Ciara Kenny

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

Emigration breaks relationships

Emigrants deserve decent services, objective information and recognition, writes Bobby Gilmore of the Migrant Rights Centre.

Thu, May 31, 2012, 01:00



In school in the 1950s, our teacher pondered emigration, seeing it as a failure of the Ireland he belonged to. It was as present as the rain in the area in which I grew up. Every family had someone who was an emigrant or would be an emigrant. They were resigned to a future that would see the past repeated.

I didn’t understand his anguish about emigration. The returning emigrants that I knew were home on holidays, well groomed and dressed and with money in their pockets. I questioned the anguish about emigration and the traumatic, grief-laden departures.

In October 1956 I was at Galway railway station waiting for the Dublin train that would take me back to college after playing a rugby match. The station master announced that the train was bound for Dun Laoghaire and the mail boat to Holyhead. As people made their way into the station, my attention was drawn to a group in front of me, a man, woman and three children. The man carried a small suitcase. They stood close together and carried on a conversation that was for themselves only. The children were huddled between both parents, giving the impression of a clutch of chickens.

Eventually, the station master announced that those with tickets should board the train. The scene changed. The wife picked up the suitcase and handed it to her husband. In doing so she was asserting her new role as both father and mother. He took it and left it at his feet. She beckoned the children to give their father a hug, which they did and then she did the same. She took a handkerchief from her pocket, wiped his tears as he stepped towards the train. She then wiped the children’s eyes, and lastly her own.

As I stepped on to the train I too cried. There and then I understood the full meaning of emigration. Primary relationships broken, husband without wife, wife without husband, children without a father, a father without his children. A mother playing two roles. All separated, gone and left behind.

As I travelled back on the train I pondered the scene at the station. Having left home to go to boarding school, my own goings and comings over the previous few years flashed through my memory. Homecomings were happy occasions, departures were heart rending, not just for myself but for my mother and father. We were all losing something of each other that only afterwards we could articulate.

It wasn’t just me that was hurting at losing them. They were hurting too on losing me. There was loss on both sides, and all of us had to deal with loss in our own way. There were no lectures about leaving home, emigrating. Anything we knew about leaving was picked up by observation at moments of departure, going away parties, American wakes. It was an awkward time.

Indeed, there were some who could not deal with departure by the front door, so to speak, they just left without saying goodbye, by the back door. That was a cause for greater grief, because parents were left to wonder if the silent departure was their fault. This grief took a much longer time to heal, as parents were left to ponder why they were rejected, abandoned.

Years later, retuning on holidays from overseas, I was visiting my neighbours. Emigration had begun again. In one house I visited, three children had just departed. A cloud of grief filled a hole in the house. One could touch the emptiness. In the conversation one of them said, “Ah, the houses are quiet now,” and the other said, “sure, and the countryside is quiet too.”

That said it all. Those who leave have to deal with the hole in their hearts, culture shock, the discomfort of the unfamiliar. Those left behind, the bereft, have to realise that those who leave are not going to be at home anymore. Primary relationships are broken, and have to be reinvented.

Emigrants develop tourist brochure memories, of home, parents and friends, that they will in times of confusion seek shelter in. Those left behind will do likewise. The danger of frozen tourist brochure memories is that they can become prisons of nostalgia that are difficult to break out of.

Sadly, governments and other institutions of society are still slow to provide people with relevant information so that the emigration experience can be productive and healthy for all concerned. Emigration is looked at through the lense of economics, a loss of a national asset by the emigration countries, the gain of an asset by those nations that receive them. Immigrants are commodified as units of labour needed in economic prosperity, discarded in economic failure, and worse still, scapegoated as was the case in the recent French, American and Greek elections.

It is important to remember that it was the success of those Irish abroad that gave confidence to the people at home in the past. Irish emigrant remittances between 1950-65 from Britain was the equivalent of £7 billion. The Irish government was slow to involve itself during difficult times in the Irish Diaspora, but does not hesitate to seek assistance from them now.

Emigrants deserve decent services, objective information and recognition.

Bobby Gilmore is a founding member and President of the Migrant Rights Centre in Dublin.