Ciara Kenny

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

An elder emigrant

Leaving a life behind in Ireland is especially difficult for older people, writes Mary Halpin, who struggled to make ends meet for two years before she made the decision to move to England in search of work.

Mon, Apr 16, 2012, 10:20


Leaving a life behind in Ireland is especially difficult for older people, writes Mary Halpin, who struggled to make ends meet for two years before she made the decision to move to England in search of work.

Mary Halpin

Generation Emigration brings to mind young people in their twenties and thirties, but some of us are much, much older. There are those men and women who work abroad during the week, returning home to their families at weekends and then there are people like me – part of the ‘squeezed middle’ now squeezed, alas, out of the country entirely.

I’m fifty-nine and until two years ago I earned my crust as a writer. A marital separation several years back meant that I had to ensure a ‘steady’ income in order to rear my two children. For me, this meant writing primarily for television. Many writers regard Irish television as a training ground for work in the larger and more lucrative British market, but I was unable to compete there because I couldn’t leave my two children ‘home alone’.

I did write some stage plays in this period, but writing for theatre is risky, at best. You can spend the best part of a year labouring over a piece that, assuming it is produced – a big assumption – may never make a financial return. For me this simply wasn’t an option and having joined the Dublin soap Fair City in year two, I was happy to stick with it. I loved the work and it offered me a modicum of security when I most needed it. The people who worked on it were mostly talented and enthusiastic individuals who strove to lift the show from its shaky beginnings to the success it later became.

However, soap is generally seen as a young person’s game and from 2008 the number of commissions I received began to reduce, drastically. Nothing was ever said to me directly about the quality or otherwise of my work; but the message was there in the silence. In England, it is common for writers to move around from one programme to another, but in England there is a proper drama market and many more openings for writers than in Ireland. If a script writer isn’t working for RTE in Ireland, they’re almost certainly not working. For two years I hung on, in some sort of denial about my declining fortunes, but eventually I had to accept that my time on the show was probably over.

My daughter was already married and living in the U.S., but my son had only completed a year and a half at college. Without work, it was difficult to see how I would pay the bills. Since the writing had appeared on the Fair City wall, I had begun applying for jobs outside the industry. I had completed a legal secretarial diploma just as the economy crashed, but despite the ‘distinction’ I got for it and the fact that I can type at a fair rate of knots, I couldn’t even find the most lowly office work, let alone a position in the legal area. I hesitate to cry ageism, but I am quite sure that reading between the carefully crafted lines of my C.V. employers could tell I was not exactly in the first flush of youth and decided to opt for one of the many younger applicants from whom they could choose.

I had a small mortgage, but gas, electricity and even home insurance threatened to cripple me. Private health insurance would be out of the question. My son’s college education might have been ‘fee-free’ but it still cost money. In the past, he had worked part-time in a department store, a leisure centre and in other jobs, but in the new harsher environment, he could no longer find these traditional student mainstays. As a self-employed person, I could not claim jobseeker’s benefit but over the years I did benefit from the Artists’ Tax Exemption so I could hardly complain about that.

If I had a euro for every time a friend kindly advised me to ‘write something’ in order to make money, my financial predicament would have been well and truly solved. I did try to write, but found that the sheer terror of the economic chasm facing me produced my first ever case of writer’s block. My confidence as a writer had been shattered and I felt close to breakdown. A wonderful friend contracted me to do some online research for her (writers tend to be good at research) and for a year I had also supplemented my writing income with a home-share tenant, a lovely Polish woman who became like one of the family, but now she was returning to Poland to be married. Like actors, writers must wait to be commissioned, but I hadn’t heard a word from Fair City in almost three months and funds were running low. There is nothing more terrifying than watching one’s savings dwindle to a pittance while waiting for the phone to ring.

I had one other asset though, a tiny apartment I’d bought in England a few years earlier with a small inheritance I’d received. At that time, I couldn’t have bought anything in Ireland for the price. With my son’s agreement, I decided to make the jump. I would rent out our home and try my luck in England while my son would move in with college pals for the remainder of his course. We told each other that it was a simple reversal of the usual situation in which a student goes away to study.

It was a heart-wrenching job clearing out our home of twenty-two years to prepare for emigration; a child’s first pair of shoes at the back of a cupboard or a photo full of smiling faces from happier times could reduce me to tears. One of my two cats sickened and died, a further small grief in what seemed like an ocean of sadness.

In April 2010 I arrived here in England with my remaining cat and soon afterwards my house was successfully let. I consider myself luckier than many people my age who are in similar circumstances. I found an exit, while many of them will not. Here in England, I have read articles about how this ‘recession’ (it qualifies as a depression, in my opinion) has hit the older generation hard. There must be many Irish people like myself, but we don’t seem to hear about them. I know of several divorced women who are struggling to make ends meet and I have heard, anecdotally, horror stories of divorced men forced to live in cars or sheds, having lost their jobs. Perhaps divorce is a luxury we can only afford when times are good?

I have found several small temporary jobs here and my living costs are a great deal less than they would be in Ireland. My son recently moved to England too, though his work will almost certainly take him farther afield in the near future. I recently sold my flat and have invested the proceeds in the part ownership of a house. I don’t yearn for Ireland as a country, but the pain of absence I feel for my grand-nieces and nephews is almost physical. I also miss my wonderful friends who were of such support to me when things were looking truly grim. I tell myself that my absence is a temporary one, but as time goes on I am less certain about returning. I am angered by those commentators who suggest we were all responsible for the economic crash. Like many others, I spent my disposable income in paying off the greater part of my mortgage and educating my children only to see their futures squandered by the cronyism that seems to pervade almost every sector in Ireland.

I imagine that my contradictory feelings are familiar to other emigrants. In my homesick moments, I remind myself that my daughter left Ireland for the U.S. on graduation and has settled there, happily. But the emigration experience is somewhat different when one is older. You cannot recreate the dense web of friendships formed over so many years. I am dislocated, not quite here, not quite there. Like Willy Loman, I feel ‘temporary about myself’. I’m comforted by the knowledge that Ireland and England are an hour’s flying distance, yet with money still tight those trips happen less and less often. I desperately fear the gradual loosening of bonds and my possible seduction by my newly adopted home. I love the English countryside, its picturesque villages and towns and I relish the common courtesy and the sense of public spiritedness I find in the part of England in which I live. And yes, since arriving here, I have even begun to write again.