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‘I’ve lived overseas, had a great time and it changed me - but now it’s time to come home’

‘Coming home isn’t the end of everything from that time in my life abroad, it’s just something new’

After 12 years living in Canada, returning home to live in Ireland again was a “bittersweet experience” for Robert O’Brien.

After graduating from college in Dublin, O’Brien went on a course to learn how to breathe and control his speech, having grown up with a stutter. “I’m a covert stutterer. I hide it pretty well, but it was a huge issue going through school and university. When I finished that course, it led me to go back to school again to Ballyfermot college for a diploma in television presentation and performance,” he explains.

That led O’Brien to take acting classes and “getting bitten by the acting bug. I’d some friends who went overseas, and it felt like the done thing to go away to find yourself.

“I’m a huge science fiction fan, and I wanted to be on science fiction shows,” he says, adding that in Vancouver at the time, Stargate and Battlestar Galactica were being filmed, and that made it seem like the best city to move to. “I thought, if I don’t go now, I’ll never go.”

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So at the age of 32, O’Brien packed his bags and moved to Canada. “Life away was fun and the first three years were very exciting. I came out as gay in acting school in a horribly cliched way,” O’Brien jokes, but ultimately, “because of the whole stutter, I was never able to get past the acting school stage in terms of making it a career.

“I ended up working as an English teacher, and I wrote a book about being a stuttering homosexual. I certainly formed a close circle of friends over in Vancouver, and coming out over there was a big thing because I did it when gay marriage wasn’t legal here. I had two short-term relationships in Vancouver after that,” O’Brien says of his time there.

One of the greatest things about living there was, they’re very open to anything or anyone. I grew up here when things were different, it’s easier here now to be gay

O’Brien made a life for himself in Canada, and even got Canadian citizenship, but always found himself “sitting on the fence” about coming home to Ireland, especially in latter years. “It was funny, people overseas are lovely, honest, kind people, but there was a sort of lacking of a bit of the humour of Irish people. People are a bit taken aback by Irish humour. You’re like, ‘No, I’m just having fun and ripping the piss,’ and they’re like, ‘You’re pissing where’?” O’Brien laughs. “You miss those things, and the food, the people.”

But there was a fear of shame, or a fear of appearing as though he had “failed” in some way, if he returned to Dublin. “After packing up bags and making a song and dance to go away and for acting not to happen for me, I did feel a bit of shame. I felt I couldn’t come home if I didn’t actually achieve something. I didn’t want to come home here without citizenship either, because I felt, at the very least, if people asked what I did, I could say I got citizenship.”

Ultimately, what pushed O’Brien to move home was the death of his father last December. “Dad passing away felt like a sign to go home and take that leap of faith. Coming home after 12 years overseas is a pretty weird feeling. Home doesn’t feel like home. Things are the same, but everyone’s life has moved on. I sort of felt like I didn’t have any home any more.”

But it felt like the right time to come back, to be with family, and to “start again” in Dublin. “I’ve realised there isn’t anything wrong about saying I’ve lived overseas, had a great time and it changed me – but now it’s time to come home.”

There were “pros and cons” to living in Vancouver. The city was “a melting pot, and everything felt big and like there were lots of possibilities”.

“One of the greatest things about living there was, they’re very open to anything or anyone. I grew up here when things were different, it’s gotten easier here now to be gay – but when I moved, going to somewhere that had a gay village was amazing. It was just nice to feel like I fit in a certain sitting and people were accepting,” O’Brien recalls.

“Climate- and nature-wise it is stunning there too. The parks, the cycle trails, the dog paths are amazing,” he says.

But the cost of living was high in Canada, and finding places to rent or buy has only become more difficult. “I’d say it’s similar here, but when I came home, I moved back into mum’s house. I’ve been here for four months now and it gives me time to look at all my options. It is odd though – being back home at your mum’s at 46 and having to start all over again.

“It’s been a bit of a challenge. I kind of sensed even prior to coming home that everyone has their own jobs, kids and lives now. I’ll see older friends and family for coffee and things like that, but I knew it’d really be having to start again, which was the hardest part at my age.

Living overseas, I spoke to my father every single week. We probably became closer as I was living away, which is a funny thing

“But life has shown and taught me that change is a good thing. Even the city itself has changed. Walking around, there are certain parts that have been really built up and I find myself having to actually check online about places that are gone or changed hands.”

It’s still early days, as O’Brien only returned to Dublin in July, and he feels far from fully settled yet. “I said if I go home and it’s really bad, I still have dual citizenship and I have options. That was a safety net that helped me. Coming home isn’t the end of everything from that time in my life abroad, it’s just something new.

“Coming out later, I kind of felt like I had to hurry and do it faster because I was late to sort of everything. I’d have loved to have actually met someone by now and settled down. So I feared living overseas into my 60s.”

He says people have asked whether he left Ireland because of being gay, and whether he felt more able to return now because of cultural changes in Ireland. “But actually, living overseas, I spoke to my father every single week. We probably became closer as I was living away, which is a funny thing. If I hadn’t been away, I probably wouldn’t have gotten as close to him as I did. Even though he’s gone now and it really hurt and was a huge shock, I’m able to say there wasn’t anything left unsaid – and I feel at peace.

“He really did a great job as my dad, and I’ve learned to be at ease in my own skin a lot more. Living away taught me I don’t have to fix anything, and I can just be me.”

He’s not sure what his next steps will be in starting a new life in his home city, “whether it’s acting, or writing, or finding a job outside of that”, but he hopes to earn a living using those skills, to buy a house some day, and to meet a partner here in Ireland.

“I found over the years I’ve become a little more cynical about things. I swore after everything that faith is weak and I should take a safer path, but here I am, taking a leap of faith, and opening up to whatever happens next.”