Ciara Kenny

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‘The longer I spend away the closer I feel to Ireland’

My ties to home have strengthened since I’ve realised my future is in London, writes Emer Harrington

Fri, May 2, 2014, 10:09


Emer Harrington

It’s been almost six years since I first dragged an overstuffed suitcase onto an Aer Lingus flight and headed to London to do a masters in international history. Since then, I’ve filled and dragged more suitcases, watched as Ireland headed into recession, welcomed more friends over from Cork (a development not unrelated to the previous one), graduated, had three different jobs, moved house five times and said goodbye to many good friends whose paths have taken them home, or further afield in their adventures.

I, like may Irish people who’ve come here to live and work, am familiar with the gentle mockery you get when you return home for the weekend. When you accidentally called your Irish friend “mate”. When you ask for a Magners instead of a Bulmers. When you try to explain that Bulmers is a whole other thing in London. When you try to pay with a £5 note in a pub. The ridiculous headband you’ve started wearing. When you accidentally refer to returning to London as “going home” instead of “going back” after the weekend is over.

It’s this last one, that occurs so absent-mindedly, that has caused me to stop and think on more than one occasion. I’ve come to feel very settled in London. The people I’ve met, the places I’ve visited and the experiences I’ve had have made me grow to love this place. It’s such a vast city with immense variety and diversity in its streetscape, pace, people and culture that the journey of discovery here seems constant. Like most immigrants, I’ve picked a side of the river (north) and rarely venture south. Even at that, there are whole pockets of London I haven’t even set foot in, and every time I find a new one I love the city a bit more.

I’m regularly asked if I have any intention of moving back to Ireland. The honest answer is no, probably not at the moment. This isn’t because I don’t have a deep love for and attachment to my hometown of Cork. Indeed, the more I’ve come to love London and feel at home here, the greater the sense of pride and nostalgia I’ve felt for Cork and Ireland. This might seem like a paradox, that spending longer away from home could make me feel closer to it, but it’s true. The fact that I’ve accepted that my life and – at least for the next few years – my future is away from Ireland has made me all the more keen to strengthen my ties to my family, culture and Irish heritage.

When I read a story about Cork being one of the top 10 overlooked European cities you should visit, when Rick Stein talks about the English Market being the best local market in Britain and Ireland, when I watch the #IrelandInspires St Patricks Day video, when I hear influential figures like Barack Obama or Chris Hadfield talking about their fond reflections of Ireland, or when anyone mentions Brian O’Driscoll I feel immensely proud of my homeland. At such moments I feel compelled to share these stories with anyone who will listen in the hope that they will see what I see, or at least want to enough to visit.

Every weekend I spend at home in Cork is filled with great moments with friends and family, and it’s a regular occurrence now that when I board the plane back to Stansted on Sunday evening I feel blue. Even though I tell myself to pull it together, homesickness often wins and I can’t always keep back the tears. It’s not because I don’t want to come back to London or that any aspect of my life here makes me sad, but because I’m leaving so much behind each time. For some reason, this has intensified over the years – I find it harder now leaving Cork to come back to London than I did four years ago. The main reason for this is that I spend far more time with my family when I go home now than I did before. This is probably because most people I grew up with have emigrated, but it is a blessing in itself.

The key thing that captures my experience as an Irish person living in London is, for every wonderful thing I find in this city, there will always be part of me that lights up when I pass through the “world food” section of the local supermarket and find, between Mexico and India, a whole section bursting with Barry’s Tea, Tanora, Tayto crisps and Flahavans porridge. Finding elements of Irishness in my life here, be it friends from home or a decent pint of Guinness, will always delight me.

For all of London’s charms, it’s not Cork.

Emer Harrington (27) works in healthcare communications.