After 50 years in South Africa, I’m back in Ireland, where I belong

My father used to ask: ‘Who will go back to the ol’ country for me?’ We’re home now

On board the Winchester Castle ferry from Southampton to Cape Town in 1948

On board the Winchester Castle ferry from Southampton to Cape Town in 1948

 

Having spent almost 50 years in South Africa, some days I ask myself, what took you so long to come back? But for all the time that I was away, my story has always been about being Irish, and about our family’s strong links with Ireland.

I first left Ireland in a basket crib, departing from Waterford city in 1948 with my parents and sister, heading first for Southampton, then on to Cape Town on the Winchester Castle, a converted troop carrier from the second World War years.

My father had been offered a position in Port Elizabeth as a flour miller. Dad was a Dublin man, born in the Rotunda hospital, and my mother came from Dundrum.

He was determined that he could give his family a better life if he spent just five years in a foreign country. So they said goodbye and left Ireland, with meagre belongings and two small girls, moving to a place where they knew nobody. They didn’t realise at the time that South Africa was to become their country.

Betty Sorrell with her sister and their new Austin A40 in South Africa
Betty Sorrell with her sister Patricia and their new Austin A40 in South Africa

It wasn’t until my mother passed away in 1988 that I realised how truly fortunate we were as children to have experienced the best of both worlds. We were different, with Irish parents, living in the heart of South Africa. So unique, in fact, that at the first farm school we attended, in Gumtree in the Orange Free State, at break times, my older sister was made to recite or sing in English, while standing on a chair in the playground.

Dreaming of soft days

Some children came to school barefoot when it was hot. We were made to carry raincoats in the bottom of our schoolbags, just in case of bad weather! Our mother’s heart was probably back in Ireland, dreaming of a grand soft day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky for months at a time, but the coat had to stay.

On Saturday afternoons, with the heavenly smell of shortbread and scones baking in the oven for tea, we gathered around our father’s chair and sang Irish songs from the Community song books. I bet that no other children in South Africa did this. But we weren’t to know this, and for that I am grateful.

Betty Sorrell and her sister and grandmother
Betty and her sister Patricia get a visit from their grandmother
The Sorrell family on holidays.
Charles and Eleanor Finlay with their daughters Patricia and Betty on holidays.

We were Irish and our parents felt that it was important to remember our heritage. My dad once wrote my name in Irish on 20 new school books that I had freshly covered in brown paper. “Sure I saw no harm in it,” he said. I cried all the way to school the next day. Because I was ashamed? No, never. I cried because others at school might tease me, which happened sometimes.

Although dad and mom did return to Ireland twice for holidays, South Africa would become and remain the place they called home. In the latter years of his life, my dad often spoke out, wondering, who would go back to the ol’ country for him. If he could only see us now.

My daughter, his granddaughter (who was born on his birthday), lives in Kildare, my sister and her husband are in the Gorey area, and I live with my husband in Co Carlow.

In 2006, my daughter, with her husband and two small boys, moved to Ireland from South Africa. They said goodbye to family and moved to a new country, with limited luggage and no one to meet them. They have a lovely property in Kildare and my son-in-law commutes to Dublin to work. Soon after they arrived in Ireland, they had a third son. He was born in the Rotunda hospital in Dublin, 60 years after his great-grandfather had left Ireland for South Africa.

My daughter and son-in-law have adopted Ireland as their home. They have no wish to return to the country of their birth, this is their country now. As a family, they have travelled the length and breadth of Ireland, getting to know it.

Departure

I visited Ireland in 1979, coming on holiday from South Africa with my parents to meet aunts, uncles and cousins for the first time, and to be introduced to the Irish culture as my mom and dad remembered it. But, of course, they found it all changed, because nothing remains as it is forever.

Then, in 1998, after the deaths of both my parents, I left South Africa for pastures new. It wasn’t easy, I left behind two daughters who had lives of their own. At the time, I had every intention of moving back to Ireland. But my life took an unexpected twist and as destiny would have it, I remained in London, where I found employment. It wasn’t until 2016 that I finally made the move to Carlow.

Betty Sorrell with her grandchildren, back ‘home’ in Co Carlow in 2017.
Betty Sorrell with her grandchildren, back ‘home’ in Co Carlow in 2017.

I lived in all four provinces of South Africa at different times during my 50 years there. But before finally making the move back in 1998, I lived on the south coast of Natal, where all four seasons of the year are slightly different degrees of hot.

Now, living in the northern hemisphere, I come alive with the excitement that heralds changing seasons, and do not miss the coastal humidity and heat of South Africa at all.

‘I am happy here. I belong.’
‘I am happy here. I belong.’

In spring I love waiting for the daffodils to pop up in the garden and along the side of the country roads. The yellow haze on gorse hedges adds contrast to the clean, green open spaces and ploughed brown farmlands. It is so different to the open plains and mountains of South Africa.

In autumn, the gorgeous falling leaves remind us that the special festive time of Christmas is about to burst into our homes. And wow, the snow, who doesn’t love the falling snow?

I am happy here. I belong.

Earlier this year, my brother, while on a business trip as well as visiting his daughter also from South Africa, was looking at aquiring a property within a commutable distance from Dublin. He hopes to be moving to Ireland later this year.

So, in answer to my father’s question: “Who will go back to the ol’ country for me?” There will soon be three of his four children here and two granddaughters too. He left his Ireland and took with him his expertise at the time, just as we all have brought with us a wealth of skills, work ethic and knowledge, each in our own way.