How different would life be if we hadn’t left?
How much we’ve changed is only revealed on return visits ‘home’, writes Philip Lynch
As a young lad all I ever knew were bleak times. While Charlie Haughey and Garrett Fitzgerald took turns at being Taoiseach, nothing they did made much difference to our impoverished lives on the land. Without straying too much into Frank McCourt territory, I’ll simply say we never went hungry but there were no extras. Although this daily struggle wasn’t a big deal as everyone else in our locality was in the same boat. And we knew no better.
I still hold a sense of sadness and loss at the life I turned my back on thirty years ago. My emigration story, no doubt like countless others, is forever to be layered with thoughts of what might have been; and of how different my life may have unfolded if I’d chosen not to leave.
When saying goodbye to my middle-aged mother and father, our words always fell short. I know what it was like to only ever correspond with parents from a distance – one of the unavoidable realities of emigration. During the 1980s, one of us, it seemed, was departing almost every year. Our leave-takings took on a relentless even ruthless inevitability; with our tight-lipped father driving us to the 18 miles to Mullingar train station while our stoic mother busied herself at home.
Ireland was a bleak hunting ground for so many of my generation. I remember the paltry number of job ads in the daily newspapers. And, so often, when it came to landing a job, it was who you knew rather than your qualifications that mattered. For many, the odds of getting a job were as remote as the possibility of my mother ever winning the sham spot the ball competition that use to run in Robert Maxwell’s Mirror newspaper.
My older sister was first to go. When her Leaving Cert results came through, she answered a newspaper advertisement for nurse training in London. And before we knew it, she was off on the ferry with her pound notes hidden in the sole of her shoe. The money secreted there at my mother’s behest – she was worried about the prevalence of muggers beyond Mullingar. What my mother thought about my sister’s wellbeing in London I still have no idea. No doubt she fretted for she was always inclined to worry.
While we were sad to lose my sister, we were also quietly relieved to know she’d be earning a wage; even if it was a miserly one, as was the case during those Thatcher years. In some respects, my sister could’ve been going off to boarding school but of course she wasn’t. And, almost 30 years later she still calls England home, and she will continue to do so for the rest of her days.
Before I left, my eldest brother was already working illegally as a barman in New York. Two more brothers would follow in his footsteps and they are still there. My barman brother would eventually return to live in Dublin to raise his family. But he still speaks fondly of New York; as if his time there was halcyon years and nothing ever since has come close.
When my time came to go, I think I was well ready and maybe I’d already left in my mind. I think many would-be migrants imagine what lies ahead before they even go. Though of course so many of us haven’t a clue of what’s in store. And on my first visit home my mother reckoned I was already speaking with an Australian twang. On that visit, I was struck, even saddened by the changes in my younger brothers. They’d become strangers during my time away; such were the changes in their inevitable development. I remember going upstairs and seeing the faded posters of Bon Jovi and Guns N’ Roses on their bedroom wall and rueing what I’d missed while I was away beginning my new life in Australia. They were still my brothers of course but I hardly knew them at all.
Sometimes I think my mother was right – not so much about my altered accent but in her belief that migrants do indeed get mugged. Not in a literal sense of course. It’s a far more subtle process. So often our changed self only reveals its face on our return visits “home” when we are forced to acknowledge that we’re not the person we once were. While we’re “away,” our Irishness is imperceptibly slipping away – all part of the undeniable reality of our reinvented lives.
Just please spare me from all that Barry’s tea and curried chips palaver.
Philip is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read previous pieces by him about his thoughts on returning to Ireland, visiting Belfast after a long time away, his relationship with his ageing parents, about his dwindling connection to Ireland, the complications of leaving and staying away, and his memory of the day he left Ireland in 1983.