Ciara Kenny

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

‘I feel like Canada’s oldest backpacker’

Now in our 60s, having closed our construction business, my husband and I have left our home in Galway to move to Canada, says Eileen Burke.

Fri, May 25, 2012, 08:55


Now in our 60s, having closed our construction business, my husband and I have left our home in Galway to move to Canada, says Eileen Burke.

Eileen and Seamus Burke have emigrated in their 60s in search of work. The couple are living in a room in a house in Vancouver, where they share a livingroom and kitchen with four Irish people in their 20s

I WAS 60 last week and my husband Seamus is almost 61, and at this stage of our lives, the notion of emigrating seems ridiculous. We should be coming out to Canada on our holidays, but instead we have left our home in Galway and our three children and six grandchildren to look for work abroad for the third time in our lives.

In search of an adventure, I first left Ireland for Toronto in 1973, with Seamus following a few months later. We were married in 1975 and settled in Edmonton in Alberta, where our first child, a daughter, was born.

Life was great in Canada in the 70s, but Ireland was where we wanted to raise our family, so in 1978, we decided to move back.

We built our own house in Oranmore in Galway, worked hard, and had two more children by the time the 1980s recession began to bite.

There was work around at that time, but it was very difficult to earn enough to get by. Seamus, who is a carpenter, went to Toronto to work for six months in 1984 to try to keep us going at home. He got a good job and we reluctantly made the decision to bring the family to Canada the following year.

It was a massive upheaval for the children, who were then aged eight, seven and four. We stayed for another five years before returning home to Ireland, thinking this would be our permanent address for the rest of our lives.

My husband and I set up our own construction business in Galway in 1990.

It was a small operation at first, doing renovations and building one-off houses, but as business picked up we took on bigger jobs. At one stage we had a staff of 15, including our two sons.

Business suddenly ground to a halt in 2008. We had no work of any substance on the horizon and had failed to sell two of the houses we had built. We owed money to the Revenue, suppliers and subcontractors, and had to remortgage our house.

We thought it was just a blip in the industry and things would pick up again, but we were wrong. Eventually we came to the decision to close the business, which was heartbreaking after working so hard for nearly 20 years.

Being unemployed was the worst feeling in the whole world. We have limped along for the past three years, with Seamus getting a couple of months work here and there but I haven’t worked at all. Seamus talked about going to Dubai on his own. He is a worker at heart and couldn’t bear being idle.

I kept saying I wouldn’t move anywhere else but Canada. Our age would be against us if we wanted to emigrate anywhere else in the world but we both have Canadian citizenship so it was the obvious choice.

We heard about the Working Abroad Expo in the RDS in March, and drove up to Dublin to join the queues of young people and families waiting outside.

A woman from the Construction Industry Federation of Vancouver told us that because we had Canadian citizenship, all we had to do was get on a plane, that there was plenty of work out there for us.

We found ourselves in Vancouver just six weeks later. It all happened very fast in the end. We said to each other that if we kept dithering we would be in the same situation or worse this time next year.

We feel like the oldest backpackers in Canada. We intended to stay in a hotel when we arrived, but managed to find a room in the basement of a house, owned by a lovely Cork lady, which shares a living room and kitchen with four young Irish kids in their 20s. The Irish community here has been so welcoming and helpful.

Seamus has found a temporary framing job in construction already. The first couple of days were hard, as it is very physical work, but he is back into the swing of it now and he is happy. I have worked in many different roles in my life, tourism, administration, teaching English and interior design; I’ve even worked as a cleaner. I don’t care what the job is as long as it pays. I have applied to a few agencies for temporary work but would prefer to get our accommodation sorted before I take on a full-time position.

I don’t ever look at my age as an impediment. We are both very healthy and physically fit, which is our wealth. Our friends at home thought we were daft, but by the time we left, I think they recognised that we had made the right decision, considering the circumstances.

We are very close to our children and our grandchildren, and being away from them is definitely the hardest part, but communicating with home is so much easier now than it was when we came out here in the 1970s and 1980s. Callcards are cheap, and we’re hoping to get ourselves set up on Skype soon, too.

We were constantly worried at home, feeling like there was no way out. That worry has lifted now, and we are determined to make the most of our time here in Canada.

We chose Vancouver this time as the climate is very similar to Ireland, with no extremes of heat and cold as was the case in Toronto and Edmonton. It is a beautiful city, and we will certainly enjoy all it has to give while we are here. Hopefully it won’t be forever and it will be an experience that we can learn from. Things will work out for us in the end.

– In conversation with Ciara Kenny

This article appears in the Life & Culture section of The Irish Times today.