'The emigrant experience is the struggle of being split'
GENERATION EMIGRATION:When poet Sarah Griffin moved to San Francisco this year she felt alone. Then she met Irish writer Ethel Rohan, who made the same journey some 20 years previously
' Life is short and the world big ’
The message lit up my Twitter feed like some great light. A fellow writer, Colm Keegan, sent up the flare: “I just met a Dublin writer who lives in San Francisco, her name is Ethel Rohan.” I hadn’t been in San Francisco long.
We didn’t meet for some time. I was afraid she might think my emigrant journey was barely worth discussing because it was so new. Maybe my struggle to settle was invalid in a time where the internet connects people despite the oceans between them. Reaching out to strangers is not easy.
We eventually met by chance one night at Literary Death Match, an event that combines literary readings and bloodthirsty competition. I all but threw my arms around her with delight. “You’re Irish? I’m Irish! Finally!” Even the distant sound of Dublin in Ethel’s voice was joyous proof that an Irish woman could leave the shores where she was born and succeed across the ocean, become gainfully employed, start a family, and, most importantly, make wonderful art.
This was a turning point for me. It felt, as strange as this sounds, like looking into the future I wanted to have, after all the break-up aches from Dublin subsided.
We met again over lunch and talked for a long time. It was clear that while our journeys were different, the feelings we’d had and the challenges we’d faced weren’t that different at all.
I didn’t expect meeting Sarah to be so emotional. It was like looking back at myself 20 years ago, when I first came to San Francisco. Her homesickness resonated, as did her concerns about finding work and new friends, and her clashes with the American culture.
I left Ireland in the early 1990s, when the country was just getting up off its knees after the brutal recession and mass exodus of the previous decade. I made the hasty decision to resign from AIB and move to America, much to my parents’ dismay.
I was miserable in my supposed “dream job” at the bank, and going through a terrible break-up. A close friend received a green card through the Donnelly visa lottery and decided to emigrate to San Francisco. Another close friend lost her father to cancer. “Life is short and the world big,” went round in my head. So I left.
‘An adventure had been unlocked’
Leaving Ireland came upon me with a phone call from my partner in whispered tones that the tech company he works for had offered him a job. “San Francisco,” he said, “that’s where they’re asking me to go.” Without a second thought I knew we had to make a go of it, that an adventure had just been unlocked for us. A way out of Ireland and into the big, wide world.
The first few times I told anyone I was moving to San Francisco, I made the claim in an attempt to sound brave and fierce. I remember saying the words out loud while not really believing them myself and feeling disappointed by people’s various reactions: Friends clapped me on the back, said “you go”. My boyfriend acted indifferent. My parents raged. I’ve often thought over the years that if anyone had said, “please don’t go, we’ll miss you”, I would have stayed, but as my sister recently reminded me, she said that and showed me a lot of love, and I still went.