Reflections on a homecoming: 'The fight has gone out of Irish people'

Fri, Jan 4, 2013, 00:00

Visiting emigrants share their impressions of Ireland while home for Christmas and New Year

Padraig Moran (28), London: “The word ‘recession’ is never mentioned”

The first night home felt easy, life how it’s meant to be lived. I woke up in the not-so-merry aftermath and wanted to move back. But that was quickly followed by a promising email from my job in London, making me realise I’d be mad to try.

Everyone seemed to agree. “We miss you and all, but stay where you are.” They’re doing well. Retraining. Working in jobs they don’t love while they figure out their next move.

We were young when the economy belly-flopped. Luckily, we were too young to be saddled with debt. Less luckily, we were too young to have established ourselves when jobs got scarce and doors started closing. Five years on, opportunities at home look thin on the ground, but people are working hard. No one grumbles.

A friend calls it “waiting”, waiting until we get to that point where the hard work starts paying off. Waiting to succeed. I’m doing the same in London, I think. Maybe it’s good for us. The word “recession” is never mentioned.

Everyone’s a couple of years older than how I remember them. I was struck by the number of new businesses. Artisan bakers, organic food halls, Irish design stores. There’s money in the old town yet.

Heading back to the airport, I passed a butcher’s on Camden St. A neon sign used to shout ‘baby beef’ from the window, but it’s broken now. The single word ‘baby’ floats ominously over racks of raw, pinkish flesh. Swift, you’d hope, would have loved it. If we’re too poor to keep the lights on, we can always eat the young.

Padraig Moran moved to London in 2010 to work as a journalist.

James Taplin (41), Dubai: “The emigration issue is less raw this year”

Saying goodbye to my wife and kids in Westmeath to return to Dubai after Christmas this year was much easier than last, as the day this article is printed they will be moving out here to join me in the United Arab Emirates.

We went to visit my sister and her children on St Stephen’s Day, an annual tradition, to watch the racing at Leopardstown together. Apart from that, we had a quiet Christmas as my father-in-law is unwell.

The thing that struck me most during this visit was how much my daughter Cara’s speech had developed since I last saw her in August. She’s two, and speaking in full sentences now. It took her a while to get used to having me there in person. Every time I turned on the computer she pointed at me as if to say, “you should be in there”. Daniel is five, and he was delighted to see me.

There is an air of resignation in the country now that is very noticeable. The fight has gone out of people, which I was saddened to see. I brought up the budget a few times in the pub, and no one wanted to talk about having less money in their pockets next year. At this stage, most people only have the energy to put on a brave face.

The emigration issue is less raw this year than last. The media are still looking for the sob stories but, generally, emigration is another fallout from the recession that people have accepted.

This year has been an expensive one, with plane tickets and visas for the family and paying for schools, but I am much better off mentally and physically in Dubai than I was back in Ireland with no work.

James Taplin moved to Dubai for the second time in 2011, where he works for a sports equipment supplier.

Sarah Griffin (25), San Francisco: “I realised I missed the language”

Coming back for the first time was always going to be strange, and I wasn’t entirely sure how to prepare for it. It felt a bit like walking into your family home but the furniture has been slightly rearranged.

I realised I missed the language: Americans speak so cleanly, whereas Dubliners are so full of affection and nuance – would you ever go on out of that and come here to me ’til I tell you – parts of language that you forget even exist until nobody says them to you any more, because that’s not how people communicate in the rest of the world.

All dressed up at Christmas, Dublin is gorgeous. Winter looks well on the city – I don’t think I ever noticed it before. Driving the coast at night with my father has changed from routine to something holy, talking about what leaving home means and looking out over the lights of Howth.

So many of my friends are gone, but the ones who stayed are somehow adjusted to the social and political disaster of the crash. We’re all in our mid-20s, so our responsibilities are mostly to ourselves. With that privilege comes a huge resilience.

There is anger, and paralysis certainly, but also a refusal to allow it to break a generation of people. My old friends who have come back for the holidays from their new homes all over the world have each voiced that they are ready to go back: that while it’s good to come in for a warm hug and cup of tea, it’s still clear that Dublin isn’t where we belong right now. We’ve really begun to build lives in other places.

Sarah Griffin is a writer. She moved to San Francisco with her partner last summer.

Niall Matthews (29), Amsterdam: “Irish spending would definitely raise eyebrows in Holland”

I have been living in Amsterdam for over two years and I am home for Christmas for the second time with my Dutch girlfriend, Lizzy. She is an old hand at the Irish Christmas at this stage, and looks forward to it as much as I do.

My two brothers are also living abroad, so Christmas is the one time in the year that we are all around at the same time. Quick hangover recovery is key to squeezing in as much catching up as possible.

The festive season is much more low key in Holland, and Irish levels of spending would definitely raise eyebrows there. That said, the time and the effort we put into Christmas traditions here is what makes it so “gezellig” – a Dutch word akin to cosiness.

Most of my friends are still in Ireland, and for the most part have avoided the need to emigrate. I did so by choice. There are things that make life difficult – fewer job opportunities, more taxes, lower wages, declining social protection, Mrs Brown’s Boys – but on the whole they seem happy. They are busy growing up, having babies or getting married. Some have started new businesses, others shortly moving into a newly bought home.

Good music, restaurants and nightlife still abound in Dublin at least, but people are more selective in how they spend their money. There was a good buzz in town in the days before the 25th, marred only by the stag-like hordes trying to guzzle 12 drinks in 12 pubs in one night. Living abroad, you quickly learn the truth of the adage that it’s the people, not the place.

Niall Matthews is communications officer for the Coalition for the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Christine Doran (38), Washington DC: “The children will never feel Ireland is home”

When I come home for Christmas, I look around to see if I can view Dublin with a stranger’s eyes. Even after 10 years in the US, I still can’t. The narrow roads with impossible parking, the sometimes grimy, sometimes shiny modern shopfronts beneath Victorian upper storeys, even the concrete of the pavements all still seem so normal to me.

Things have sprung up between our Christmases home over the years, like the Luas or Spencer Dock or a new bridge over the Liffey, and it makes me proud to see the old country keeping up with the other European Joneses that have nice light-rail systems and fancy architecture.

Our children are four and six now, and are seasoned travellers. We’ve come home every year, and every Christmas but two. They cope with the jetlag and the time difference, with erratic sleeping and cranky behaviour, and our biggest challenge is fitting all their new presents back in the suitcase we came with.

We never see everyone we want to see, we never do half the things we’d like to do, and the children will probably never feel that this is home the way their parents do, but we try.

Christine Doran is a full-time mother and blogger at

Heather Walsh (29), Sydney: “People in shops are more helpful”

I haven’t been home to Waterford since I left for Australia in February 2011. Last Christmas was spent on Bondi, a great experience, but this year myself and my partner decided to enjoy Christmas Day by the fire and have Mum cook the turkey.

The one thing I noticed over and over was the improvement in the service industry. People in shops are more helpful, staff in pubs and restaurants are polite, kind and very hospitable. A friend pointed out that people appreciate their jobs more now and know if they don’t perform someone else will come along.

The impact of emigration is very evident. Groups of men especially have been broken up, and some seem to have no one to go for a drink with or a friend to call to for a cup of tea. Those left in Ireland don’t want to go, but some are following friends abroad as they feel they will be left behind alone.

Some friends are still planning on leaving for Canada or Australia, because they are tired of waiting for the economy to improve and need to change their lives. The sad thing is that there are so many young people who feel they are stuck in a rut that will take years to pass.

Heather Walsh is a subscriptions manager for APN Educational Media in Sydney.

* This article was amended on Friday, January 4th, 2013 to correct a factual error.

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