Generation Emigration

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens abroad

“It’s not the goodbyes we dread. What worries us is when we’ll see each other again”

Katie Harrington was the first of her friends to emigrate when she signed a contract to teach English in Abu Dhabi in 2009. She came back to Ireland for a visit this summer to find very few of her friends still here.

Thu, Nov 10, 2011, 06:00

   

Katie Harrington dressed in an abaya at Sheikh Zayed mosque

Katie Harrington was the first of her friends to emigrate when she signed a contract to teach English in Abu Dhabi in 2009. She came back to Ireland for a visit this summer to find very few of her friends still here.

Leaving Galway for Abu Dhabi almost exactly two years ago was not a tough decision. Having graduated college with a BA in English I was keen to travel, experience new cultures and make money. The reality of the recession had not quite hit, for me or for the government at that stage, and I did not feel I had to go. It was my choice; an adventure I would return from before long.

I planned to go for one year and during that first year I had a fantastic range of experiences. My job teaching infants was immensely enjoyable; I experienced the delights of another country’s food, drink, culture and people. As well as this school holidays had allowed me to travel to beautiful parts of the world like Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Indonesia. There was no doubt that I was maintaining a lifestyle that would have been impossible at home.

Life in the Middle East is of course somewhat restricted, particularly for a woman. Modest dress is necessary [a challenge in the extreme heat], but this was not the greatest challenge. The implicit sexism and racism that permeates Arabic culture was not easy to get used to, nor was the constant reinforcement of that status quo, with little room for dissenting opinions.

Arabs are, however, surprisingly open about religion. While fervent in their own beliefs, they openly and frequently profess their respect for Christianity. Many feel betrayed by the media and by terrorists who have besmirched the name of Islam which to them, if not their leaders, is synonymous with peace.

The absence of alcohol as a major factor in socialising was another revelation. I often felt surprised and slightly ashamed watching Muslim families and friends get together on weekend nights to have picnics with their children in the park. I couldn’t help but wonder at these times how different Irish weekends might look if the pub was not a factor. It is not often we look at Islam as a religion to be learned from, but in this area I felt they had us trumped.

As the first year came to an end, contracts for the coming year came out. Many signed up immediately for another year, lured by the promise of a large bonus. I hesitated. I was excited by the prospects of major change at home – the chance to vote Fianna Faíl out of government was on the horizon, there seemed to be a real appetite for reform of a broken system.

I consulted family and friends. “Stay there” they said, “Don’t come home”, “There’s nothing here for you”. I didn’t really understand. Everything had changed. 2010 had arrived and the worst recession since the 80s had come with it.

My friends had begun to scatter themselves around the globe; Canada, New Zealand, the UK, the US and more. It became difficult to find a good time to call, trying to take into account the various different time zones. As local pubs are kept going with farewell parties, it is not the goodbyes we dread. What worries us more is trying to figure out when we will see each other again. We make fanciful plans to visit each other, most of which will require a Lotto win to come true.

Katie leading a camel

Summer 2010 came and I signed the contract for year two; just one more year away, or so I told myself, until things improve at home.

I returned to Abu Dhabi grateful for the job, the lifestyle and the sun. I can’t help but feel I missed a lot during the last year though, as the general election came and went and Taoiseach Kenny was installed. Momentous visits by the Queen of England, Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama were experienced vicariously through the media. I felt bitter that I was missing out. I should have been there as the Dalai Lama addressed my alma mater, the University of Limerick. I should have been at College Green as President Obama spoke to the people of Ireland. I would have been there, if I was home.

As contracts for a third year were circulated just a few months ago, I felt certain that this time I would decline. But even with my limited knowledge of economics, I knew the day Olli Rehn of the IMF set up shop in Ireland, things were not going to improve for a long time. My future and that of my entire generation had been mortgaged to pay for mistakes that were not mine.

As Fine Gael and Labour tried to enforce cuts, I couldn’t help but picture them standing in the middle of a tug-of-war between the ECB/IMF on one side and the people they represent on the other. Unemployment was still on the rise even as thousands were emigrating. I signed for year three, a two-year contract this time.

It was not until I came home this summer that the palpable anger of the Irish people struck me. In the newspapers, on radio, television and social media people vented their anger, their feelings of betrayal and loss. I realised that much as I had tried to keep up to date, I had had no idea how bad things were at home. I understood now why they told me to stay abroad. The last resource the people of Ireland had in plentiful supply – hope – was fading fast.

It gets more difficult to leave each time. I was the first of my friends to emigrate. Few will be left by the time I return next summer. Some will never come back. When I boarded that plane to Abu Dhabi in 2009 I was so confident that I would be home in a year, two years later I have no such faith.

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