Ciara Kenny

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Growing up in Ireland gave me tools to thrive anywhere in the world

Distance and separation have been painful at times, but spending time in places as diverse as Germany, Turkey, Egypt and the US has taught me always to look at life from alternative perspectives, writes Micheál Dowling in New York.

Mon, Jun 18, 2012, 12:35


Distance and separation have been painful at times, but spending time in places as diverse as Germany, Turkey, Egypt and the US has taught me always to look at life from alternative perspectives, writes Micheál Dowling in New York.

Micheál with his son in downtown New York.

I recently presented my experience as an immigrant to my nine-year-old son’s class on the 28th anniversary of my arrival in the US. The children honed in on why I would take the risk of going to unfamiliar places. I have childhood memories, following JFK’s visit to Ireland, of looking out across Galway Bay from an upstairs window. My parents encouraged me to believe that the opposite shore, County Clare, was America. It seemed very close. As an asthmatic child, I was confined to bed for days at a time and my imagination took over from my lungs.

By the time I finished the Leaving Cert, America seemed much further away. It was 1975 and I moved from Galway to London in search of opportunity and adventure. At least that’s what I told my parents. I was eighteen and I naturally gravitated to friends from home. We created a little community that served as a comforting buffer to the strangeness and bustle of London.

Micheál (far left) working as a carpenter in New York in the mid-80s.

Something was missing. Growing up in Ireland had given me many of the tools I needed to thrive anywhere — a good education, respect for work, the value of close community ties, a sense of fair play, and awareness of the needs of the less fortunate. However, I seemed to have recreated in my own life some of the kinds of conditions I had difficulty tolerating in Ireland – deference to prevailing wisdom. In choosing the hot new field of computing had I boxed myself in? Had I opted for a type of conformity over imagination?

I needed to explore, so I headed to Germany. It was a place that seemed more foreign than England and required operating in a different language. Maybe the struggle of communicating in a different tongue would free up my perspective. As luck would have it, I found myself working under the open sky, as a roofer. This seasonal work offered the unexpected bonus of time to travel to exotic southern climes for months at a time during the off-seasons. Working with immigrants of many backgrounds and traveling in places like India, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey exposed me to very different versions of reality. By then I was in my mid-twenties, and although curiousity was undimmed, I realized that my life needed a bit more shaping. America beckoned once again.

Micheál in Egypt, 1982.

I wasn’t to know that my visit to Galway before moving to the US in 1984 would be my last for eight years. After a few months in New York, an American acquaintance asked how I found my way around so quickly. My response “I studied the map” seemed an obvious strategy to me, but thinking about his unexpected question led me to one of the benefits of being an immigrant. The anticipation of newness taught me that I should not expect anything to be as expected. Some variation of “that’s how it’s done around here”, heard in many countries, often grated as it indicated predefined destinations and outcomes. I had rebelled against such thinking in Ireland, and naturally recoiled when finding it in different flavors elsewhere.

The maps I had to study were not just geographical. They were social, economic, educational, and personal; all were part of the ongoing project of what to do with my life. And once I thought I had that figured out I had to find a way to make it happen.


Calcutta, 1983.

Working as a carpenter, both on interior renovations for various small subcontractors, and large projects with the union, put me in contact with one side of culture, and also with other immigrants. Opportunities to socialize with the well-educated in Manhattan made me keenly aware of different lifestyles in my chosen country. I was straddling various worlds using multiple overlapping maps trying to chart a course.

Given financial, and I surmised, study skills deficits (being 12 years out of school at that time) I chose community college to get started. Then, needing a job with more stability, I landed a position teaching nursery school children. As the oldest of five I had plenty of practice looking after young ones, so I wasn’t on completely unfamiliar ground. From initial exploration to immersion, from community college to university, I eventually earned a PhD in psychology.

Sometimes it takes a while to get where you want to go. Since I left, Ireland has undergone many changes without losing its traditional values. It is now a multicultural society, and also more open to questioning received wisdom from any quarter. This development wasn’t achieved without some national soul searching over the past twenty years. But the changes are not out of character with the imaginative and empathic side of Irish character.

Over the same twenty years I have been enriched by my yearly visits to family in Galway, and occasional get-togethers with old friends. Distance and separation have been painful at times, especially in circumstances when it has been difficult to return. But gains in perspective are one consolation for missing many family events over the years. The visits home serve as reminders of an earlier me as I attempt to bridge the divide of decades living life in a different place with a different set of social expectations.

Luckily, I find myself making use of indefinable skills acquired along the way. I have gained the means to reflect on my own experience, slowing down to appreciate both the special and the everyday. Now, seeing things from different perspectives is an ingrained part of me. The terrain encountered in making decisions on what to do with my life, is better mapped. As a clinical psychologist, helping underprivileged individuals in the South Bronx to make sense of their direction in life brings me back to base. My outsider’s perspective helps me to help others understand their place in the world.

Now, my wife and son, both American-born, with many trans-Atlantic trips under their belts, see Ireland as their second home. My son waltzes through immigration at Shannon with his Irish passport, having just surveyed the Atlantic Ocean from thirty-thousand feet.