Ciara Kenny

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

‘I doubt I could have had such a fulfilling medical career if I had stayed in Ireland’

I treasure my Irish upbringing, but the sadness of leaving Ireland has been compensated by the benefits of the life I have made for myself as a consultant in the US over the last 43 years, writes Brian Connolly.

Wed, Nov 28, 2012, 07:06


I treasure my Irish upbringing, but the sadness of leaving Ireland has been compensated by the benefits of the life I have made for myself as a consultant in the US over the last 43 years, writes Brian Connolly.

Brian as a young doctor in the US

I qualified in medicine in 1969 and immediately left for the US where I have spent most of my medical career. I had spent the previous summer working in a hospital in Michigan and found the experience so satisfying that I resolved to return when I completed medical school. The fact that I met my future wife that summer influenced my choice of destination but not my overall decision to return to the US.

The State had paid for all of my post primary education through scholarships. In retrospect, this should have generated some sense of service debt to the community but no such thought occurred to me or seemed part of the general values that prevailed then. My daughter points out that it’s still not too late, which is perhaps true.

There were many aspects of life in the US I found attractive. While I was at medical school at UCD I was one of only two people in my class who came from a working class background, though such things were never openly discussed. In the US, coming from a humble origin was something to be proud of rather than uncomfortable with. It appeared to be a functioning meritocracy and that has remained my general impression in the years since.

Being Irish carried a cachet here which was in contrast to the mild disdain that I had experienced during many summers working in London as a student. Shortly after I arrived I had to register with some government agency in Detroit. I became lost and confused in the busy midtown traffic and inadvertently made an illegal turn. I was pursued by a patrol car with sirens blaring and lights flashing. When I explained to the burly cop what my situation was he beamed and said, “My father came from Kerry,” held up all the traffic with one big hand and directed me to make an illegal turn to my destination. Many similar incidents followed until my accent began to fade.

My first exposure to the shock of the new was when I stepped off the plane in New York wearing my tweed jacket to a 100 degree summer’s day. My training began in a hospital is South Bend, Indiana next to Notre Dame University, home of the Fighting Irish football team. In all, five of us came over from Dublin and quickly became fans of N.D. football which, in psychoanalytic terms, served as a transitional object in our emotional disengagement from Ireland.

A significant reason for coming here was to pursue training in psychoanalytic psychiatry. In the 60s and 70s, psychoanalysis was still the dominant presence in American psychiatry. It has since faded to be replaced with a preoccupation with psychopharmacology. Ironically, it was my discontent with the similar preoccupation with medication that prevailed in Irish psychiatry that led me to seek training elsewhere. There is a much greater acceptance of psychotherapy here and I have had a satisfying career in an outpatient private psychiatric setting. For variety, I have also for many years directed a psychiatric Emergency Centre and a consultation service at a large general hospital nearby.

I have had faculty appointments at four medical schools. I doubt that I could have had such a fulfilling career if I had remained in Ireland.

Brian with his wife Mary and two children James and Maureen

My sense of home has gradually shifted to this side of the Atlantic especially since my children were born here and my parents died. My daughter attended Harvard and the transition from the Liberties to the Ivy League in two generations further added to my admiration for the wealth of opportunities this country offers. Both of my children have become doctors too, a difficult enough feat here but one that seems only achievable for a special few in Ireland.

There is a certain amount of blandness to middle class life here. In the days when I still attended Mass a young Irish nephew who was visiting observed on a Sunday morning that he had never seen such clean people. My family and social life in Ireland were filled with a variety of complex and interesting individuals. In our early marriage my wife and I moved back to Ireland for two years and she found it a very positive experience and would have been open to staying. It was mostly my decision to return to settle here.

I still carry a sense of loss that seems to haunt most Irish emigrants. My early life in Ireland has left me with a valuable cultural residue, a deep pool that has offered me continuously interesting and changing satisfactions throughout my life. Because of my profession I have had the benefit of having many Jewish friends and colleagues. I feel they have a similar experience with their cultural background which has led to an easy rapport with them.

When I read interviews with today’s Irish emigrants I am impressed with how openly they speak of affection for their family and of how much they miss them. We experienced those feelings too but they were never spoken about. We lacked the words to say these things. This new openness is one of the many changes that has occurred in Ireland that I find very impressive. I am amazed and delighted at the extent to which acceptance and respect for gay people has emerged there; it is still an ongoing struggle here. It pleased me to see that Dublin 8 where I was reared and schooled has become something of a “gaybourhood”.

When I emigrated, contact with family was maintained mostly through letters. There was an annual phone call at Christmas but this had to be booked in advance with the phone company. The ease of maintaining contact is sure to significantly change the experience of today’s emigrants and I am interested in hearing more about this. I treasure my Irish upbringing, but the sadness of leaving Ireland has been compensated by the benefits of the new life I have found here. I hope for the same for the current tide of emigrants.