Ciara Kenny

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

Flying visits: returning emigrants’ impressions of Christmas at home

A wedding, stormy weather on the coast, tears of joy and sadness, dwindling numbers of friends in the pub, and a new sense of optimism in the country. People who visited home tell their Christmas stories to Ciara Kenny

Iseult Sheehan and Simon Bull, who returned to Dublin from Australia to get married. Photograph: Lucy Nuzum Photography

Fri, Jan 10, 2014, 00:00


‘Despite the storm, our wedding day was miraculously calm’

ISEULT SHEEHAN (29) from Killiney, and SIMON BULL (30) from Knocklyon, returned from Perth, where they both work as doctors, to get married in Dublin over Christmas

We never really considered getting married abroad because we wanted as many of our family and close friends involved as possible. Ireland is home. We chose a Christmas wedding because it afforded friends who have also emigrated the greatest opportunity to come.

Arriving home in December to Dublin all lit up was magical. There was such a buzz and everyone seemed to be smiling. Shops, restaurants and pubs were packed, and we got the distinct feeling things were finally improving.

We emigrated mainly because of the monstrous hours non-consultant hospital doctors are forced to work in Ireland. We were seeing less and less of each other and our families, with our own health and the health of patients at risk. Moving abroad would also allow us to repay our heavy student loans. Leaving was tough but staying was no longer practical.

Despite the stormy Christmas, December 28th, our wedding day, was miraculously calm with blue skies. Dublin was perfect. Surrounded by all those we love and miss, the atmosphere was loving and beautiful. We both really miss Ireland and cannot wait to return. Australia is a wonderful experience but it will never be home.

‘The kids I used to know have grown into adults I don’t recognise’

SARAH MOORE (27) from Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford, has lived in London since 2010, where she works as a nurse for Macmillan Cancer Support

Two hours late, I arrived into Rosslare off a rocky boat from Holyhead on the Saturday before Christmas. There’s great camaraderie to be found on the ferry at this time of year. We all have something in common: a determination to get home despite the bad weather.

After more than three years away, this is the first Christmas I noticed change. The friendly smiles of neighbours at Mass are dwindling, and the kids I used to know have grown into adults I don’t recognise. The pubs are empty. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, I was sure I would maintain links with all in my parish, but it seems I was wrong.

The storm of St Stephen’s night completely wrecked our garden shed, and I was worried leaving. Over the years there have been many reasons why I wanted to be at home: loneliness, illness, or simply just to breathe fresh air. But this was the first time I wanted to be there out of worry.

As ours is a coastal community, storms hit home hard. I wanted to be there to help with the clean-up, to be there to help the neighbours, to be there so my dad didn’t over-exert himself with the repairs.

But I’m back in London, where they don’t know the meaning of a real storm. Batten down the hatches, Ireland. Stay safe. Your sons and daughters are watching closely from afar.

‘Hopefully, one day, I’ll get home not just for Christmas but forever’

CAROL O’RIORDAN, from Co Cork, has lived in Italy, Thailand and Belgium since leaving Ireland in 2002. She now lives in Brussels with her Italian husband. They are expecting their first baby

Each time I fly home I see life moving on, parents getting older, nieces and nephews growing up, friends getting married, having babies. Each time I leave it gets harder.

I used to never cry on the plane. Then I started crying at the airport. Now I start crying the night before, lying awake trying to think of how we could move home. Maybe we should just quit our jobs in Brussels. But that sort of courage is harder when you have a baby to think about.

December dragged in Brussels. I joked with colleagues I would be like Pope John Paul and kiss the tarmac when disembarking in Dublin Airport. They all know how much I want to move back.

In arrivals there was a children’s choir. I had to bite my cheeks to keep from crying as I watched people welcomed home, with tears flowing and hugs that took forever.

Christmas went by in a flash. I spent every day with my family, ate brown bread, spiced beef, porridge, boiled eggs, rashers, sausages; drank tea, tea and more tea. We drank in the usual haunts, shopped in the usual shops, walked around Dunnes wishing we could buy €15 pyjamas in Brussels.

Before I knew it, it was time to leave. As usual I lay in bed unable to sleep, looking out at the stars. I don’t see stars in Brussels, living in a city apartment.

In the morning I took the train to Dublin to catch my flight. I cried like I do every time, saying goodbye to my mother, counting the weeks and months until I’ll see her again. Wasted days to tick off until I come back to where I want to be.

Hopefully, one day, I’ll get home not just for Christmas but forever.

‘Big nights out with friends are no longer the focus of my Christmas at home’

DES CRINION (29), from Co Meath, moved to London three years ago to pursue job opportunities in engineering

Thirty-five of us from DIT Bolton Street used to hold an annual Christmas pub crawl. This year there were just four of us, now with girlfriends in tow. It was more low-key but one of the best yet.

I might be getting old, but big nights out with friends are no longer the focus of my Christmas at home, replaced instead with quality family time. I spent Christmas Day at home in Meath, with dinner and dessert followed by an afternoon nap in front of Harry Potter.

A visit to the sales showed people are willing to spend. The mood was much more optimistic than last year. People are just getting on with things, but their sacrifices seem to be paying off.

An old friend’s wedding prompted questions about life in London and when I would think of returning, if ever, which got my mind in a spin. But as one friend noted, I get to experience the best of home at Christmas.

My parents provided a wonderful Christmas and I was sad to leave. I often think about returning home, but in reality, I won’t be back for the foreseeable future. I have a new life here, for now.

‘The two nights out I had in Dublin were terrific, with people laughing, singing’

PATRICK BROPHY (27) moved to London in 2010 when he couldn’t find work as a primary-school teacher. He has lived in Sydney since 2012

It was 18 months since I’d set foot on Irish soil when I arrived in Dublin Airport. The pace of the passengers disembarking was almost frantic. Everybody was glad to be home. After a miserable, warm but rainy Christmas in Sydney in 2012, it was the ultimate treat to spend it with family this year, with a Laurel and Hardy box set and Ma’s prawn cocktail.

When I left almost four years ago the atmosphere was dismal, with tales of emigration and joblessness within earshot in every local pub. The atmosphere has definitely changed. The two nights out I had in Dublin were terrific, with people laughing, conversing, singing.

I went to Galway to visit my grandfather, who is 99. Even from the tarmac of the new M6, the countryside looked spectacular. Galway was buzzing and again and again I was impressed by fantastic customer service.

I had viewed this holiday as a reconnaissance mission, to see if Ireland was hospitable for the likes of me again. I have nine months remaining on my visa, and the dreamer in me believes I’ll come home in September and begin a master’s. One thing I was sure of as I boarded my flight was that returning eventually to Ireland, a land of humour and rich identity, is non- negotiable.

‘We are deluded about hardship. Europe generally is in a worse situation’

JOHN MITCHELL, from Dublin, now living in France

A week at home is more than enough. I enjoyed seeing my family and close friends, but I don’t yearn for life with them. What I’m doing as an expat is far more exciting than the weekly humdrum in Dublin.

The 12 pubs malarkey is baffling. The majority of Irish people are in denial about Ireland’s problems with drink, thinking it’s all just a bit of craic. We drink to get drunk and it’s sold to us that way. The prices are bananas too.

There’s money still about, given the mobs out in the shops. People are starting to appreciate value more, but there is still a long way to go when you compare costs to those on the continent. As a nation we are deluded about hardship. Europe generally is in a worse situation, with social and racial tensions.

Generally, I was happy to leave. I miss my family but they’re not far away. Home is always same-same to me. The holiday wore me out.

‘We parents wait for a return that will probably never happen’

PIARAS MacÉINRÍ (58) lectures in geography at University College Cork, and led the Emigre research project last year on the impact of Irish emigration. His daughter Muireann lives in Australia

In houses all over Ireland, there are ghosts in the bedrooms. Clothes hang in wardrobes. Shoes nestle under beds. Books and other objects lie undisturbed. Nothing has been thrown away.

Our actual, living children, in Australia, or Germany, or wherever, are following their own paths to their own futures. They have left these rooms behind, with their memories and their contents.

How to exorcise the ghosts? The clothes and other things belong to people who are no longer there, in any sense: the ghosts are ghosts of Christmasses past.

Our daughter is a grown woman. It’s been almost six years since she left. She’s not going to wear these garments, mementos of her younger self, again. Apart from occasional short visits, such as the happy one this Christmas with her New Zealand boyfriend, she will probably never sleep there again.

This is hard to accept, but perhaps not so different than if she had simply moved from Cork to Dublin.

On this visit, she made the decision to break with the past herself, spending precious time sorting clothes and other belongings, deciding what to discard, what to give away and what she really wanted to have in her new life in Australia. We could not have done it for her and are very grateful.

Last Saturday, we brought a carload of her belongings to the charity shops of North Main Street. This is where the city began. It is still the heart of a changing Cork, with its Irish, Asian and African shops.

Many of her former belongings will end up in the bedrooms of other young people, other migrants, living new lives themselves.

This article appears in the Life pages of The Irish Times today. To read about emigrant Christmases abroad, see An eclectic Christmas for far-flung Irish.