Ciara Kenny

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Listening to emigrants, then and now

One of the most painful things about being an emigrant was no one asking what my life abroad was like, writes Denis Sampson

Denis Sampson: 'Home on holidays, we were always asked "when are you coming back for good?"'

Tue, Mar 25, 2014, 10:22


Denis Sampson

Two recent statements from the Irish Government have moved me to finally contribute some thoughts to the Generation Emigration blog.

The first headline that caught my eye and stirred a memory I didn’t know was there was Third-level fees cut for children of Irish emigrants and then Emigrants invited to share views on Ireland’s ‘diaspora engagement’. And then the two became one, no longer simply Government proposals but a lid on my life that suddenly blew off.

What if the substance of these announcements had been put into effect some decades ago so that I, an invisible member of what only came to be called the “diaspora” long after I had settled in Canada, could have benefited? How might my life and the lives of my children have been different? I’ll go so far as to ask, might Ireland have been a different society if these new attitudes towards emigrants had been common back then?

I welcome the invitation for submissions because one of the most painful things about being an emigrant for me was realising nobody I met on visits home ever asked what my life in Canada was like or what was it like to be an emigrant, not to mention what was it like to be an immigrant.

A major part of the history we have discovered in our time is, of course, the history of what wasn’t said in earlier times, what was concealed, not talked about, what people might have known or felt but never said. Hindsight may be painful or liberating or self-satisfied, and there is little point in thinking the past can be remade. But it has always seemed to me, since I left Ireland in 1970, that the history of Irish emigration is largely a history of what wasn’t said.

So when the Department of Foreign Affairs calls for submissions on the emigrant experience, I wondered how far back in a life one might go to discover how what wasn’t said then might have an impact on the present and the future.

So introverted was Irish society back then – I’m thinking of the 70s and 80s, but I am sure it was the same in earlier generations – and so preoccupied were people with how you fitted in with them that they didn’t ask. I and my family returned to Ireland very frequently, we always stayed in close touch, but we always swallowed what felt like rejection: the ultimate denial of our other experience, our real everyday lives, who we were becoming.

And this may be the truth of the matter: it was too painful for people to enquire into the stage after leaving, the settling, the immigrating, the adding on of all sorts of new bits of experience, new cultural and psychological elements of knowledge and identity. The real trouble was centred on loss – it was always “exile” from here; there was rarely any focus on gains, and I’m not really thinking of the embarrassing issues of money or success. Home on holidays, we were always asked “when are you coming back for good?” Inside the silence were difficult and painful feelings of shame and failure. Of defensiveness and pride. Such feelings were as real for the emigrants as for those at home, and we had to deal with them too in new circumstances, but they could rarely be faced and were often erupting in unexpected ways from the unspoken history.

I’m not sure that this is the kind of thing Government ministers and civil servants have in mind when they speak of “diaspora engagement”. I doubt it. And I even wonder if this new generation of emigrants will have to deal with it.

This brings me to the second announcement. When my older son was going through high school in Montreal, my wife and I thought it would be fantastic if he could go to university in Ireland. We enquired about the fees. In spite of his Irish citizenship, or his frequent visits to Ireland, or that he felt almost “at home” here, we could not afford the fees for him, or for his brother and sister.

How would their relationship with Ireland, and our relationships with them and with Ireland have been affected if they could have attended third-level here? It is easy to speculate about the qualifications they would have, the jobs (here in Ireland?) they would get, the girlfriends they might have met, the place they might settle.

During the Celtic Tiger, our first son had a job in Dublin for six months and would have stayed only that his girlfriend in Montreal wanted him back. Our second son worked at McDonalds in Rathmines at 17, living exactly where I did in the late 60s while at UCD.

Both of them returned to Canada, and worked in other countries for periods, but they have settled back in Canada, with Canadian wives. And our grandchildren are Canadian. My wife and I spend long periods in Kilkenny now, but we return to Montreal where our grandchildren welcome us back en français.

There are many lessons in the story about how turning points arrive in lives and the past and the future take on new shapes and feelings, and big words like here and there shift their meanings. Even if our children had been able to have education in Ireland at a very formative period of their lives, who knows how their futures or ours might have been different. But I feel it would have been. The future direction of anyone’s life is hard to control, emigrants or immigrants or anyone at all, but maybe there are some things I could put in a submission to the Irish Abroad consultation.

Denis Sampson lives in Montreal and Kilkenny. ‘A Migrant Heart’, his memoir of leaving, settling and returning, will be published in Montreal in September 2014.