Fifty years ago this month I set out on a journey that I expected to last two years, but has in fact taken almost a lifetime.
Having left school in Dublin in June, 1973 with insufficient points in my Leaving Certificate to get into university, I decided to move to England for two years to study A levels with a view to going back to Dublin to study, of all things, dentistry. The very idea seems laughable now, given my notorious lack of manual dexterity.
Two years extended to five as I changed direction to pursue higher education at Northeast London Polytechnic in Newham and get my BSc degree in Land Administration. I planned to go back to Ireland but in 1978 the economic situation on both sides of the Irish Sea was dire.
I started work in Norfolk, where I qualified as a chartered surveyor and was lucky enough to meet a local girl who became my wife.
So I stayed put.
In the early years, I was homesick for my native land. I had to learn British English, I had to soften my accent and not say “Tunder”. I was often called Paddy or Séamus and occasionally asked inane questions about my homeland. I was stuck by how little most British people knew about Ireland and its history, and that still prevails.
I was lucky in that I was living for the first two years with my big sister and not having to follow the route of many an Irish emigrant who had to encounter signs that read “no pets, no blacks, no Irish” where rooms to let were advertised.
I recall crying my eyes out on the deck of the mailboat as she sailed out of Dún Laoghaire Harbour after a trip home for Christmas and new year 1973/74. I was only 18 years old.
Emigration has stalked my family.
I was the youngest of seven children born between 1939 and 1956. We were originally from Kilmallock in south Co Limerick, but the family moved to Dalkey, Co Dublin when I was two years old. We lived on the Vico Road in my mother’s family home, and were the fourth generation to occupy the house.
We were four girls and three boys. My father was of the generation that did not believe in academic education for daughters, so three of the girls were sent to France and Italy to learn the local language. Two of them married Italians and stayed in the sun. Another sister married an English medical student who was studying at the Royal College of Surgeons in St Stephen’s Green and they moved to Suffolk after he qualified. One brother went to Maryland in the US and the other ended up in London. Only one sister stayed in Ireland, where she raised her family, and her four children have thankfully all made lives, with families and careers in Ireland.
Our family circumstances were influenced by the premature death of our parents, neither of whom reached the age of 60. I was only 15 when I was “orphaned”, but I had fantastically supportive siblings who looked after me. But the loss of my parents, more than anything, precipitated my emigration, and possibly that of my two brothers too.
England was a culture shock at first, but also an adventure. I got through it and learned to love my adopted country.
At a recent school reunion in Galway of the class of 1973, one classmate teased me by saying “so you are a Brit now Paul?!” I denied it with some indignation, but on reflection I have concluded that he was partially right. This country has been good to me. It gave me a career, a family and a good life. I have a wife, a daughter and three granddaughters. I am retired now, but I worked hard for 42 years, doing what I loved and loving what I did.
I haven’t lost my Irishness, even if my accent has mellowed.
I have always been made welcome here, even during tense periods in recent history when terrorism held sway. I have also maintained a strident loyalty to Irish rugby, and have witnessed triumph and disaster over the years at Twickenham and elsewhere. I have been lucky enough to be present at the last two Irish Grand Slam victories at Twickenham in 2018 and the Aviva Stadium in Dublin in March this year.
Until the arrival of Ryanair it was too expensive to fly home and the only way back on a budget was the boat train to Holyhead, a miserable journey, particularly in the return direction to the UK. I reduced the frequency of visits back to Ireland in the 1990s as there was a whole world to discover.
I put down roots in England and lived mostly in the eastern counties, where there were no big Irish communities.
I am part of a diaspora that in differing times built canals and railways, reconstructed UK cities after the Blitz, engineered the M1 motorway as well as providing nurses and medics for the NHS, not to mention Eamon Andrews, Terry Wogan, Edna O’Brien. Bob Geldof, Ronan Keating, Graham Norton and Roy Keane.
Many Irish emigrants succeeded in the UK and elsewhere, but some – often in the building sector – were exploited, sometimes by their compatriots, and fell below the radar.
The country I left has changed beyond recognition, and generally for the better. At one stage, I bemoaned many changes, but now realise that I was wallowing in nostalgia for an Ireland that was far from perfect.
The unrestricted and corrupt power of the church has been tamed as the nation came to learn of all the scandals. The country is much wealthier, and it has benefited greatly from EU membership.
I am a tourist now when I visit, but I still feel a sense of belonging when I return. The view over Killiney Bay from the Vico Road evokes many happy memories.
I have wondered what might have happened had I stayed and joined Allied Irish Banks as a school leaver (which was an option), but you can’t speculate on the past and things that might have happened.
I wouldn’t change anything, and I have always felt welcome in England. To those many people who have extended that welcome over 50 years, thank you.
- Paul Bennett is 67 years old. He left Ireland 50 years ago at the age of 17. He lives in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, England and has retired as a chartered surveyor.
- If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a little information about you and what you do