Ciara Kenny

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

This time, emigration is a life sentence not a lifestyle choice

Claire Calvey and her family have left Ireland for the second time in four years. In 2008 they went in search of new experiences, but this time emigration feels like a life sentence rather than a lifestyle choice.

Claire's children in front of their new home in Perth

Mon, Apr 9, 2012, 01:00


Claire Calvey and her family have left Ireland for the second time in four years. In 2008 they went in search of new experiences, but this time emigration feels like a life sentence rather than a lifestyle choice, she writes.

Claire Calvey and her husband John in Australia

When we left Ireland for the United Arab Emirates in August 2008, we went willingly. Hungry to experience exotic climes and cultures, we had been actively searching for overseas opportunities for months. So when my husband John was offered the position of construction manager on a high-rise project in Abu Dhabi, we positively leapt at the chance. We had no great strategy beyond having an adventure for a couple of years – along with our four children — and hopefully putting away some cash.

Several weeks later, sitting in our airless 16th floor hotel room in Abu Dhabi, we watched with mounting horror as the CNN reporter dolorously announced that Ireland was officially in recession; the Celtic Tiger was lying dead in a ditch; the fat lady had already reached the chorus.

John had left a good job in Ireland and we told ourselves that if the UAE didn’t work out, we could always return home. But on that evening in September 2008, as the muezzin from the mosque across the road filled the sultry air with his mournful wailing, our future in Ireland dissolved with each passing lament.

I know we were lucky; John at least had a job and that first year in the UAE was fun. We rented a traditional Emirati villa in the city of Al Ain, close to the Omani border, and settled enthusiastically into our new lives.

Then the redundancies started. Over the months that followed, dozens of John’s work colleagues were terminated from their jobs — some only weeks after arriving — their UAE dream in tatters. Those who remained had their salaries slashed. His Saudi employers blamed global recession; but poor planning, crippling bureaucracy and an inability to think in straight lines is more accurate, since within weeks, a new batch of employees would arrive fresh off the plane, ignorant of what lay ahead.

Claire's children in front of their new home in Perth

We felt extremely vulnerable as rumours of further pay cuts and redundancies circulated persistently — like a heavy axe swinging over our heads — compounded by the fact that John was sometimes going unpaid for weeks, even months at a time. Finding another job was proving to be impossible, and a return to Ireland unthinkable. Quite simply, we were stuck.

By early 2011, as the Arab Spring reverberated throughout parts of the Middle East and North Africa (there were even some rumblings in the largely docile UAE, but these were quickly muffled), I had had enough. I returned home with my — by now — five children (baby number five was born in Dubai in 2010), unsure of what to do next.

John opted to stay behind to sweat it out in the sandpit, unwilling to leave his job until he had something else in place.

Those first couple of months back in Ireland were bittersweet. Relieved to be home, I was nevertheless anxious for John’s well-being since at this point he hadn’t been paid in three months and was relying on the charity of friends. When a well-meaning family member pressed the number of the community welfare officer into my hand, I wept fearful tears – this is the moment my life disintegrates I told myself. I threw the number in the bin: ‘the miserable’, as Shakespeare put it, ‘have no other medicine but only hope‘.

And hope was vindicated — hundreds of CVs later — one glorious day last July when John was offered a job in Western Australia. He flew home immediately and we did our best to pretend we didn’t mind leaving southern Galway — with its pretty lanes and quaintly over-priced farmers markets — for a second time. Because this time – and you might want to write this down Mr Noonan — it didn’t feel like a lifestyle choice, but a life sentence.

With our children by now settled in school, it was with heavy hearts and several tears that we uprooted them again in January of this year, and boarded a flight bound for Australia.

We’re here now, and life is good. We’ve chosen to live up in the Perth hills, among the woodlands and wineries, and I try my best not to think about the spiders.

The children are in a wonderful little school, my husband is content in his work — dignity restored, and I’m just relieved that we have a regular income and a means of keeping up our mortgage payments back home.

Living costs here are shocking; turns out ‘rip-off Ireland’ wasn’t so bad after all. And from next month John will be working on a FIFO basis, meaning he will be flying to a remote part of northern Australia, working for 15 solid days, then flying back for six days off. It’s not ideal, but shock, he actually gets paid!

We don’t know what the future holds, but sanity demands we cling to the belief that a return to Ireland will one day be possible. We’re grateful to be here at present and embrace the opportunities afforded, but we do feel aggrieved that the greed and incompetence of others may well have denied us a future in our homeland.

Claire Calvey is a freelance writer. She tweets at @arabiaclaire.