Ireland is our home now
Christmas is a time of year when people look forward to going home. But where’s that if you grew up elsewhere? Eight people talk about their experiences
‘Children of this time will be able to live where they want to’
MICHAL AND JUSTYNA SZPAK
Dad in the home and cosmetics chemist
Michal and Justyna Szpak were happily employed in Poland, having finished their studies in industrial pharmaceutical chemistry at Gdansk University of Technology in 2004, when Michal received an offer to do a grant-aided PhD in marine geochemistry at Dublin City University.
That offer, which he took up in September 2006, changed the lives of this young Polish couple. The decision to start a new life in Ireland prompted them to get married, give up their jobs and move to a country they had never been to.
Justyna, who had been working in a small aromatherapy cosmetics firm in Poland, got a job with a Swedish cosmetics company – her dream job – in Bray, Co Wicklow.
She is now fluent in English and living in Greystones, Co Wicklow, with Michal and their baby daughter, Jagoda.
So how has life been in Ireland? “It was difficult at the start. We found the Irish accent difficult even though we spoke good English. But I felt welcome. People said hi and smiled. In Poland people pass you by,” says Justyna. “Irish people are curious about people moving here,” says Michal. “We also share the same sense of sarcasm and humour,” adds Justyna.
The birth of their baby on Christmas Day last year was a joyful occasion. They still remember how nerve-racking and physically draining an experience it was without the support of family nearby.
“It was our first baby. In Poland there is more attention paid to the pregnancy at every stage, but in Ireland, I think, the maternity staff are better and more friendly after the baby is born. I had a lot of help with breastfeeding,” says Justyna.
Justyna left hospital on the early-discharge scheme. “I did want my family then, but they couldn’t come. It was emotional. I needed my mum to show me how to handle a baby,” says Justyna.
Both grandmothers visited in the early months. When Justyna’s maternity leave finished they decided that Michal would look after Jagoda until she was a year old.
“Everything changed when I went back to work. He was in charge now. I trusted him. I knew he would mind her well. It wasn’t that tough for me going back to work,” says Justyna.
Michal says: “I wanted the opportunity to bond with my baby, because Justyna was very close to her in the first months. Despite the difficulties I feel I will have a better connection with my daughter because of this time spent with her.”
Justyna is pregnant again, and Michal will start job-hunting in January. “It will be challenging. Childcare is so expensive in Ireland. We have used up our savings, and we don’t own our own place here.”
Do they feel at home in Ireland? “My home is where my family is, but the sad aspect of being an immigrant is that you are uprooted and detached from your own family ties. That’s a strain,” says Michal. “Jagoda is formally Irish before she is Polish. She was born here. Children of this time will be able to choose to live here if they want to.”
‘I feel like I’ve always been here. I have a Cork accent’
Student at Cork Institute of Technology
“I came here in 1996, when I was three and a half years old. I had been in an orphanage in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, since I was young. Adi Roche from Chernobyl Children International brought me here for medical treatment. An adoption agreement was brokered between Belarus and Ireland, and Helen and Robert Gabriel from Bandon, Co Cork, officially adopted me in 1998.
“I feel like I’ve always been here and that Ireland is my home. I have a strong Cork accent, and people accept me for who I am. I live in Bandon with my three sisters, two who are older than me and one who is younger. I’m the only one who is adopted, but we all have good relationships. If it wasn’t for them I don’t know where I’d be. I am in third year of business administration at Cork Institute of Technology.
“I needed a lot of medical attention when I was younger. I have hearing problems, and I used a wheelchair when I was younger. But when I was 13 I got two artificial legs, which means I can walk around and be like any other young woman.
“I would like to go back to Minsk some time, but I’m not ready yet. I feel I will have a better understanding if I see the orphanages for myself. I know it will be hard, and I am so grateful to people like Adi Roche and Ali Hewson, who have done so much work and given so much love to the children in the orphanages and baby homes in Belarus.
“I am really looking forward to being at home with all my family at Christmastime. It will be a great chance for us all to catch up and relax together.”
‘Australia is my country. Dublin is my hometown’
Publicist and culture lover, Dublin
“I was born and bred in Melbourne and lived there until I was 29. I made a conscious decision to come to live in Dublin. I even had a going-away party with Guinness on tap. I am now married to an Irishman, but I was here for nine years when I met him.
“To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, Australia is my country, Dublin is my hometown. I love Dublin. I’ve always lived in the city centre. Dublin is the perfect city for me. I like that you can walk through town and meet three or four people you know yet it’s big enough to have a huge cultural richness. I don’t even think of myself as separate to my friends here, and I get such a shock when I hear my [Australian] voice.
“But I’ll be home in Melbourne for Christmas with my son, Dash, my husband, Fergal McCarthy, and all my family. I’m the eldest of seven children, and my three brothers and three sisters all live within an hour’s drive of my parents.
“Going home to Melbourne is all about family. It’s about the people, not the place. Dash says to people that he is half Irish and half Australian. I think that’s probably what I am now too.”
‘What’s missing here is that sense of cousins over the hill’
Basketmaker, Baurnafea, Co Kilkenny
“I use ‘home’ to refer to both Ireland and Germany. I go to see my mother, who lives in the town I come from, and I’ve caught myself saying I’m going home for a few days. Yet, at the same time, Baurnafea is my home. I’ve struggled with this for a while, and for years I used to ask myself what I was doing here. What’s missing is that sense of cousins over the hill – that past knowledge of people you knew from school.
“I sing in a choir in Kilkenny, and this has given me more a sense of home. My husband, Klaus Hartmann, is in a choir too. I’m also part of a book club and take part in fundraisers. Our children were born here, and they are the biggest reason for feeling at home here. We speak German at home, but sometimes with school, work and phone calls we find ourselves speaking English to each other without noticing it.
“Klaus and I go home to Germany together, and because we come from the same town, Halle, we have a common circle of friends. There is something about childhood friends that allows you to pick up from where you left off; you don’t need a warm-up. We miss that sometimes.
“We come from the communist part of Germany, which was East Germany when we left. We wouldn’t have been able to live there like we do here – as a potter and basketmaker, involved in raising our children and living relatively comfortably from our crafts. We managed to buy land and build a house. That gave us a sense of being settled. And we’ve a huge circle of very good friends here too.”
‘I didn’t like Ireland when I first arrived’
Chief executive of Cradle, which looks after the welfare of children in war-torn and crisis-hit regions
“I was born and grew up in Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I took my journalism degree in Sarajevo. I played Olympic handball for my town in the premier league of what was then Yugoslavia. War found me in my hometown in April 1992, and I couldn’t go to my graduation from my journalism degree in Sarajevo because the road was blocked.
“I joined the army to defend my hometown for six months. Mostar fought two wars: first the war between Serbia and the rest of the world and then the war between the former allies, Croats who were Catholics and Bosnians who were Muslim.
“My family became victims of ethnic cleansing. My father was taken to a concentration camp, and we were told he was killed. I stayed on with friends until October 1993 and was forced to leave at gunpoint. My sister was already in Sweden, and we tried to get my mother to go there too. Norway and Italy were the only countries taking people, so we sent my mother to Norway. Nine months later we discovered my father was alive, and he moved to live in Norway with my mother.
“I received aid from the Irish charity Cradle in Mostar, and the girls from Cradle got me a visitor’s visa for Ireland in 1993. I didn’t like Ireland when I first arrived. I just wanted to be back home. I couldn’t get refugee status then, so I moved to Norway to be with my parents. In 1998 I came back to Dublin by choice and have lived and worked here since then.
“Mostar will always be my home, and I’m still a local patriot, but people I grew up with aren’t there any more. Some have been killed. Others have completely changed as people. I go back there as part of my work, and I go back looking for my home. It’s very emotional for me. My father refuses to go back. My mother goes back to see extended family, most of whom are now in Germany, Italy and the United States.
“What pushes me on is my work. I do consider Dublin my home, but my heart is in this Atlantis. I do notice a change in Irish people between 1993 and when I came back in 1998. Irish society has become more discriminatory than when I first came. I’m saddened to see this, particularly when I consider Dublin is my home and think of how many Irish people are living everywhere else in the world. I would wish for everyone to be treated nicely, wherever they live.”
‘I believe in genetic memory. I’ve come back to where I was meant to be’
Director of Moyo hair salon, Dublin
“I felt like I arrived home when I came to Dublin 11 years ago. People ask me all the time, ‘Are you going home for Christmas?’ and I say this is my home. The travel writer Pico Iyer has said, ‘Home is where you become yourself,’ and that is what I feel about the time I have been here.
“I had a difficult upbringing in South Africa, with an alcoholic father, and I needed to come here not just to heal myself but for a bit of generational healing as well. My great-grandfather moved to South Africa from Ireland, and I’m still trying to discover what caused him to leave. There was a lot about my father’s family that wasn’t spoken about.
“I believe in genetic memory, and I think I’ve come back to where I was meant to be. Everything seemed familiar to me when I arrived. All my senses were engaged. Everything smelled familiar even though it couldn’t be more different to South Africa. I’m comfortable here. I have a sense of complete and utter wellbeing here.
“I grew up a staunch Catholic, and I still pray, but I don’t attend Mass and I don’t follow the tenets of the Catholic faith. Everyone I have met here has played an important role in my life, but none of that would have been possible without my own self being healed. For me, being at home is reaching a sense of spiritual, emotional and mental wellbeing.
“South Africa remains my birthplace, and I return there every two years or so. I am really saddened by Nelson Mandela’s death and reminded of something he once said: there is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways that you yourself have altered.
“That’s what I feel when I go back to South Africa.”
‘When my marriage broke down I moved back to Ireland’
Organiser of “inspirational events” through her business, Seminars.ie
“I moved from Ireland to Los Angeles when I finished college, at the age of 21. I had friends out there, and I loved California. I was self-employed in real estate, so I used to come back for Christmas and in the summertime to help my parents run a restaurant in the west of Ireland. For me then, home was where my parents were.
“I left LA in 1984 because I wanted to be back in Europe. I wanted to be in a multicultural place, so I moved to London. It was a bit of a wrench leaving the lovely climate, and I had to tone down my ‘American’ voice and laugh to become more English.
“I lived in London for 11 years. I moved around London quite a bit. Then I got married and had two children, so I started to feel like I belonged there.
“When my marriage broke down I couldn’t afford to stay in London, so I moved back to Ireland with my children to be close to my mother and brother. I always felt like I wanted to come home and for my children to grow up here. I’m back in Co Wicklow 18 years now and have recently become an empty-nester. (My son is in London and my daughter is in south Co Dublin.)
“When I go away I always like that feeling of returning home. I have an attachment to personal things which mean home to me. My house does feel like home, but I was burgled recently, which shakes your sense of home.
“My mother, who died earlier this year, was determined never to leave her home, and she didn’t: it was a very important part of her emotional health and longevity. But I’ve moved enough times to know that I can always uproot and move somewhere else and create that feeling again. I feel I’m not done yet. I have a big affinity to the west of Ireland.
“All the inspirational speakers I bring in through Seminars.ie say that you don’t need the material trappings to be home. Home is a sense of belonging, and you can feel at home wherever you are.”