What prompted my emigration in 1983?
Looking back and wondering at what might have been seems to be the destiny of so many departed Irish, writes Philip Lynch
When I left Ireland “down-turn” or “live register” hadn’t yet slipped into the everyday vernacular. All I ever heard, while I was still getting clobbered at school, was about “recession”. That R word hung heavy in the air like a bad smell and it seemed to seep in everywhere. Maybe the language was blunter back in the 1980s. Unless you got a handful of honours in the Leaving Cert, and you could go on to third-level education, you had no prospect of even a semi-decent job. So many people were heading off without any fanfare.
I recall many of the locals who’d stayed, having to sign on in the presence of the sergeant at the now defunct Barracks at the bridge of Finea. It struck me as a demeaning procedure and location, and it was one I wanted to bypass.
I was only ever an average student but I didn’t head straight for the ferry. At the start of the summer of 1983, after a year working in a piggery in Kilkenny, I sat an aptitude test for a computer programming course at Athlone Regional College. One morning I headed off on my little Yamaha 80 from our place outside Castlepollard. In a tense silent room I duly filled out a series of multiple questions but by the end of the session I wasn’t holding my breath. Even today, computers and I still are not the best of friends.
For weeks afterwards my mother, ever the optimist, was watching the post with barely concealed mounting anticipation. I knew nothing about computers, didn’t even like them, but I thought it might lead to something. But of course, I drew a blank. Looking back now, I have no doubt my mother was the more disappointed one.
A few months earlier, I’d applied to do psychiatric nursing training at St Canice’s hospital in Kilkenny. They liked my written application and I got shortlisted for an interview. As I was waiting and fidgeting that morning, the woman at the reception desk told me I looked like the sort who’d probably get through. I’m still not sure what she meant but all of a sudden I felt hopeful. But, inexplicably, mid-way through the interview, I wound up defending Vincent Browne’s work. I hadn’t known he’d written something scathing in Magill magazine about the Irish psychiatric system. I hadn’t read the offending article as Magill was an infrequent arrival at Cooney’s newsagency in Castlepollard. The three middle-aged men on the panel were unimpressed and an icy awkwardness ensued.
While I was waiting to hear back from Browne’s indignant critics, my boss at the piggery in Kilkenny offered to have the local TD Jim Gibbons, who was the Minister for Agriculture at the time, to intercede on my behalf. But I decided if I couldn’t succeed on my own merit I’d cop it sweet. By opting to eschew the pull factor, I guess I’d sealed my fate. Maybe part of me wanted to get away anyway.
Several weeks later, when my mother handed me the brown envelope from St Canice’s, I ripped it open but no matter how many times I read it, the content didn’t alter. I wouldn’t be starting my nursing career in Ireland. That would have to keep until I got to Melbourne.
I also applied to do a pig husbandry course at Athenry. I had fond memories of a day trip I made to Galway city the previous summer. I’d liked the ambience of Eyre Square and the smell of the sea air and I’d had a grand browse in Kenny’s bookshop. I’d imagined myself, on my days off, maybe even taking a dip at Salthill in summer. But the trip way over to the west, this time on a drizzly day in a Peugeot driven by the local hackney who wasn’t big on conversation, also led nowhere. At that interview my ambivalence for the course was probably all too evident.
And before I knew it, that morning had arrived – that loaded day that touches everyone in the family. I literally threw some things into a suitcase, and the old man took me to the train station at Mullingar. It was a trip he’d take with five of my brothers and sisters. Our house was emptying, bedroom by bedroom as we headed to all ends of the globe. And so I was off on the overnight ferry to England, on my way to Australia, uncertain and anxious about what lay in store.
I needn’t have worried. Things have gone okay for me in Australia. I qualified as a psychiatric nurse and I still work in the field. I eventually managed to get to university and study social science. My brother tells me the Cooney’s in Castlepollard, like Magill, has long since folded. It’s now sells some sort of wood craft on an occasional basis. Though I see the good Mr Browne is still going strong. And fair play to him for that.
Looking back and wondering at what might have been seems to be the destiny of so many departed Irish. Of course we can never turn back the clock, nor should we. But our memories we’ll always carry close to our hearts.