is selling almost everything her family owns — from a guitar to a child's bicycle — and heading overseas, just like thousands of others fleeing the debt-wracked country, pushing emigration to a level not seen since Ireland's financial gloom of the 1980s.

Ireland's young have long roved the world, moving in tens of thousands to the United States, Britain and elsewhere, fleeing famine in the mid-1800s, a stagnant economy after World War II and dark years that preceded the Celtic Tiger economic boom from the mid-1990s.

As the country thrived, it enjoyed a brief role reversal, attracting immigrants from around the world and high-tech giants such as Dell and Google. Now current woes have revived a belief that the grass is greener away from the Emerald Isle, leaving many among Ireland's 4.5 million population pondering a future elsewhere.

"Make me an offer, it's all got to go," O'Brien shouted into a wintry morning at Dublin's monthly flea market on Sunday. "None of this is coming with us when we leave."

Her business selling children's clothes has struggled as Ireland's economy has shrunk, and O'Brien decided a month ago it was time to shift her family to her native Australia.

"I just can't handle waking up every day to be told I live in a rubbish country, am going to struggle to survive and will never make any money. I'm sick of hearing people saying that we are doomed," says O'Brien, a mother-of-two who will move to Sydney with her children and Irish boyfriend after 13 years in this country.

Last week, Ireland's government agreed on a plan to cut euro10 billion ($13.3 billion) from spending and raise euro5 billion ($6.7 billion) in extra taxes from 2011 to 2014. On Sunday, it accepted an offer of euro67.5 billion ($89 billion) in humbling international bailout loans.

Like O'Brien, many question whether to remain during four years of harsh austerity measures.

Anthony Burns, a 27-year-old from Dublin, graduated with a degree in industrial design two months ago, but has been unable to find a job and is debating whether to leave.

"I think everybody's all wondering it in their heads, but nobody wants to say it out loud because they are almost afraid to rattle people," he said. "Suggesting it openly would almost be seen as a sign of weakness — or an insult to those people who have to stay behind."

Figures for the 12 months to April 2010 show about 65,300 people leaving Ireland over the last year — about half of whom were Irish citizens — the highest rate since 1989.

At the same time, the flow of foreigners into Ireland has dramatically dwindled — a turnaround from recent years, when the country was seen as a land of opportunity for people from new EU members such as Poland, and from as far afield as Asia and Africa. Immigration dropped from 57,300 between April 2008 and April 2009, to 30,800 over the following 12 months.

Experts said that, unlike periods of mass emigration in the 1950s and 1980s, those leaving Ireland now are slightly older, vastly better qualified and bound for jobs in IT, law and the financial sector — not on foreign construction sites.

In the past, teenagers with few skills "were going to join the bottom of someone else's labor hierarchy," said Eunan O'Halpin, a professor of contemporary Irish history at Dublin's Trinity College.

Mary Corcoran, a sociology professor at the National University of Ireland, said new emigrants also may be less likely than previous generations to eventually return home.

She has studied 1980s emigrants who came back to Ireland, finding some returned to share in the country's rapid economic growth between 1995 and 2007, but that almost all had longed for the warmth of Ireland's close-knit communities.

"It's actually much easier now for people to maintain that psychological connection with home and their communities — they'll use Skype and Facebook in a way that's not been possible in the past," Corcoran said. Defining events in the national calendar, like finals in Ireland's homegrown sports Gaelic football and hurling — similar to rugby and field hockey respectively, are now screened around the world on satellite TV, she said.

Others question the rush toward Ireland's exit gates — fearing the loss of a generation of talent which they believe should be rebuilding the country's economy, not deserting it.

"The country needs the people with the brain power, with the education, with the ambition, with the big picture thinking to stay behind. Otherwise this cycle is just going to continue and our children will be leaving Ireland, too," said Deirdre O'Shaughnessy, a 25-year-old journalist in Cork, southern Ireland.

Population figures released in September already show a fast aging society, with more than 500,000 people aged 65 or over for the first time on record.

Julie O'Brien, a 26-year-old chef from Kilfinane, in southwestern Ireland, said the experiences of previous generations should serve as a warning to those planning to flee.

O'Brien moved with her parents to Brixton, a gritty London neighborhood, in 1987 as the family sought a better life in Britain. They returned four years later, chastened.

"It was tough. I remember living in a one-bedroom apartment for a long time, and money was just as tight over there as it was here," said O'Brien.

"It made me realize, you can go to England, you can go to America — but unless you are going into a highly skilled job there's no point because you'll be struggling just the same there as you do here," she said.