Ciara Kenny

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

Maintaining connections to trump distance and time

Keeping up with friends and family abroad is easier than ever, but it is still heartwrenching saying goodbye, writes Ashley O’Toole

Ashley (right) with her uncle and cousin Rachel in Canada.

Mon, Sep 30, 2013, 17:10


Ashley O’Toole

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Canada visiting a school friend in Ottawa and my uncle, auntie and cousins in Winnipeg. Usually on the way home from a holiday I’m disappointed that the holiday is over, like most. But at the same time I’m always happy to get home to dear old Dublin and back into my routine again, unlike most. But this time wasn’t the same.

My friend from school is a seasoned traveller having also lived in Paris, and Australia, where we travelled together with her Canadian boyfriend. I’ve grown accustomed to saying hello and goodbye to her, knowing that it won’t be more than six to 12 months before I see her again. This time was made even easier by knowing that she’ll be home for Christmas this year too. That merry piece of knowledge came in really handy when I was hugging her farewell at Ottawa airport.

Saying goodbye to my uncle, auntie and cousins was different. When the plane took off from Winnipeg on the flight home to Ireland I felt I was leaving a part of myself behind.

They emigrated to Canada in 1996. They moved home to Dublin again years later, but then decided Canada was the best fit for them after all and moved back to Winnipeg. And seeing the life they live over there I couldn’t blame them.

They have a big, beautiful house with more than enough room for my uncle, auntie, my three cousins, their two dogs and the two adorable special needs children they foster. My cousins are settled and happy, with the two lads attending college and their little sister, Rachel, starting Junior High the week I was staying with them, a milestone I was so happy to be there for.

They moved back to Canada in 2007 and settled seamlessly back into their life there. 2007. The year before everything went belly up in Ireland. What would have happened if they’d stayed?

I remind my mam of this, and the fact that they are in the best place for them, because it is a fact. They are where they are happiest. She misses her brother, my uncle, all the time and now having spent my own time with them I understand more than ever how bittersweet it is for her. I always missed them of course, between their trips home to Ireland. But it was different this time seeing as it was me going over to them, instead of them coming home for two weeks where they had a lot of other people to spend time with. I got to know them even better and realised all over again how similar they are to my own family, how much they are missed at home and how much emigration can sting.

They are still connected to Irish culture. My uncle has tuned FM104 into his car radio through bluetooth on his phone and watches the GAA matches on the internet. My auntie still has a strong Dublin accent and a Dublin sense of humour. The lads get back to Dublin every chance they get and look forward to seeing everyone, the nightlife and the craic and a chipper or the “Irish chinese curry” they’ve been looking forward to since their last visit. And Rachel is an excellent Irish dancer, with a keen interest in Irish history and folklore. She even calls my uncle ‘Da’ instead of calling him ‘Dad’ or ‘Daddy’ like the other girls her age over there and she has an innate sense of her heritage far beyond her twelve years.

They are also still very much connected to us. While I was over there we Facetimed my mam while we got ready to go out for the day and ‘took her with us’ in the car on the way to the museum. Viber, the free international text messaging/phone app, is a godsend. One of the lads told me to get a curry in his honour when I got back to Dublin, so I did……..and also sent him a photo of it on Viber just to give him a visual incentive to come home soon!

The time difference isn’t horrific, six hours, which is short enough to text them on your way home from work and get a reply on their lunch hour. And of course, there is always Skype. Laptops and iPhones make the world smaller. A lot smaller than the days when your cousin would get on a boat and you wouldn’t see them for 20 years. Thank God.

That fact was a comfort on my flight home from Dublin, even if I did feel like I was leaving a part of myself behind. Sure that’s what family is though isn’t it? Part of you. You are a part of them, and they are a part of you. In a biological sense, in every possible sense. A connection so strong that it trumps distance and time. You’re always going to feel their absence, some days more than others. But you can also take comfort in your connection to them, every day. Like your very own intangible, clannish brand of an app….a Clan-app?!

And if that doesn’t work, there’s always Viber.

Ashley wrote Home and Happy for Generation Emigration last July after she moved back to Ireland from Sydney, to ‘find a country resilient and hopeful about the future.