Ciara Kenny

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

‘The emigrant experience is the struggle of being split’

When poet Sarah Griffin moved to San Francisco this year she felt alone. Then she met Irish writer Ethel Rohan, who made the same journey some 20 years previously. Their shared experiences gave them both solace.

Fri, Nov 9, 2012, 07:38


When poet Sarah Griffin moved to San Francisco this year she felt alone. Then she  met Irish writer Ethel Rohan, who made the same journey some 20 years previously. Their shared experiences gave them both solace.

Ethel Rohan (left) and Sarah Griffin at the Irish Consulate in San Francisco. Photograph: Ian Tuttle

‘ Life is short and the world big ’

Sarah Griffin 

The message lit up my Twitter feed like some great light. A fellow writer, Colm Keegan, sent up the flare: “I just met a Dublin writer who lives in San Francisco, her name is Ethel Rohan.” I hadn’t been in San Francisco long.

We didn’t meet for some time. I was afraid she might think my emigrant journey was barely worth discussing because it was so new. Maybe my struggle to settle was invalid in a time where the internet connects people despite the oceans between them. Reaching out to strangers is not easy.

We eventually met by chance one night at Literary Death Match, an event that combines literary readings and bloodthirsty competition. I all but threw my arms around her with delight. “You’re Irish? I’m Irish! Finally!” Even the distant sound of Dublin in Ethel’s voice was joyous proof that an Irish woman could leave the shores where she was born and succeed across the ocean, become gainfully employed, start a family, and, most importantly, make wonderful art.

This was a turning point for me. It felt, as strange as this sounds, like looking into the future I wanted to have, after all the break-up aches from Dublin subsided.

We met again over lunch and talked for a long time. It was clear that while our journeys were different, the feelings we’d had and the challenges we’d faced weren’t that different at all.

Ethel Rohan

I didn’t expect meeting Sarah to be so emotional. It was like looking back at myself 20 years ago, when I first came to San Francisco. Her homesickness resonated, as did her concerns about finding work and new friends, and her clashes with the American culture.

I left Ireland in the early 1990s, when the country was just getting up off its knees after the brutal recession and mass exodus of the previous decade. I made the hasty decision to resign from AIB and move to America, much to my parents’ dismay.

I was miserable in my supposed “dream job” at the bank, and going through a terrible break-up. A close friend received a green card through the Donnelly visa lottery and decided to emigrate to San Francisco. Another close friend lost her father to cancer. “Life is short and the world big,” went round in my head. So I left.

‘An adventure had been unlocked’

Sarah Griffin 

 Leaving Ireland came upon me with a phone call from my partner in whispered tones that the tech company he works for had offered him a job. “San Francisco,” he said, “that’s where they’re asking me to go.” Without a second thought I knew we had to make a go of it, that an adventure had just been unlocked for us. A way out of Ireland and into the big, wide world.

Ethel Rohan 

The first few times I told anyone I was moving to San Francisco, I made the claim in an attempt to sound brave and fierce. I remember saying the words out loud while not really believing them myself and feeling disappointed by people’s various reactions: Friends clapped me on the back, said “you go”. My boyfriend acted indifferent. My parents raged. I’ve often thought over the years that if anyone had said, “please don’t go, we’ll miss you”, I would have stayed, but as my sister recently reminded me, she said that and showed me a lot of love, and I still went.

Sarah Griffin 

Leaving for America in the midst of an economic maelstrom was the best choice for me. There were no full-time jobs for graduates, only whatever freelance or part-time fluke I could manage. I could have waited it out: waited for the country to steady itself, waited to grow older, but all I could do was peer out over the horizon thinking there’s a whole world out there.

A sense of depression had fallen on my generation. I watched it happen. We had been brought up in brighter times but had entered adulthood in a time of struggle.

There always seems to be such celebration around folks who emigrate. There were a lot of good wishes and high hopes for me, and I too was totally fierce about my “I am leaving Ireland, I am emigrating” attitude. While I often struggle wondering what the future will hold for me, I know I have written parts of this myth for myself. This myth echoes after all emigrants: that things will be better once you leave.

‘I’m no longer fully Irish’

Ethel Rohan 

My intention was never to stay in San Francisco. I believed I could never settle here. I missed my family and friends, and the unique Irish wit and sense of humour. I missed that sense of being understood, on the level of language, yes, but even more. The Irish were my tribe.

Over the years, I started to fit in here. I was only in San Francisco six months when I met my now husband. He’s also Irish, from Ballinahown, Co Westmeath, and we met rather unimaginatively in an Irish bar. He was deeply involved in the large Irish community here and introduced me to so many of my tribe, allowing me to enjoy a new sense of home from home.

Over the next decade, during which we married and had two daughters, I lived inside the bubble of the Irish in San Francisco. It was only a few years later, when our daughters started preschool, that our circle widened and we befriended many American families. Gradually, I stopped feeling so different.

Sarah voiced a reluctance to join the Irish community here, largely because she doesn’t want it to mirror everything she is missing about Ireland and to suck her right in. I understand her reluctance. While I believe the Irish community can be of vital support to new emigrants, there’s a danger of getting trapped inside the smallness of the familiar, allowing that sense of living in a strange place to remain forever. Emigrants have to let go of any sense of preciousness around having a single identity.

Ever since I emigrated, I’ve returned to Ireland at least once a year, to allow our two daughters to bond with family and with Ireland. There’s so much I look forward to going back to, but there’s also a growing sadness to each return. Gone so long, I’m no longer fully Irish. My father jokingly refers to me as “the Yank”, but the label adds to this strange sense of otherness. Americans call me out fondly on Irishisms and the Irish tease me about a creeping California twang. I’ll never again be any one nationality: not Irish, not American.

‘I feel like I’m giving something up’

Sarah Griffin 

 Words like soda and candy still sound strange when I find myself saying them, and often I feel my accent is harsher now, in defiance of these new words. Emigrating might change my identity, but this voice, this is mine. I feel like I’m giving something up in surrendering to these Americanisms: but that’s just it, isn’t it. I can’t completely resist, I have to acclimatise: I’m in their country now.

Ethel Rohan 

Etched in my memory from the day I left Ireland is my mother’s crumpled, tearful face at Dublin Airport. I left my mother. I left Mother Ireland. There were always those stirrings of guilt and betrayal until at last I let them go.

I can’t shake the feeling though that Ireland, perhaps like every other nation, isn’t so forgiving of her expatriates. There’s always that sense of “you left”. Likewise, as much as I feel embraced and loved in San Francisco, there’s always that sense of “you came”. The only places I ever feel I truly belong are with my daughters and with my writing – nameless, wondrous places. The truth of the emigrant experience is the struggle of being split.

Sarah Griffin 

My experience of the airport was very different. My family and I spent a long time standing there in Terminal 2, at the crack of dawn, laughing at this huge painting of a horse mid-gallop right next to the departure gates. Our parting was being omnisciently monitored by this giant horse, who must have watched thousands of kids like me running away from home.

Going back to visit in the winter is something I am truly scared of: like with any breakup, the true test of whether it’s really over or not is what happens when you see them again for the first time. Will Dublin have gone and changed on me, to spite me for leaving? Worse, will it be static, identical to how it was? With San Francisco, there is this huge tender welcoming feeling of “you’re here, you came”, that this city radiates.

I wonder how missing San Francisco will feel while I am back in Ireland: it’s the first break from a new love. I don’t feel I belong here yet, and the sense of belonging to Dublin is starting to fade around the edges: but this transition is exciting.

Ethel Rohan 

I would never encourage anyone to emigrate. Nor would I dissuade anyone. The beauty of emigration for me is that I can extract and try to live by the best of two cultures. We each need to do what we need to do and I would caution against ever putting limits on ourselves. If the only thing stopping you from taking risks and making change is fear, risk anyway.

Sarah Griffin 

Certainly. If you are a homebird, then that will be your joy and I wish I had that in me. If you are an adventurer, then set sail. The world is as big as you want to make it.

Ethel Rohan’s story collection, Goodnight Nobody, is forthcoming from Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013.

Sarah Griffin writes essays and poems and can be found on Twitter @griffski. She is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read another article by Sarah written on her departure from Dublin here, and her piece on ‘The ache of homesickness’ here.

This article appears in the Life pages of The Irish Times today and on the main website here.