‘We’re separated by an ocean, but emotionally we’re right alongide each other’
Many young Irish chasing opportunities abroad consider themselves ‘mobile citizens’ rather than part of a ‘diaspora’
I write from New York in my sweltering apartment, as the chaos of the city unfolds on the street beneath me.
When I graduated from my master’s programme, last September, I had the opportunity to apply for a 14-month J-1 visa to the US. I had spent two summers during college interning in Washington DC, which whetted my appetite to continue working internationally. The visa opportunity was too good to pass up, so with two suitcases and a small savings account I packed up my life in Dublin and set flight.
At first New York exhausted me. The magnitude of the cultural difference and the length of my to-do list were overwhelming. In those early months I had to find a job and a place to live and make a whole new circle of friends. I secured work in the nonprofit sector and quickly fell into New York’s demanding professional environment. I learned early on that strong coffee and an inexhaustible demeanor are essential for anyone who wants to survive in this city.
New York is known for its large and vocal group of Irish-Americans, famously proud of their heritage however remote it may be. Every new arrival from Ireland is immediately welcomed into the scene, which runs on a network of GAA clubs and pub crawls. Many become instantly absorbed in that replica Ireland. The “drunken Irish” cliche can be tiresome, although the bustling trade of Irish bars suggests there’s some basis for it.
Never was it more evident than on St Patrick’s Day. It was a regular work day here, so I missed the big parade, although it was reportedly a repeat of the same drunken chaos we see in Dublin. The Brooklyn parade, which went by my apartment, featured a small dog dyed green alongside a marching band from Co Clare. I attended with the same mixture of pride, bemusement and discomfort that comes with being the only red-headed, pale-skinned, actual Irish person amid a sea of Americans who feel deeply connected to a country most have never been to. That evening I went for Thai food with American friends. Everyone in the restaurant wore green. I was both touched and bewildered.
Irish emigrants of every generation have been universally warm and welcoming. My experience here has been made easier by these Irish people who came before me, who have built our reputation for hard work and good fun.
But there is a big difference between the generations. I’ve been living in New York for nine months, but I do not consider myself a member of the Irish diaspora, a term conventionally used to encompass all people of Irish descent making a life outside Ireland.
Our earliest emigrants departed without the prospect of ever returning. Those who have left over the past 50 years may have the option to return home, although the Ireland they left behind no longer exists. But many young people of my generation are in another category, what I call the mobile Irish. They are of Ireland, by blood or by choice, but exist on a global stage and feel equally connected to the country they come from, whether they’re at “home” or abroad.
In New York the ties of technology keep me close to Ireland. My media diet still includes The Irish Times and The Ray D’Arcy Show. I moan when we elect incompetent politicians, I cheer on the Ireland rugby team and I enjoy Moone Boy online.
I share my life with friends and family by sending snippets in pictures, voice messages and texts instead of a weekly phone call. We watch the same television shows and postmortem the story.
We swap recipes and troubleshoot why my bread won’t rise. In a changing room last week I texted a quick snap of a dress to a friend. “Buy it,” she said. We’re separated by an ocean, but emotionally we’re right alongside each other.
Begrudgery and humour
Of course I sometimes miss home. Nothing will ever compare to Ireland; to St Stephen’s Green on a sunny day with a 99, pints in Grogans with old friends or the Sunday papers full of that uniquely Irish balance of begrudgery and humour. Sometimes I just want a hug and a cuppa with someone who has known me for longer than six months, but for the most part I feel as connected to Ireland as I did when I was resident there.
Although I’m aware I left Ireland by choice, in search of adventure and the opportunity to up-skill professionally, I imagine I might feel differently had I been forced out of Ireland for economic reasons.
I am lucky to be of a generation that has benefited from both Ireland’s education system and its more outward-facing society. I came of age in an era when travel was common and relatively inexpensive. Since I graduated I have spent a significant amount of time outside Ireland in search of job opportunities and adventure. The freelance writing work I do lives on the internet, and that location independence allows me to take advantage of other opportunities wherever in the world they arise.
Almost two years ago I wrote a piece for the Generation Emigration blog commending Irish young people who decided to stay and be a part of the country’s future.
“I want to be at home, to live in the country that educated me and to be a very small part of the solution to our grave national problems,” I wrote. I still believe that, but I have come to understand that living in Ireland isn’t the only way to contribute.
Spending time away from home has allowed me to see it more clearly, both our national strengths – the capacity to work hard and build relationships – and our weaknesses, namely the tendency to begrudge success or belittle ambition. The longer I spend outside Ireland, the more convinced I become that our global connections will be the foundation for the country’s success in the future.
The most successful diaspora initiatives tap into these personal connections. In business, as in life, relationships are key. I try, too, to evolve “brand Ireland” beyond drunkenness. Rather than inviting friends home to Ireland for a pint, I talk about us as a modern European country, a hub for technology and a cultural centre.
People often ask if I plan to come home. I will, but I now think of the concept of home differently.
I see my career and my life evolving both within Ireland’s borders and outside of them. I have friends who delight in hopscotching around the world but can still tell you what the top news stories at home are. We are Irish citizens on a global stage, whose connectedness to home is less dependent on where we live than on the quality of the wifi connection.
As Ireland strives to “engage the diaspora”, it is important to remember these young Irish citizens with full passports, strong emotional ties to home and no permanent address.
This article appears in the Weekend Review section of The Irish Times today. Read Clare Herbert’s previous contributions to Generation Emigration here.