'The emigrant experience is the struggle of being split'
Leaving for America in the midst of an economic maelstrom was the best choice for me. There were no full-time jobs for graduates, only whatever freelance or part-time fluke I could manage. I could have waited it out: waited for the country to steady itself, waited to grow older, but all I could do was peer out over the horizon thinking there’s a whole world out there.
A sense of depression had fallen on my generation. I watched it happen. We had been brought up in brighter times but had entered adulthood in a time of struggle.
There always seems to be such celebration around folks who emigrate. There were a lot of good wishes and high hopes for me, and I too was totally fierce about my “I am leaving Ireland, I am emigrating” attitude. While I often struggle wondering what the future will hold for me, I know I have written parts of this myth for myself. This myth echoes after all emigrants: that things will be better once you leave.
‘I’m no longer fully Irish’
My intention was never to stay in San Francisco. I believed I could never settle here. I missed my family and friends, and the unique Irish wit and sense of humour. I missed that sense of being understood, on the level of language, yes, but even more. The Irish were my tribe.
Over the years, I started to fit in here. I was only in San Francisco six months when I met my now husband. He’s also Irish, from Ballinahown, Co Westmeath, and we met rather unimaginatively in an Irish bar. He was deeply involved in the large Irish community here and introduced me to so many of my tribe, allowing me to enjoy a new sense of home from home.
Over the next decade, during which we married and had two daughters, I lived inside the bubble of the Irish in San Francisco. It was only a few years later, when our daughters started preschool, that our circle widened and we befriended many American families. Gradually, I stopped feeling so different.
Sarah voiced a reluctance to join the Irish community here, largely because she doesn’t want it to mirror everything she is missing about Ireland and to suck her right in. I understand her reluctance. While I believe the Irish community can be of vital support to new emigrants, there’s a danger of getting trapped inside the smallness of the familiar, allowing that sense of living in a strange place to remain forever. Emigrants have to let go of any sense of preciousness around having a single identity.
Ever since I emigrated, I’ve returned to Ireland at least once a year, to allow our two daughters to bond with family and with Ireland. There’s so much I look forward to going back to, but there’s also a growing sadness to each return. Gone so long, I’m no longer fully Irish. My father jokingly refers to me as “the Yank”, but the label adds to this strange sense of otherness. Americans call me out fondly on Irishisms and the Irish tease me about a creeping California twang. I’ll never again be any one nationality: not Irish, not American.
‘I feel like I’m giving something up’
Words like soda and candy still sound strange when I find myself saying them, and often I feel my accent is harsher now, in defiance of these new words. Emigrating might change my identity, but this voice, this is mine. I feel like I’m giving something up in surrendering to these Americanisms: but that’s just it, isn’t it. I can’t completely resist, I have to acclimatise: I’m in their country now.