Ciara Kenny

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

Five things Irish emigrants should bring home this Christmas

Warm clothes, an empty suitcase, a healthy appetite and good stories are essentials, writes Sarah Maria Griffin

Sarah Griffin with her grandmother Sheila Kiernan in Dublin last Christmas

Sat, Dec 14, 2013, 08:00


Sarah Griffin

Warm clothes

This sounds really obvious doesn’t it? We all know Ireland is a cold country. It’s all we talked about. Freezing like. God there’s a real snap in the air today. There’s some chill out there. And so on. But really, when you’ve been living in a warmer climate for a few years, it comes as a total and utter shock. Like a slap. Also, it’s usually a damp cold that permeates your skin and gets down to your bones so you’re a really special kind of cold. So bring warm clothes. Serious industrial strength pajamas. Scarves. Hats. Gloves. Remember them? When I arrived back for a month at home in November, I was shocked at myself for forgetting how cold it gets. There I was huddled in blankets on the sofa with the heating turned all the way up and my Mam walking around the kitchen in a T-shirt – !Sarah, it’s actually a very mild November. I don’t know what you’re talking about.!

A mostly empty suitcase

I know it’s not just me trying to stuff six boxes of Barry’s Tea and a thousand pairs of Penney’s knickers into my case every time I go back to America. There are things from home you just can’t get abroad, most of which, by the way, come in selection boxes and you really, really want to have room for them on your way back. The best way to bring home a mostly empty suitcase, by the way, is to bring back presents for your loved ones (as well as woolly jumpers, hats and scarves for yourself). My favourite thing to bring home to my parents, specifically, is a Christmas tree decoration from the city I live in, with the year marked on it. A precious shiny thing that belongs to a specific time and place. For every gift brought home, there is room for another bundle of Cadbury’s contraband, another box of strong dark tea, another €10 onesie in the shape of a Panda.

Your appetite

I don’t know about where you live, but where I live the Chicken Fillet Roll is not an easily achievable deli staple. Neither is the sausage roll or the jambon. Definitely no 3-in-1s. Not a chicken ball to be seen. Bag of chips? Unless you’re looking for a bag of salted corn tortillas, don’t even bother asking on this side of the world. And we’re not even talking your Granny’s coddle or whatever it is your Ma puts in the beef pie that makes it taste like something from another planet yet. Think about a sunday carvery down in the local. Think about Christmas dinner, mercy. I’ve been living in the ridiculous health food quinoa-tofu-kale bubble of California for nearly two years but it all ground to a staggering halt when I was at home. My newfound allergies retracted in the face of the glorious flaky pastry of jambons. Nothing like a decent breakfast roll from the corner shop’s deli, guys. Nothing like it in the whole world. Food for the soul.


Whether you like it or not, this is something that is going to happen. It’s going to be sad. So you just have to steel yourself. Adjust your sense of topography: new shops have opened, old favourites have shut down. I, weirdly, nearly burst into tears at the sight of a closed Charlies 2 in Temple Bar – a cavern of 4am drunken adventure, a temple to our pissed youth – gone. I’m pretty sure I went on a date that ended there. It’s been gone for ages and I didn’t even know. Visiting home at Christmas is sad for a whole score of other reasons: but you don’t need me to tell you what they are. Just steel yourself. It’s a holiday, it’s not the same as normal Ireland. It’s ok that your city or town has changed, it’s ok that lots of people are gone too. It’s ok that you won’t see everyone you want to. Your new life is elsewhere. It can sometimes take a lot of courage to stare that down.


You’re going to be inundated with the same sets of questions. So, what’s it like over there? Is it really different? Did you have any adventures? What are the people like? What do you miss the most? Especially if this is your first trip home. Think about your answers, your stories. Think hard about the grandparent-sensitive ones, the ones for the pub. The ones that sound smug in the pub might be completely adorable to your grandparents. The ones that crack the table up in the pub up might be absolutely unacceptable to anybody who took care of you as a child. You must know that you’re a kind of a bard now, right? You have to bring something to the table, you’ve been gone. It’s Christmas, like. Is there any better time of the year for sitting around and spinning out tales? Yours are new. Warm them up, get them ready to go.

Sarah Griffin’s debut book, Not Lost: A Story About Leaving Home, a non-fiction collection of essays about her experience of moving to San Francisco, has recently been published by New Island. She is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read other articles written on her departure from Dublin, on ‘The ache of homesickness’, on Christmas in Ireland, a dialogue about the emigrant experience with fellow Irish writer in San Francisco Ethel Rohan, how ‘Making a new home does not take away the home you had’, and about how a cat helped her feel at home in San Francisco.