Ciara Kenny

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

Saying au revoir but not goodbye

Gary Finnegan left Ireland for Belgium with his family in 2007, intending the move to be short-term. But after almost five years abroad, have they passed the point of no return?

Mon, Jan 30, 2012, 08:38


Gary Finnegan left Ireland for Belgium with his family in 2007, intending the move to be short-term. But after almost five years abroad, have they passed the point of no return?

“Say ‘bye bye’ to Nana and Granda.”
Au revoir!

The airport scene has evolved in the years since we left Ireland. Once it was parents waving off their travel-bugged twenty-somethings on a foreign adventure, presuming they would return when they ran out of money or exhausted the wanderlust.

Then our own daughter arrived and changed things. Now, as her grandparents wave her off on her return flight to Belgium – and she bids them adieu in a melange of English and French – it saddens me that Ireland is not her home, and it never has been.

“Safe home, see you on Skype,” we all say, before we’re separated by the airport security gates at Terminal 2. It’s a familiar ritual, tedious and cruel.

They say the past is a different country. When we left Ireland in the summer of 2007 there was full employment, the bank guarantee was more than a year away, the only people who had heard of sovereign bonds worked in financial services, and the IMF was a harsh saviour of third-world countries. They just didn’t do western Europe.

Of course, I had Irish friends who lived abroad. Back then it was a lifestyle choice. Live in London, make a few quid; do a course in Berlin, improve your German; go backpacking around Thailand, put it all down to experience. It didn’t seem like a luxury – but it was.

Travelling was a rite of passage taken in the interest of self-improvement and on the presumption that we could return when we felt like it and pick up a job.

This, we reckoned, was how things would be. Progress was a one-way street that had taken us to an era of cheap travel, career choices and ever-rising quality of life. Economies can stall and technological leaps forward might come only in bursts but there was no reverse. We were wrong.

Accidental emigrants

It took a few months to accept it, but in hindsight, the door slammed shut when the previous government promised to honour the debts of Irish banks. If you were living or working abroad back then you were locked out.

We are not the school-leavers and new graduates in their early 20s who walked out the door of school or college and took a sharp turn towards the airport in search of work overseas.

We are the accidental emigrants in their late 20s and early 30s who were blissfully ignorant of how temporary their freedom was – until it evaporated.

Now we catch up with friends in the US or with family in Australia via Skype. I ‘like’ photos of my friends’ new-born babies on Facebook and discuss football results by email with a New Zealand correspondent who once lived 90 seconds from my door.

We like to think this is a temporary phase but the truth is that any sense of control over what happens next is at least partly an illusion.

The long road home

“No longer shall our children, like our cattle, be brought up for export.”

That old line from De Valera features in the intro to The Week In Politics (which I confess to watching online – thank you RTE Player). I used to presume that it was something from the archives, a relic of a bygone era which had been defeated.

When we went home for Christmas in 2008, Ireland had been in recession for most of the year and the threat of local and international financial catastrophe made for grim reading from abroad.

Yet we arrived to find few people had lost their jobs or changed their spending habits. Most were still optimistic about the future and almost nobody was facing enforced emigration.

This year was different. Three years of bad news have taken a toll and emigration is commonplace once again: planeloads of former classmates and colleagues are packing their bags for what they hope will be a short-term migration.

“We’ll be back when the economy picks up.” We’ve been saying it for years, all the while becoming more integrated in our adopted home.

One of the things long-time emigrants often say is that when you’ve been away for somewhere between three and five years you cross the point of no return.

Without realising it, you become immersed in local networks – school, work, sports – and your ‘foreign-born’ children feel at home in a place you always thought was a temporary stop. This makes charting a course back to the Old Country increasingly difficult.

Our 18-month-old girl only has a dozen words in total but a good chunk of these are not English. People say I should be happy about her linguistic dexterity but for me it equally represents the growing risk of permanent exile.