Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

I used the Church, the GAA and the web to meet people

In our continued weekly series of emigrant tales, Ann Cahalan speaks about moving to Qatar with her husband and two small children, and the challenges of making friends while maintaining links with home

Fri, Nov 4, 2011, 08:52


Ann Cahalan with her husband Mike, son Aran and daughter Catríona, 'waiting for the sea turtles to come ashore from the Persian Gulf'.

In our continued weekly series of emigrant tales, Ann Cahalan speaks about moving to Qatar with her husband and two small children, and the challenges of making friends while maintaining links with home

WHEN I flew to London in 1990 to take up a graduate job at a US corporation along with 30 other newly-minted, multinational know-it-alls, I never considered myself as an emigrant. It was like being at college again but with exciting things to do, new people to meet and money in my pocket. I liked living abroad so much that it took me more than a decade to come home.

Now, 20 years later, I find myself emigrating again, this time to a Middle Eastern Emirate, having picked up a partner, two children and giant-sized mortgage during a 10-year sojourn in the land of my birth. This is emigration proper.

My husband Mike was working as an engineer on the construction of Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport. In the months leading up to its completion, it was clear that there wouldn’t be any other work for him in Ireland, so we began to look overseas.

Financially, it didn’t make sense for us to wait around at home for a job to come up. We had bought our house in Bray in 2006, at the height of the property boom, and our mortgage was huge. We knew the economy was doing well in Qatar and there was a lot of construction going on, and it is relatively liberal for the Middle East. So we rented out the house and moved here to Doha last September with Catríona (who is now 4) and Aran (2).

At first, trying to meet real people – rather than relying on conversations over the internet with friends and family back home – was a challenge.

Religion is not central to our family life, but I sought out the Catholic Church here anyway, only to be disappointed to find it overwhelmingly dominated by Filipino worshippers; the Mass was even in Tagalog.

Next, I tried the local GAA club, which operates out of the rugby grounds in Doha. Even though I couldn’t tell you who won the All-Ireland, there was a chap on the plane on the way over who said something about GAA, and I thought they might have a social group where we could meet a few fellow Irish. They have five-aside tournaments for adults and arrange events, but there’s nothing organised for children. I was unreasonably disappointed, having had visions of kids in Cúl Camps in the much-promised better weather.

My online networking efforts have been more of a success. The Qatar Irish Society organises a playgroup once a week, and we go along and have a chat every now and then. I have also been lucky to make contact with a huge range of women of all ages and nationalities through a website called Doha Mums. The group is run by volunteers, and it has been an excellent way for me to meet new people and find out about Qatar.

With all the modern technologies available to us, we don’t feel cut off from Ireland in any way. We have internet radios here that pick up RTÉ, and we can read the Irish papers online. My son hears the Angelus bell on Irish radio and asks: “Is that the call to prayer?”

We keep up with what is happening at home, but if you are not there, you don’t feel as close to it. The presidential election passed me by.

The Al Jazeera coverage is really interesting, and very different to Irish radio. The scope is much broader, much more international – they have news stories from Ivory Coast, Libya, Liberia and Syria – areas of the world that I wouldn’t have known very much about before. Ireland got a lot of coverage this time last year because of the arrival of the IMF, and it was interesting to listen to what was going on at home from an outsider’s perspective.

The children have adapted as if they were always here. In their world, it is perfectly normal to see Nana and Grandad on Skype, and despite a variable signal and intermittent picture, they take it for granted that Nana can see the new haircut and the bump on the finger.

I wonder, for maintaining the Irish connection for the infants, should I get Dora DVDs dubbed as Gaeilge from the TG4 website? It may be just the thing for the backseat DVD player in my gas-guzzling 4×4. I bought it so I could hold my own on the roundabouts here on the way to the nursery where I work, which has 16 different nationalities in a class of 16.

Apart from bacon and sausages, you can find anything you want here in Qatar if you are willing to pay for it, so we don’t miss the material items. Of course the biggest thing we all miss is having friends and family close by. Skype and Gmail are wonderful inventions, but there are days when things aren’t going so well here, or things aren’t going so well in Ireland, and the distance between us and our family and friends becomes more real.

WE DON’T ANTICIPATE spending a lifetime out here, we hope it will only be a few years. How long we stay will be determined by the construction industry in Ireland, and for the moment, there are more people asking us about leaving Ireland to come to the Middle East than there are opportunities at home. The amount of construction going on here is unbelieveable, it is an engineers’ and architects’ dream. There are towers being built in shapes I’ve never seen before, and cost doesn’t seem to be a consideration. There are so many cranes and diggers that my Bob the Builder- obsessed children are in fantasy land.

We have an income here, which is the most important thing, especially as the daily news from Ireland gets worse and the EU bid to resolve the debt crisis slides into disarray. When the time is right to go home we will, but for now, we are making what we can of our time here, rather than wishing it was somewhere else.

In conversation with CIARA KENNY