Ciara Kenny

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

‘Going was easy. Staying away is much more complicated’

I was a naive young man when I left Ireland in the 1980s, with no idea what was in store for me in Australia. As the years have gone by, saying goodbye after visits home and staying away has felt more poignant and painful, writes Philip Lynch.

Philip Lynch: 'Emigrating is akin to voting with your feet'

Mon, Dec 3, 2012, 09:00


I was a naive young man when I left Ireland in the 1980s, with no idea what was in store for me in Australia. As the years have gone by, saying goodbye after visits home and staying away has felt more poignant and painful, writes Philip Lynch.

Philip Lynch: 'Emigrating is akin to voting with your feet'

Thirty years ago when I left Ireland as a 22 year-old, I experienced a tremendous sense of dislocation. Going was easy. Staying away has been a far more complicated journey.

Setting aside for a moment, the bravado, the drinks, handshakes and the few folded Euros slyly pressed into palms and the best wishes that often characterise farewells – it must be said that sadness is seldom far from the surface. When I boarded that plane, way back in 1983 I really hadn’t a clue what’s in store for me in Australia.

Going back for visits was never easy; as I always dreaded leaving again. With each successive visit, especially as my parents grew older, the farewells felt more poignant and painful.

Whenever one of my sisters was returning to London, she always gave my mother strict instructions to remain in bed on the morning she was going so they both could escape the final goodbye. And my sister was only going back to London. I used to think about my mother having to bide her time as she lay awake waiting for the sound of the car outside in the driveway before she’d get up to begin her day’s work. I used to wonder what she thought about as she heard the careful sounds of my sister rising and exiting the still house.

Even though the emigration phenomenon is different now with all the advances in communication, I suspect not much has really changed. Emigrating is akin to voting with your feet. It’s nigh impossible, probably even unwise to try to maintain a foot in two countries. When I left for Australia, I thought I was up for an adventure of a lifetime. But looking back now, I really hadn’t a clue what lay ahead. I was simply just another naïve young Irish man floundering my way through life.

I now think my reasons for going were vague, perhaps even accidental. After an ill-fated sojourn as a seminarian at Maynooth, I’d worked for a while at a piggery in Kilkenny – a kind of modern day reversal of St Patrick’s trajectory. While I was power-hosing pig-pens one day, a short circuit killed a dozen sows and scores of piglets. Somehow I escaped unscathed. In hindsight perhaps I saw it as some kind of omen or sign, though I’m not a superstitious person. Maybe I’d simply wanted a half-decent job and there wasn’t much on offer in 1980s Ireland. So when I had little more than an airfare to Australia saved I was on my way.

Finding work in Melbourne as a hospital cleaner proved to be a relatively easy task. Adjusting to this country’s climate turned out to be a much longer work in progress. Australian summers are brutal affairs. This country has a long history of devastating droughts and ferocious bushfires. As recently as February 2009, on one terrible Saturday, 173 people were killed and 2,000 homes were destroyed in a bushfire within an hour’s drive from Melbourne.

Thousands of young Irish people have left Ireland in recent years in search of a better life. Why so many people for such a small country? Surely it can’t all be the result of the healthy Irish birth rate (3.2 per cent) and the stagnating Irish economy? Nor, of course is it simply a lifestyle choice, as some Irish politicians would have you believe. It has to be something far more complicated and insistent. I wonder, if, for many people, leaving Ireland is akin to leaving home; a necessary leaving to find oneself and to forge one’s own identity. After all, Ireland is no Iraq, Afghanistan or Sri Lanka. It must be something more.

There is something strangely peculiar about the compulsion of us Irish to punch above our weight in the emigration statistics. This current scattering is nothing new. Ever since the Great Famine in the mid-19th century, when two million people died of starvation and another two million fled, we Irish have been on the move. For previous generations, emigrating was even more traumatic as it meant never again seeing one’s family. There are tales from the 19th century of distraught relatives running along the banks of the river Lee as the ships bore loved ones away at Cobh only to fall in and drown. There are stories too, of loved ones losing touch, and of severing contact for reasons best known to them alone.

It doesn’t always pan out well for some migrants. Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa poignantly recounts the story of lost emigrant lives in England. However there are sufficient success stories to entice successive generations to try their luck abroad. For many, far away fields have proven to be greener, hence the attraction of emigration. Friel’s earlier play Philadelphia Here I Come – is a wonderful bittersweet rendering of a son’s efforts to elicit some emotion from his father on the eve of his departure to the US, no doubt resonates to this day with many young Irish men.

It’s probably no great surprise that this newspaper’s blog “Generation Emigration” receives plenty of stories from all over the so called Irish Diaspora. Blogging aside, it’s probably a little rich for expatriates to hold forth with their opinions on what’s happening in contemporary Ireland. It makes much more sense that we actively participate in our own communities. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t be welcomed abhaile for a day, a year or longer.

My family are well and truly part of generation emigration. Five of my siblings no longer call Ireland home and four still remain. Though, I suspect, in our hearts, those of us who’ve left, perhaps have never truly completely left at all.

Philip is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read previous pieces by him about visiting Belfast after a long time away, his relationship with his ageing parents, and about his dwindling connection to Ireland