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Laura Kennedy: Choosing to live elsewhere is indeed a rejection of Ireland

Irish people have a complex relationship with our home country - a bit like my relationship with my brother

You don’t put your entire life into boxes and move across the earth because you’re satisfied with the way things are.

It’s a lot of effort, for one thing. If adulthood offers anything to make you want to lie down on the floor and have a roaring tantrum, it’s filling out your body weight in intricate forms and paying someone to heft your laboriously boxed belongings to a new place. Standing in front of a doctor in your underpants holding a tepid cup of your own urine to pass a visa medical also ranks highly among “things I’d prefer not to be doing today”.

Hopefully, your new home country offers some pull factors. There were several that drew me to Australia, largely the promise of higher quality of life and a lower cost of living, not to mention the fact it’s far enough away that I now have a legitimate geographical excuse never to be a bridesmaid. There are some problems distance can indeed solve, but emigration carries some inherent dissonance.

Before emigrating to Australia, I’d never even visited this country and, to be honest, it wasn’t on the list of places I nursed an enduring curiosity to see. Please read that as if uttered in complete bafflement which, incidentally, is the expression on every Australian person’s face when I answer their polite inquiries about whether I’d spent much time on this continent before moving over. There’s reason to suspect that a few of them now presume I’m running from some sort of major financial crime or the tragic death of a wealthy fourth husband under suspicious circumstances.


The pull factors toward Australia were therefore all hypothetical. I could have arrived here and found every one of them to be no more than the hyperbolic pub stories of intoxicated, recently returned Irish emigrants. Thankfully, that doesn’t appear to be the case 10 weeks into my new life in Australia, but there’s a terrifyingly vast leap of faith in giving up the material present for a theoretical future, and that speaks to push factors. Sure, you could always go somewhere else in theory – luck and circumstances permitting – but do you have good reason to actually leave everything you know?

Emigrants are running, even if they claim otherwise. They’re running toward something, one would hope, but also away from their current life. The reception you get at home when you declare that you’re buggering off to another hemisphere encompasses the complex responses that people have to that act of running. If they love you, their support is tinged by a sense of sadness at the distance to come. Some people are sadder for themselves than they are happy for you, and then your sharing good news becomes an interaction in which you must comfort another person. Some envy the courage (or idiocy) it takes to embrace a risk which may end badly. Sometimes their “good luck” wishes are barbed with a tone of defensiveness at what they may see as your rejection of their everyday, at your reaching toward something else or feeling entitled to want something else, let alone pursue it.

Irish people have a complex relationship with our home country. It is a bit like my relationship with my big brother, particularly when we were younger. Sometimes, he was nice to me, but more often he treated me like a sort of crash test dummy/wrestling prop/credulous nincompoop. I simultaneously resented him enormously and very much wanted him to be my friend. I reserved – and still reserve – the right to insult and taunt him from here to kingdom come, but if anyone else says anything bad about him I will, to quote my aunt, “have to be dug out of them with a shovel”.

Ireland is routinely excoriated by Irish people – it’s an important social rite. However, the moment you leave, finding or admitting any fault with home and expressing it generates an awkward and sometimes resentful reception, a bit like pointing out that your uncle has fallen off the wagon over Christmas dinner. People are more concerned about whether you have the right to make the declaration than they are about its truth. When you tell people at home that you’re emigrating, this uncomfortable truth settles heavily in the air between you: if home were the best option for you or offered more benefits than challenges at the current time in your life, then you would be at home. Choosing to live elsewhere is indeed a rejection of Ireland. Often, it’s a response to feeling rejected by Ireland. It can be both.

The best features of any place are often also its worst. The casualness and clientelism of Ireland are lovely when you have an established place inside a community or you know someone you can ask a favour of, but they’re a nightmare if you’re a recent immigrant, if you need your passport renewed or if you’re charged with combing through RTÉ's finances and drafting a report.

I lived in London for almost six years. The UK’s constipated class structure and love of bureaucracy are awful if you have aspirations toward social mobility or egalitarianism, but they’re relatively good if you need your passport renewed within the officially promised period of time. Australia is new to me. I don’t doubt that its gifts and its flaws will reveal themselves with more time spent here.

I’m running away from home, yes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Like every emigrant, I’m running toward something else.