'The emigrant experience is the struggle of being split'
Etched in my memory from the day I left Ireland is my mother’s crumpled, tearful face at Dublin Airport. I left my mother. I left Mother Ireland. There were always those stirrings of guilt and betrayal until at last I let them go.
I can’t shake the feeling though that Ireland, perhaps like every other nation, isn’t so forgiving of her expatriates. There’s always that sense of “you left”. Likewise, as much as I feel embraced and loved in San Francisco, there’s always that sense of “you came”. The only places I ever feel I truly belong are with my daughters and with my writing – nameless, wondrous places. The truth of the emigrant experience is the struggle of being split.
My experience of the airport was very different. My family and I spent a long time standing there in Terminal 2, at the crack of dawn, laughing at this huge painting of a horse mid-gallop right next to the departure gates. Our parting was being omnisciently monitored by this giant horse, who must have watched thousands of kids like me running away from home.
Going back to visit in the winter is something I am truly scared of: like with any breakup, the true test of whether it’s really over or not is what happens when you see them again for the first time. Will Dublin have gone and changed on me, to spite me for leaving? Worse, will it be static, identical to how it was? With San Francisco, there is this huge tender welcoming feeling of “you’re here, you came”, that this city radiates.
I wonder how missing San Francisco will feel while I am back in Ireland: it’s the first break from a new love. I don’t feel I belong here yet, and the sense of belonging to Dublin is starting to fade around the edges: but this transition is exciting.
I would never encourage anyone to emigrate. Nor would I dissuade anyone. The beauty of emigration for me is that I can extract and try to live by the best of two cultures. We each need to do what we need to do and I would caution against ever putting limits on ourselves. If the only thing stopping you from taking risks and making change is fear, risk anyway.
Certainly. If you are a homebird, then that will be your joy and I wish I had that in me. If you are an adventurer, then set sail. The world is as big as you want to make it.
Ethel Rohan’s story collection, Goodnight Nobody, is forthcoming from Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013. ethelrohan.com.
Sarah Griffin writes essays and poems and can be found on Twitter @griffski
Generation Emigration is the Irish Times forum by and for citizens abroad.