Ciara Kenny

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

First my uncle left, then my siblings, now my son

For generations, Irish families have been saying goodbye to loved ones. But no parent wants to consider the possibility that it might be for good, writes ELAINE HARTIGAN

Fri, Dec 7, 2012, 12:29


For generations, Irish families have been saying goodbye to loved ones.  But no parent wants to consider the possibility that it might be for good, writes ELAINE HARTIGAN

Elaine Hartigan from Ranelagh, Dublin 6 in her hallway with pictures of her family, some of whom have emigrated or live abroad. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

In the 1950s, my father’s brother Peter took the slow boat to Australia with his wife Peggy and their young sons, beginning a pattern of emigration in my family that continues to the present day. News of their lives in Sydney filtered through over the years, via letters and telephone calls and photos of them eating Christmas dinner on the beach.

One of their adult sons came back to live with us in the early 1970s, bronzed with long curly hair and a curious accent that you had to rerun several times in your brain to understand. He was the most exotic person my teenage self had ever encountered and I followed him around for most of his stay, waiting for him to declare his undying love for me.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, three of my siblings emigrated. My sister Gay made her home and her life in Belgium. She married Alex and they had a beautiful daughter, Tatiana Sladkofsky. I think it is the best name I have ever heard.

My eldest and youngest brothers ended up in the US. My two young nieces, Margot and Abigail, were home this summer, gorgeous and intrinsically American but still quick on the uptake and sharp as tacks. We giggled our way around Grafton Street, and found a symbiosis that transcends distance and separation. I am still their auntie, no distance can change that, and a shared love of ice cream is a shared love of ice cream, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Only my brother Owen remained in Ireland. We are very close, the tie between us strengthened by the very absence of the others. During the years when we celebrated family rites of passage, our two mugs stared out from family photos, welded together for the occasion. As parents, Owen and his wife Jacinta have also said goodbye, as their son Rory has also emigrated. During the boom years he trained to become a plumber, but as the building deck of cards fell here, he had to move on to England, where he has found plenty of work.

Our own eldest son, Ben, has emigrated to New Zealand. He promised my husband Vincent and me that he would finish college, but after that he would travel. Over the next year he made his way down through Africa towards Australia where he found love in Melbourne.

Today he lives in New Zealand with his girlfriend Lisa, whom we have met on Skype. Lisa and I email each other regularly; she tells me much more of what is going on in their lives than my son ever would.

Last month Ben was 30, which opened up a well of memories. We sent him a card, slotting in 30 odd photos from the history of his life here with us – our wedding photo, the first scan image, his first birthday with the chocolate cake, his communion, graduation, and 21st birthday. The process of putting it together was as much a therapy session for us as it was a present for him.

The card reinforced his presence in our family history, but as I posted it off in a box filled with King crisps, Curly Wurlys, and Barry’s tea bags, the parcel became a huge symbol of his absence, a substitute for getting together as a family to celebrate another decade of his life.

A life abroad

Ben is fiercely Irish. He watches all the rugby matches, wears green on St Patrick’s Day and keeps in touch with what is happening here through the online newspapers. He worries when anyone is ill and finds it especially difficult and lonely when a family member dies.

His status in New Zealand is subject to continual renewal of his visa and he often jokes that he might be home sooner than I think. It has been five years now, so I am not so sure any more. Today he manages a busy bar in the Viaduct Harbour area in Auckland. He is happy there.

Boxes of his old life still gather dust in the attic, and his dress suit hangs in plastic in the wardrobe. I have been instructed not to throw anything out. I even keep the polling cards that arrive here in the post, to use as marking pages in recipe books that remind me of him when they fall out.

Thankfully our younger son Sam still lives here in Dublin. I would hate for him to emigrate, but only for selfish reasons. If he can realise a better life for himself elsewhere, then so he should. He has met a beautiful woman and they have set up home together, but he frequently mentions America.

Your children are only with you on loan. No parent envisages a day when the one-way ticket is bought and a route is chosen, possibly towards the other side of the world. No parent wants to consider the possibility that their child may not come back.

Next year Ben will be home for a family wedding, for the first time in three years. We will “gather” and celebrate and someday soon I hope, we will wing our way out to him for a visit. It is a journey I can’t wait to take.

This article appears in the Life section of The Irish Times today, and is one of the most read on the main website here. Read more about the experiences of parents left behind when children emigrate in a previous Generation Emigration article here.