© 2015 Humphries et al.; licensee BioMed Central. Background: Achieving a sustainable health workforce involves training and retaining sufficient staff to deliver health services. The Irish health workforce is characterised by a high level of emigration of Irish-trained staff and a heavy reliance on internationally trained staff. This paper presents qualitative findings from a mixed-method study of doctors, nurses and midwives who have recently emigrated from Ireland. Methods: Using Facebook, this study elicited 556 (388 completed) responses to an exploratory mixed-method online survey in July 2014. Respondents provided rich responses to two free-text questions, one on health worker return (N = 343) and another on health professional emigration (N = 209) from the source country (Ireland). Results: Respondents emigrated because of difficult working conditions in the Irish health system (long working hours, uncertain career progression), which compared poorly with conditions in the destination country. Respondents' experiences in the destination country vindicated the decision to emigrate and complicated the decision to return. Their return to Ireland was contingent upon significant reform of the Irish health system and an improvement in working conditions, expressed, for example, as: 'It's not about the money, it's about respect.. we love working in medicine, but we love our families and health more' (RD283). Conclusions: This paper highlights that doctors, nurses and midwives are emigrating from Ireland in search of better working conditions, clear career progression pathways and a better practice environment. The question for the source country is whether it can retain and attract back emigrant doctors, nurses and midwives by matching their expectations.