What I learned while making a documentary about emigration

Leaving home changes your identity, homesickness is real, but overall emigrants are resilient

Teaser clip from forthcoming feature length documentary film 'Coming Home' following the journeys of a selection of Irish emigrants. Video: Cathal Kenna

 

Having now lived through two periods of mass emigration and seen how it has affected every single person in our small country, I am fascinated by the stories of those who have left, those who came back and those who will never come home.

In 2012, I started my journey around the world filming Coming Home, a feature-length documentary film following the stories of five such emigrants as they depart from and return to Ireland.

Having learned much from hearing about their experiences and those of the hundreds of others I met on my way, I thought I would share some of my insights.

Push/pull dynamic

Your first encounter with emigration greatly influences how you frame it as either a positive or negative experience. I saw many family and friends leave Ireland out of necessity after the 2008 economic crash, and that partially shaped my own view .

But many of those who have gone, even the ones who did so against their will, have thrived and grown in ways they may have found hard or impossible to achieve had they stayed in Ireland. The forces that pull or push people away from Ireland can be varied and complex, and are not simply attributable to a lack of work.

Homesickness

Leaving Ireland to begin life in a new country can be a deeply traumatic experience. Homesickness is real and manifests itself in a variety of ways, including stomach pains, loss of appetite, poor sleep, general anxiety, and even depression. Conversely, returning to Ireland particularly from sunnier countries can be a big adjustment, with Irish weather presenting a challenge to the general mood and lifestyle of the returning emigrant.

But arriving in a new country can also be a tremendously exciting, invigorating and life-affirming experience.

Parallel universes

Taking the plunge and leaving Ireland opens up a series of lifetime “what ifs” and “what might have beens” for the emigrant, and also for those who remain behind. A virtual alternative reality or parallel universe is born. “What might have been” becomes a constant companion in the emigrant psyche. This feeling is heightened particularly when a parent or loved one back in Ireland passes on.

In my view there is no doubt that a splitting of the self occurs, and this has a significant impact on the sense of identity of the emigrant. Some emigrants feel they belong neither to Ireland or the new country, and portray a floating type of existence. Of course, this is not true for all, and many happily settle and lead full and rich lives in their new homes.

The craic

Most of my film subjects frequently referred to missing “the craic” above all else. Partially defined as a uniquely Irish sense of fun, humour and general outlook on life, it provides a comforting sense of belonging and being amongst “your own” that apparently cannot be replicated to the same degree with new friends and colleagues abroad.

Resilience

Beginning a new life in another country is a huge challenge. The Irish people I met abroad demonstrated tremendous resilience in meeting that challenge head on. They simply get on with life and make the best of what they have. I couldn’t help but feel a huge sense of pride in them. They celebrate being Irish in a way that almost makes them “more Irish than the Irish themselves”.

In general they carry themselves extremely well, are mostly very well regarded, assimilate into and make a significant contribution to their host countries, and retain a strong connection to the country of their origin. Sadly, there are also those who struggle with the challenge of life in another country and some do fall through the cracks, often in tragic circumstances.

Coming Home, a self-funded documentary filmed over four years in Ireland, the US, Britain, the Middle East and Australia, will be released later this year. See cominghomedocumentary.com or follow @ComingHomeDoc

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