‘1980s Ireland left little room for any optimism - abroad was beckoning’

Being one of a family of 10 children on a small farm in Co Westmeath, there was little idyllic about rural impoverishment

Philip Lynch

Philip Lynch

 

When I emigrated 36 years ago my connection with Ireland essentially ended. We parted with barely any rancour, but there was certainly disenchantment.

For as long as I could remember, I couldn’t see a way forward for myself in the country where I’d spent my formative years. I had a sense that ending the prolonged recession was simply beyond our political leaders’ ability.

And the economic despair in early 1980s Ireland left little room for any optimism.

Being one of a family of 10 children on a small farm didn’t leave much wriggle room. Beyond reeling in perch under the bridge of Finea in summer, snaring rabbits and harvesting wild mushrooms, there was little that was idyllic about rural impoverishment.

Growing up, going somewhere was always a perennial consideration. Like so many of my generation, anywhere abroad was beckoning like some kind of enticing beacon.

The feedback, however benign, always travelled through a circuitous route

Emigrating seemed like a logical option, perhaps even a quietly defiant rite of passage. In one fell swoop, the constraints of family and Irish society could be set aside.

The downside of going was that every time I’d return– everything had changed and sort of stayed the same. I was always more visitor than son or brother. I always felt a little awkward being “home” on a holiday, like some kind of guest of honour.

As if I’d become something of an extra or some kind of exotic creature who’d flown the nest, who’d created a life elsewhere, and in all likelihood, probably had notions of himself. Although of course no-one would ever be bold enough to say as much. Being back brought its own limitations. There wasn’t much I could say, out loud anyway. I was limited to a polite observer status.

I’d hear things later, on the grapevine. The feedback, however benign, always travelled through a circuitous route. Like my mother’s angst about my prolonged single status and my peculiar penchant for studying well into my 30s.

'Outside a Southern Boobook owl is hooting with its distinctive call here in Tasmania'. Photograph: iStock
'Outside a Southern Boobook owl is hooting with its distinctive call here in Tasmania'. Photograph: iStock

Unusually, before I left that summer, it hadn’t rained for weeks. No doubt the phenomenon of climate change was under way but it hadn’t reached the realm of public discussion.

It was sunny day after day. There was no longer any call to complain about the constant rain. Farmers were starting to worry. But I was all set to go, my rucksack was packed, and the weather wasn’t even on the periphery of my radar.

When my father, younger than I am now, was delivering me to Mullingar station that morning, he was remarking on the matters of his world; on who’d mown meadows and who’d cut silage, and who hadn’t yet shorn their sheep.

Some of the fields were already taking on a scorched look, especially in the places where the silerator had cut too deep. But by the time we reached our destination, our one-way conversation has stalled.

As the train from Sligo with its mostly empty carriages squealed to a stop, we shook hands, and he dug out some holy medals from his breast pocket, handed them to me, and I boarded without any hesitation.

We have to keep on keeping on. I’ll give it my best shot. That’s all I can do

I just wanted to get away and make a go of things. Isn’t that what motivates migrants? I was determined to go beyond England where my sister was nursing. It wasn’t just because of the Troubles and the push back against the Irish.

There was a harshness about Thatcher’s Britain that I simply couldn’t abide. Melbourne it was going to be. Australia would surely have more to offer. I had no evidence to support my optimism. When you’re 21, optimism is never far away, and almost anything and everything seems possible.

But this middle-age caper is a different story. Things are more measured even a little pedestrian but not necessarily any clearer, and, of course, everything seems less loaded. I’ve lost my father’s medals and their giver is gone too. As is my mother. So much has slid away.

Another summer is looming here in Tasmania. It’s still lush around these parts from the winter rain but it’ll dry out soon enough. Our water tanks are less than half full. And we are well down on our average rainfall. We are already being urged to prepare for the inevitable bushfire fire season.

We are being told we should be bushfire ready. Dozens of houses have already been lost in several mainland states across this generally parched continent. After our close shave last summer, who knows what’s in store?

Optimism, that’s surely what’s needed. We have to keep on keeping on. I’ll give it my best shot. That’s all I can do. Outside, tonight, a Southern Boobook owl is hooting with its distinctive call. Clouds have gathered and a little rain is forecast. This rural life in Tasmania has its drawbacks but it also occasionally approximates something you could almost call idyllic.

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