‘At Christmas, we come home, and everything is as it always has been’

Emigrants share their journeys as they travel back to family and friends in Ireland

‘That first glimpse of Grafton Street with a sea of lights twinkling above your head...’ Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times

‘That first glimpse of Grafton Street with a sea of lights twinkling above your head...’ Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times

 

As emigrants make their way back to Ireland to spend Christmas with family and friends, Irish Times Abroad readers share their journeys.

Robert Batt: ‘I’m flying from Australia to see my brother, who has leukemia’

I am flying back to Ireland at 10pm on Christmas Day. I will leave my family and home in Australia to go back and see my younger brother, who has leukemia. We are still unsure if he will be allowed out over Christmas. At times like these the distance is a killer, no pun intended. Video chats are a crutch that gets you closer to the day when you are physical together again, be that my brother and me, or me and my family. I am lucky I can afford fare, and I think of those can’t.

Etta MacDonagh-Dumler, Michigan: ‘My last 60-plus years have been spent as an emigrant’

My last 60-plus years have been spent as an emigrant. After the death of my father as a teenager, I was uprooted from the Bluestacks in Donegal to suburbia in Surrey, England. It might as well as have been another planet. I later split my time between a boarding school in Ireland and summer holidays in a dormitory community in England with no English friends. I completed my teacher training in England before emigrating again to the US. Over a lifetime I have reconciled what it means to be torn from roots and all that is familiar.

Yet as the arc of life unfolded, one of my sons decided to emigrate back to Ireland. So now I have two beautiful grandchildren with Louth accents, totally Irish, drawing me home every Christmas. The arrival at Dublin airport and walk through the city taking in the Christmas lights have become a tradition over the past few years.

This year is no different. With a stopover in New York, we will take in the lights of the Rockefeller Center. It will be our first stop followed by a circus at the Lincoln Center with our two New York City grandchildren, Emmet and Carl. Then we make our way across the Atlantic to Dublin for the pantomime at the Gaiety with our two Irish grandchildren Maeve and Connor.

Emer Tannam, Italy: ‘My mam will wait until all her children to come home to put up the tree’

I put up my Christmas tree on December 1st in my little flat in a small city in the north of Italy, with my Italian boyfriend, and our dog. I insisted on listening to the Horslips’ ‘Drive the Cold Winter Away’, because that’s what we’ve always listened to at home. As kids we complained about it, but now it’s the only possible soundtrack for the ceremonious decorating of the tree. My boyfriend is fairly bemused by the album, much in the same way that my Italian students of English have been bewildered by “Fairytale of New York”; it doesn’t make sense to them that one of the most popular Christmas songs in Ireland is about addiction, immigration, and disappointment.

Back in Dublin, my mam will wait until her children all come home to put up the tree.We are in our 30s, but the tree has to wait for us. Christmas has to wait for us. We decorate the Christmas cakes on Christmas Eve, and watch The Muppet Christmas Carol, and eat fish and chips. On Christmas morning, we line up to go into the sitting room to see what Santa’s left, in order of age. This year, with the addition of various international partners, there will be 11 of us, the oldest “child” 34, the youngest 18. At Christmas, it doesn’t matter that three of us live abroad, one married to a Scot in Edinburgh, one married to an American in London, and myself, living with an Italian in Italy. At Christmas, we come home, and everything is as it always has been, with some extra bodies mixed in.

Aoife Gahlawat, Heidelberg, Germany: ‘We have been struggling through a cloud of grief’

I will be heading home this Christmas, but without the usual excitement that comes with it. This year is going to be tough on my family, as we lost my sister Siobhan in July. I will never forget the day I got the news, the worst possible news anybody, especially anybody living abroad, should ever have to hear. Time stopped. I cannot describe the pain of losing a sibling so suddenly and unexpectedly.

We have been struggling through a cloud of grief since then. Siobhan adored Christmas, she was the biggest child of all. As soon as December 1st came, her Christmas jumper collection made an appearance, decorations and presents started to pile up, and of course her famous mince pies were in high demand. And every year, including last, she would start training for the local Fields of Athenry 10k Run on St Stephen’s Day. A fall in the icy weather stopped her from taking part last year, so in her honour, we are all going to run for her this year. I am more excited about this run than Christmas.

Nothing will ever fill the hole in our hearts; but I know that she would be proud to see us running together in purple “Team Siobhan” t-Shirts. She would have spoiled us with warm mince pies and Baileys coffee afterwards!

Lainey Broderick, Cayman Islands: ‘This year it is our turn to fly’

The last strains of Christmas FM are drowned out as the office is awake with a flurry of excitement when the clock strikes lunchtime. Nails to be painted, hair appointments, last minute shopping! “Have you packed?” everyone gleefully asks each other - the answer being no, of course, as there has been far too much festive cheer for that. Productivity starts to lower as the delight rises, last minute shouts of “we must get a Christmas drink in!” Eleventh hour packing, slight panic rising - but sure you can sleep on the plane. The out of office is set, the final goodbyes are said. “See you in the New Year!”

The airport is bustling, lines are long, but still that cannot dampen the atmosphere. A great crowd all heading back to Dublin. “Sure we have a quick one before we fly?” Boarding to the soft Irish lilt of the Aer Lingus air hostess and we are transported home in our minds before we even take off. Kerrygold butter, McCambridge’s brown bread and Lily O’Brien’s desserts being served - and more of this to look forward to when we land.

‘That first glimpse of Grafton Street with a sea of lights twinkling above your head...’ Photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times
‘That first glimpse of Grafton Street with a sea of lights twinkling above your head...’ Photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times

The clout of the crisp air as you step off the plane; the feeling of home fills your senses. Irish accents all around, and a hearty welcome home from the Garda at the immigration desks. The jovial chat with the taxi driver into town; each seemingly trivial encounter adding to the call of home. That first glimpse of Grafton Street with a sea of lights twinkling above your head.

As the cold starts to nip at your nose and ears, turning your cheeks rosy, the bitter wind is warmed sweetly by the smell of the hops. The reddening heat as you walk in the doors of Brown Thomas, with shoppers packing the aisles at every turn. The golden glow of all the decorations, illuminating the mix of last gasp franticness and Christmas cheer. The snug in Kehoes, with the fire inviting; the weary shopping husbands alone at the bar. The fresh pints of Guinness, hot ports and Irish coffees fill the tables along with emptying bags of Tayto and Bacon Fries.

Driving home to the family, even the traffic on the M50 cannot slow the mood. Then the hugs and the kisses, the hellos and howryas, the joy and the memories. A blur of reunions and catch ups, new babies and extended families, neighbours and old friends, late nights and early mornings. Christmas Day Mass, Christmas Day visits. Too much food, followed by more and a nap on the couch.

This year we will be home to share in it all. As we live so far away, on an island with so many expats also wanting to go home, Christmas vacation is not guaranteed, but this year it is our turn to fly.

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