Ciara Kenny

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

Remembering where we came from but embracing where we are now

We should be embracing the opportunities that emigration offers us rather than wistfully yearning for the past in Ireland, writes Jonathan Drennan.

Sat, May 5, 2012, 10:28


We should be embracing the opportunities that emigration offers us rather than wistfully yearning for the past in Ireland, writes Jonathan Drennan.

Jonathan Drennan in London

‘Impermanence – anonymity – that’s what I’m looking for; a vast restless place that doesn’t give a damn about the past!” – Brian Friel, Philadelphia Here I Come

On any given night of the week in Clapham Junction, if you take a left past the jams, you will see a selection of Irish people gathered around the “Ethnic Food Section” in Asda who are seeking a small bit of Eire in a built up area of south west London.

This scene is replicated across the world. I have friends in Korea who will think nothing of getting their mothers to courier Barry’s Tea Bags or acquaintances in Sydney who will get a train across town just to get their hands on a few coveted packets of cheese and onion Tayto.

These are all perfectly harmless examples of people who want to experience a bit of home comfort in less familiar surroundings, but it leaves me wondering as Irish emigrants are we incapable of living in the present or are we caught in a cycle of languishing in a past that is holding us back?

I had a childhood that straddled the border. I was born in Belfast, but spent large amounts of my childhood in Dublin where my father is from. I then attended Trinity during the peak of the Celtic Tiger. I was incredibly happy. My intention then was to live in Dublin for a long time, perhaps forever.

I was spending a summer teaching English in Calcutta with fellow Irish students when news of recession broke online. I didn’t think too much of it, and went to start my master’s degree at Dublin City University with optimism for the future.

Even at the best of times, spending time on the borders of Ballymun in the middle of winter could never be described as an uplifting experience, but it was made more grim by the relentless gloom that pervaded the campus. The negativity was unavoidable. A lecturer talking about our job prospects described us as “the marines at Iwo Jima, your plight is looking increasingly hopeless.”

Throughout that year, I made a pledge, get out of Ireland, and find new opportunities. The country was basking in its misery and it was offering little to graduates. I refused to stay in a country where I wasn’t needed. There were admirable stories of entrepreneurs building up businesses showing amazing resolve, fighting against the increasing tide of unemployment which need to be commended. But my future wasn’t in business.

I was not alone in the anger I felt that year. We all felt let down. The Ireland that entered the recession was unrecognisable to the one we had enjoyed a few months previously. People had carefully built up savings that were suddenly decimated by fecklessness of others. Many decided to cross the sea in search of work and new opportunities that were now impossible in the land of their birth.

I was lucky. I got a job with a great firm in London, where I have been very happy for the last two years. London seems to have become an extended Grafton Street where you are constantly bumping into friends and acquaintances. Everybody’s story is different, but there remains a number who pine for home in a way I am unable to understand.

This article is not addressed at people who have had to leave children or their wives or husbands behind. It is addressed at young people like myself, who find themselves in what should be the most exciting times of their lives abroad. Yet when we should be enjoying what only a city like London can offer, we sometimes find ourselves hopelessly reminiscing about times that never were, or polishing memories until they are golden.

Why do we let ourselves down in this way? Many friends of mine who have settled in incredible new countries frequently neglect the positives of their new surroundings, and create an imagined pastoral utopia that wouldn’t look out of place with the Ireland that De Valera dreamed of once. The land we left behind did not have villages joyous with the sounds of industry. It had the lingering recriminating silence of a country caught in a vortex of self-doubt.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating elements of our Irish culture abroad. If I criticised this, I would be guilty of incredible hypocrisy. The GAA are one small example of the success of retaining a sense of Irishness abroad. However, a balance needs to be struck. By all means, retain the Irish culture that we should proud of, but equally find time to remember how lucky you are to be enjoying so many new experiences.

In most cases, there was a concrete reason you left Ireland, and in most cases it won’t be positive. I enjoy returning home to Ireland to visit, but at this stage that’s all it is, a visit. As young Irish people we have a responsibility to embrace the opportunities we have been given, and stop constantly looking back wistfully at a past that is impacting on our ability to live in the present.