Ciara Kenny

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

Emigration: the parents’ experience

Emigrating is tough for those that leave, but it can be heartbreak for the parents and family who stay in Ireland, writes Ciara Kenny in The Irish Times today.

Fri, May 11, 2012, 09:06


Emigrating is tough for those that leave, but it can be heartbreak for the parents and family who stay in Ireland, writes CIARA KENNY 

The Mastersons at Fitzroy Falls, from left: Alan, his girlfriend Brooke Lipscombe, Paul, Lynda, Laura, Gary and his girlfriend Jenna Wright.

TO KEEP THEIR dread of flying at bay as they hurtled down the runway at Dublin airport, Lynda and Paul Masterson focused their thoughts on their three twenty-something children, who were waiting for them with anticipation 24 hours away in Sydney. A mutual phobia had prevented the couple from ever flying together, but after 28 years of marriage and with two sons and a daughter living on the other side of the world, the time had finally come to conquer their fears.

“We had worried so much beforehand, but the flight itself was fine,” says Lynda. “The hostesses came around all the time with drinks and food to eat, and I sat by the window with my notebook jotting down the names of all the countries we were passing over on the way. We were too excited really. It had been years since we were all together as a family, and it was very emotional when we arrived.”

The couple spent three weeks over Easter exploring the east coast around Sydney, taking in the Opera House, Fitzroy Falls, Kangaroo Valley and Jervis Bay, but the highlight was simply spending time with their three kids, Laura (20), Gary (23) and Alan (26), and their sons’ partners, Jenna and Brooke, who all, for the time being, call Australia home.

“None of them made it back to Ireland last Christmas, it was the first time we were without all three of them, which was terribly hard,” Lynda says. “Going to see them was something we just had to do. Skype is great, but it is not the same as being there with them in their day-to-day lives. I would happily stay and just do their housework for them, and make them cups of tea.”

Pat O’Neill, a business consultant from Limerick, saw the impact emigration was having on parents while working as a regional supervisor for the census in the Clare area last year. With one son living in Berlin and another planning a move to the US, O’Neill understood what it felt like to have a child living far from home.

Pat O'Neill's sons Byron (20) and Warren (27).

“While there is a great focus now on those young people who are leaving, the challenges faced by the parents, the ones who are left behind, are not being addressed,” O’Neill says. “Mothers and fathers can experience such a profound sense of loss when their child moves away, but often, they are not given the opportunity to express that.”

To address this want, O’Neill set up a group for parents in Limerick who are dealing with physical and emotional separation from their emigrant children and grandchildren. He shies away from the “support group” label, preferring instead to refer to it as a “social network”, where parents can share their stories, experiences and concerns, and discuss how to use new technologies such as Skype to keep in touch with their kids.

“The young people who are going abroad these days are very effective networkers,” he says. “They have GAA clubs and Irish societies where they can get to know people in the same situation as themselves, or through internet sites like Facebook. Parents aren’t as well connected in that way.”

The group has met just once so far, but O’Neill is hoping that more parents will come forward and open up about their experiences.

Trish Murphy, a psychotherapist and spokeswoman for the Family Therapy Association of Ireland, believes many parents are reluctant to admit to the heartache they are feeling because they think they have to stay positive for the sake of their children, which can have detrimental consequences for their own wellbeing. “Children protect their parents by not telling them how lonely they are abroad, and the parents protect their children by not telling them how lonely they are, and everyone is hurting, sometimes silently and sometimes alone,” she says.

“This can build up into a sense of frustration and sometimes anger, where they can feel that their children are abandoning them or abandoning the country. It is an old cliche, but it is so important to keep talking about it. When emotions are expressed, they can be acknowledged and then let go as opposed to suffering in silence or letting it out as anger at others. It is because we love so fiercely that we suffer such pain of loss, and we should not let people go without letting them know of this love.”

Missing major events in their children’s lives, such as birthdays, engagements, or the birth of a grandchild, can be especially hard, she says. “Skype is fantastic, where people can actually see their grandchildren on screen, and be told about their new tooth or their first day at school. But sometimes, that can heighten the loss, by making people even more aware that they are not there.”

Janet and Eugene Bennis reunited at Dublin airport with their granddaughter Saoirse and daughters Jennifer and Claire.

Janet Bennis, a Liverpudlian mother of four living in Limerick, is acutely aware of all the events she has missed out on already in the life of her 21-month-old granddaughter Saoirse, who was born to her daughter Jennifer (28) and her Australian husband Robert in Brisbane.

Saoirse was four weeks old before Janet made it over to Australia to see her, and her husband Eugene had to get to know his baby granddaughter over Skype until he first met her at eight months old.

“It is heartbreaking. I call them every day on Skype, and if we didn’t have that, our granddaughter wouldn’t know us. I don’t know what I would do without it,” she says.

Jennifer and Saoirse arrived back in Ireland for a five-week visit last weekend, and during their stay, Janet and Eugene are planning to catch up on all the events they have missed out on with their granddaughter in the year since they have seen her.

“We’re going to have a Christmas dinner with presents and Christmas crackers, and we have Halloween costumes and Easter eggs for the Easter Bunny. We’ll have a different theme for every week they are here. It is not about what Saoirse has missed, because she has all of these things in Australia, but it is about what we have missed out on not having her here.”

Their eldest son Eoin (27) is also living in Australia, and expecting a baby with his partner in October. Their daughter Claire (23) plans to leave Ireland for the US this summer, and their youngest son Cian (22) is thinking of heading to Australia next year, too.

“As hard as it is, I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Janet. “Eoin came home for a two-month visit a while back but went back to Australia early because everything was so miserable here. His friends were all unemployed and didn’t have any money to do anything. There are no prospects here for young people of that age. Their happiness is the most important thing, and that’s what gets us through.”

Parents who are interested in joining the social network in Limerick can email

Barbara Scully: ‘We fell under the same spell that no doubt captured her’

Barbara Scully and her daughters (from left) Carla, Róisín and Mia eating in the garden at Carla's house in Perth, Australia in April.

LAST JUNE, my 25-year-old daughter took her freedom in both hands and, along with her boyfriend, applied for a one-year working holiday visa for Australia and booked a one-way flight to Perth. “I am just travelling for a year Mom, that’s all,” she said. But I know my girl, and I could see right through her gentle reassurance.

As I celebrated my 50th birthday in January, word came through that they had secured sponsorship. Their next four years would be spent living and working in Perth which, did you know, is the most isolated city in the world? Of course I miss her, like thousands of other mammies all over this country who are missing their emigrant children. But now I was also experiencing a deep need to see for myself this new life she was creating so very far away from me.

It’s a long journey, but the excitement of seeing her again cut through any jet lag we might have felt as we spent that first evening in her house.

A barbecue was prepared with minimum fuss and we munched and chatted and laughed into the early hours.

I watched my daughter as she moved around her home, preparing salad and making sure we were all well fed and watered. She glowed – not just with the sun’s kisses on her skin but with a new-found confidence. She was relaxed and clearly happy; but more than that, she was really living. She has a good job with nice Australian colleagues and a wide circle of ex-pat friends who seem to care and look out for each other.

Days melded together as we explored this beautiful city. Perth is a wonderful mix of old colonial style buildings and modern confident architecture. The famous laid-back Aussie lifestyle was evident everywhere. We found ourselves immersed in a society where spending time together as families and friends is of great importance.

We had the holiday of our lives. We fell under the same spell that has no doubt captured her. After two weeks we had to pack our bags and fly back northwards to this little misty, damp, economically and psychologically depressed green island on the edge of the North Atlantic.

We all looked a whole lot better than when we had flown out. Tanned and relaxed and deeply grateful to have been able to make the trip and see her life up close.

But along with that was a dull ache, knowing that for himself and myself, those heady days when freedom allowed you to grab at fantastic opportunities like trying out a new life in the sun were no longer possible.

Philip Lynch: ‘I found my mother in an upstairs bedroom, already well past the point of consolation’

Philip Lynch in Tasmania.

WE GREW UP poor on a small farm in rural Westmeath, and as soon as most of my brothers and sisters were old enough, we were out the door.

By the end of the 1980s five of us were gone.

On the June morning I left, I found my mother in an upstairs bedroom.

She was already well past the point of consolation. Ever impatient, the old man was tooting the car horn, so I stumbled away from her mumbling my goodbye.

Whatever thoughts the old man had about me going, he kept to himself. As we drove to the station that morning, he’d taken in what was happening in the fields, commenting on who’d mowed their meadows and who’d cut silage.

He’d even brought a trailer load of wool to sell to a merchant in Mullingar.

This added practicality of the trip helped, I think, to obscure the poignancy of my leaving; as if his business in town was counterbalancing the business of sending me on my way.

On the platform, at the last minute, we shook hands as the diesel squealed to a stop. Telling me to “mind yourself”, he pressed folded pound notes into my hand and some holy medals that he’d pulled out of his breast pocket. I boarded the train, the first stage of the journey to Melbourne, without a backward glance.

The surprise and shock of seeing my mother so upset that morning stayed with me for a long time. I tried to make amends by writing regularly.

I figured that being just another one to go wouldn’t be such a big deal – that it would be something my mother was growing used to. No doubt she viewed things differently.

Thirty years later, and three months apart, my parents would be buried during one of the coldest winters on record. Although almost a decade younger, my mother went first. My father would follow.

Living on the other side of the world, I wasn’t around to see them grow old, or to witness their decline.

So my enduring memories of them are as middle-aged parents, when he could cut turf, shear sheep, mow meadows, repair machinery and manage the farm with aplomb, when she made raising 10 kids look easy.

We arrived back from London, New York and Melbourne to take turns sitting in a silent vigil by their open coffins in the freezing parlour. For me, it all felt too little, too late but I kept my thoughts to myself. We sat in the front pew at their funeral Masses and carried their coffins to their final resting place. Afterwards, we adjourned to the hotel in town for soup and sandwiches and small talk; and within a few days, those of us who had to go, left again.

For those of us who left, as we reached our adulthood, there was no opportunity to form any sort of meaningful relationship with either of them. Instead, the chief form of correspondence over the decades remained the aerogram; that wafer-thin pre-stamped paper with its three folds and little over an A4 size on which to cram titbits.

My mother wrote to me consistently, diligently, and predictably. Over the years her handwriting never altered – neat flowing writing sloping a little forward. Brief sentences, typically no longer than eight simple words; like the way she spoke. I imagine her in the evening sitting at the kitchen table, pen in her hand. Jotting down those carefully crafted neutral sentences and then folding the aerogram, and the next morning cycling down the mile to the post office to slip the wafer thin letter into the letter box.

I still have all her aerograms; they don’t say much but they’re all that’s left.

This article appears in the print edition of The Irish Times today.