Ciara Kenny

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

Taking stock: ‘I’ve lived in the UK for longer than I’ve lived in Ireland’

After 25 years in London, I am no longer asked when I am going back

Marie-Therese Keegan with husband Don West and their children Amber (9) and Sawyer (6)

Fri, Nov 29, 2013, 00:00


Marie-Therese Keegan

A few years ago I reached a tipping point where I had lived in the UK for more years than I’d lived in Ireland, the country of my birth. Acknowledging that was a big deal for me. I’d been playing with the figures and putting it off, discounting the two years I reckoned I wasn’t in England – a year backpacking around Africa in 1990 and countless trips overseas when I worked for airlines. But there is no getting away from it now.

My options as a 21-year-old communications studies graduate in 1988 were to sign on the dole in Ireland, a definite no-no in my father’s eyes, or leave for London. Emigrating didn’t feel like a choice then; it still doesn’t. We had no family in London so I arranged accommodation in a women’s hostel in Victoria, run by nuns.

There was a payphone on each floor – it was our link with home and employment agencies as we waited for bookings. Job offers came. I worked for a Canadian bank by day and as an usherette at a West End theatre by night. Because of our central location, I got to know London city very well by foot, knowledge I still call on today.

There was a communal television room in the basement. Posters stuck on the walls appealed for prayers and funds for the less fortunate. Trays of sandwiches and cakes that were on the turn, from Marks & Spencer, were left along the corridors. They were a corporate donation for charity cases, which maybe we were.

No male guests

The nuns enforced a “no male guests” policy and a curfew. Those restrictions ensured a quick turnover and vacant beds. It wasn’t a good time for me, that first year in London. But who knows whether things would have been any easier had I spent my early adulthood in Dublin.

In the spring that marked my first six months away, my mother posted a cutting from the Irish Press. Aer Lingus was expanding in Heathrow and eager to employ Irish people. After an interview where I had to show my knees – to see what I’d look like in a uniform skirt – I was offered a job.

For many years I straddled both countries. In an era before departure tax, it was cheaper to hop on a 737 to Dublin than board the Piccadilly line for Leicester Square – and almost as fast.

The new generation

Maybe because the 25-year milestone has passed, I’ve been thinking back on those early days, although a recent encounter in the city could also have been a trigger. While I was with my six-year-old son in a toy store, a young guy came bounding over to serve us, waving a wand and trailing bubbles that miraculously don’t pop. “Touch bubbles,” he told me. “Kids love dem.”

I was cheered on hearing his strong Irish accent. He has been in London seven months and loves every minute. He graduated in September from the University of Limerick with a degree in music technology. He’s in a band. He gigs by night and plays with toys by day. “I’m living the dream,” he enthused, only half tongue-in-cheek.

The Celtic Tiger spurned her cubs but there’s no denying their confidence, formed during the years when anything seemed possible. That was lacking in bygone generations of emigrants, my own included. I’m sure it will carry him far.

Decades on, people have stopped asking me if I plan on moving “home”. I’ve even stopped tormenting myself with the question, though I still feel a physical ache when I’m in Ireland and driving to the airport. My husband is English and in a minority: the ones who are not charmed by all things Irish. I guess that means he loves me for myself.

We were wed in a castle near my birthplace. On a holiday home, I had my children baptised in the church where I had my First Confession and other sacraments. On forms I tick the box “White Irish” for the three of us, though I can’t imagine they’ll define themselves that way when the time comes.

Recently I got them Irish passports. When I flipped open the cover and saw “Irish citizen” by their photos, it looked wrong. They are not truly Irish citizens, though their mother always will be.

This article appears in the print edition of The Irish Times today. Marie-Therese wrote a blog piece earlier this week on recreating her Irish childhood memories for her own children by hosting a Late Late Toy Show party in London this evening.