‘Covid has made me question why I’m living in Melbourne’

Irish emigrants around the world share their experience of the pandemic

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Frances Greene
Brisbane
I am Frances from Carnlough, Co Antrim. My husband is Rory from Gortahork, Co Donegal. We have three children (one Aussie born). We have lived in Brisbane for 10 years. I am a teacher and took a position at a city centre independent girls boarding school as Head of Boarding at the beginning of 2020.

On my first day, as a flight carrying some of our boarding students returning from Chinese provinces landed in Brisbane, we began to read reports of a virus. My first encounter with those girls was to tell them and their parents via phone that the students would need to quarantine for 14 days before being permitted re-entry to our boarding facility.

From then, my first 18 months in the position has been constantly applying Covid health regulations, strengthened by almost daily communication with our Public Health Unit, to help students re-enter Queensland across interstate and international boarders.

We have been supporting some young international and interstate students who have not seen their parents in 18 months. Their parents have missed coming of age moments they can never get back.

Without dramatising for literary effect, we all live terrified to answer the phone , wondering who will be the next person who needs to decide to get home before it’s too late, not knowing when we would get back here to our own children, and wondering if we would ever be able to live with ourselves if we didn’t make it home.

Both our families are well thank God, but we have been the lucky ones, even still, we feel trapped. In limbo. Praying that our turn won’t be next. Our toddler is now four years old and hasn’t seen her grannies and grandas since she was two. The feeling is one of going to work, coming home, bringing up our children, enjoying all Queensland has to offer – between lockdowns – and consistently wondering what that feeling is that something is wrong. We don’t feel right. We need to get home, to fill our buckets again.

Catherine Hamilton
Derry via New Zealand

Catherine Hamilton
Catherine Hamilton

I lived in NZ for 16 years with my Donegal husband and two children (who were born in NZ). We’d decided in the November 2019 that we would sell everything and return permanently to Ireland in June 2020. By February 2020 we’d sold our house with a long agreement of possession for June. Boom. All sorted and seemed like it was “meant to be”.

As the news started to spread thick and fast of the impact of coronavirus panic started to set in. It wasn’t until March I realised our Irish passports needed to renewed. But at that point it was too late as the Irish embassy has shut.

Thinking it would be okay surely by June, I didn’t worry too much. NZ went into lockdown and the immediate worry was if our house sale would continue. It did. We made the decision that we would travel throughout NZ until the embassy opened again. Thinking maybe 4-6 weeks. Three weeks into lockdown we received the news no one wants to hear: my husbands father had passed away in Donegal!

We were stuck, shocked and deeply heartbroken that we couldn’t get home! Embassies could do nothing. We loaded up our car and hit the road. Still thinking a few weeks would see us right. As time past the reality of our situation hit. The stress levels increased but we were so fortunate to have friends and family help us along the way.

We were gifted houses to stay at four times over our 13 weeks “adventure”. The Irish embassy in NZ was brilliant! They got us sorted as soon as the passport authorities in Ireland opened. We got our passports back within four weeks of sending off the application and boarded our flight just as Auckland (our final destination) came out of a two-week mini-localised lockdown. I was physically shaking boarding the flight. Excited to get home, scared to leave NZ, uneasy about wearing face mask, scared to get contaminated, all while trying to remain strong for my children. It was an experience I’ll hopefully never go through again.

We got back just as things in Ireland were semi-settling down. Our kids started their new school and all seemed okay. But the lockdown following Christmas of 2020 was draining. We moved into Northern Ireland in April and thankfully life has slowly started to get back to normal(ish). It’s been a very draining 18 months.

Laura and Ronan O’Connor-Cooney
Singapore
The first taste of Covid affecting our lives was in February 2020 when a business trip back home to Dublin was cancelled. We had told our families at Christmas we would not have a big goodbye because “sure, we’d be back in a month”. Our return from that Christmas goodbye in 2019 is still the most recent time we have left this tiny island nation. The county closest in size to the island of Singapore is Louth, Ireland’s smallest, and Singapore is smaller still, though home to almost six million people. Closer to the equator than Dublin is to Belfast, there are no seasons with the heat and humidity the same the year round.

This makes the passing of time less perceptible; when we talk about things that happened “last year”, we mean 2019. Singapore’s strictly enforced measures of contact tracing, mask wearing and hyper vigilant “Safe Distancing Ambassadors” have kept us and the majority of the population safe from the worst of the pandemic, for which we are grateful.

The border rules, also strictly enforced, have made us unable to leave without the risk of being stranded abroad. We have obsessed over numerous projects; wine courses, multiple terms of mandarin, taking up cycling, giving up cycling, fostering cats, playing The Sims into the early hours, and a couch to 5km experiment with mixed results.

Our moods have fluctuated too; gratitude intermingled with frustration and there’s a definite feeling of filling time until things improve. After the first few months of Covid there was no doubt that Christmas 2020 would be spent in Singapore. We were lucky that we had some wonderful Singaporean and Malaysian friends to celebrate with, one of the highlights of this time. We have optimistically booked our flights home for Christmas 2021, in the hope the border rules will ease. If not, there’s always 2022.

Sinead Mulhern
Fiordland Community, New Zealand
We have only had six weeks lockdown in total since the start of the pandemic so we have been blessed. We ended up really valuing the opportunity to stay at home and slow down from the busyness of life, but that’s easy to say when it’s just a few weeks at a time. My brother and family had just visited so we were really lucky but I haven’t been home since. I won’t go until travel is easier and safer and I don’t need to book spaces in quarantine to return to NZ.

We have been also lucky financially, we have both changed jobs for the better as remote working has opened up opportunities that we didn’t have before, living in rural New Zealand. We are some of the fortunate ones that can say we have gained emotionally and financially over the last 18 months but it’s easy to see how something like a pandemic can widen the gap between rich and poor and emphasise mental health issues. So much money has gone into economic recovery that it’s hard to see health, education etc getting much of a boost any time in the near future.

Hannah Ratcliffe
New Zealand

Hannah Ratcliife’s son Thomas
Hannah Ratcliife’s son Thomas

Living in the one country that has basically completely shut itself off from the rest of the world, it has and is continuing to be a very lonely time during this pandemic. People think that just because New Zealand basically had Covid under control that everyone’s lives here are pretty normal, but there is a huge population of us immigrants who are suffering in silence because of the ongoing pandemic.

We cannot see our families or our friends in fear that we might not be aloud to return due to a closed boarder and limited MIQ places. Many of us have lost loved ones, missed out on weddings, birthdays and the arrivals of new family members. While the rest of the world get used to living with Covid, we are living in a lockdown bubble constantly in fear. We’ve been watching our families and friends from a screen, wanting to help, wanting to support our loved ones through this tough time and needing help ourselves, but we are basically ignored.

It’s been nearly three years since I was last home. Two years since I last hugged my mam and she waved goodbye to her only grandson Thomas from the terminal gates. And the scariest thing of all is, because we have been so isolated for so long, the thought of travelling home if and when that time comes available is a very, very scary thing.

Diane Rushton
Invercargill City, New Zealand
My mum was meant to come out the week Jacinda closed her borders, I was expecting my little boy, five years trying, and went through fertility. It’s been 18 long months of FaceTime… I have found this phase of life very hard as my sister also had a little boy 10 weeks before me, my uncle got diagnosed with cancer and my Granny died of Covid in January this year. Not being able to go home has been so hard and watching from afar feels so surreal.

Naomi Brennan
Wellington, New Zealand

Naomi Brennan: We miss both our families immensely and our daughter is growing up looking at our families via a screen
Naomi Brennan: We miss both our families immensely and our daughter is growing up looking at our families via a screen

We had our first baby just before the world shut down and she was in NICU for a little while. We had no family support and also moved house during the start of the lockdown in NZ. We miss both our families immensely and our daughter is growing up looking at them via a screen. There’s no timeline for our borders opening up so it’s getting harder to be positive about it all but we’re all happy and healthy. Would just love everyone to meet our beautiful daughter!

Aoife Healy
Waitemata, Auckland, New Zealand

Aoife Healy
Aoife Healy

I’ve been living in Aotearoa, New Zealand since 2010 and I love this place. I’ve been away long enough now to know I need to get home every two years or so. I don’t get homesick that often (thank God, because if you have felt it, you know that homesickness is brutal) but if I don’t get home at least every three years I start to get “twitchy”.

It’s like the central pieces of who you are start to become lose. Maori people have a concept called Turangawaewae – literally the place for you to stand (turanga – to stand, waewae – feet). It is the feeling of foundation and belonging that can only come from that connection to place.

Abroad during Covid

Talk of returning to country, the tribal land of your ancestors, is also key to wellbeing for Aboriginal Australians. I don’t know if we have a word for that as Gaeilge, but I do know there is a kind of affirmation that can only come from being in Ireland for me.

Of course, it is friends and family, and I am lucky that my Mam and Dad were here in January 2020. There is, though, a specific thing that can only come from standing on Irish ground – the light, the air, the water, the smell. This all sounds very romanticised of course, the Lee can stink at low tide in the summer, but that is part of Cork, and I am part of Cork which is the whole idea of turangawaewae. Pair this with the longstanding Cork cultural concept that Cork is the best place in the world, and you have a strong recipe for the old, exiled heartbreak my generation thought we would never face. So, until I get back to my turangawaewae, I will remember to be grateful that I can and could go home and think of the people before us who left with little hope to return.

Ronan McGlynn
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Ronan McGlynn
Ronan McGlynn

Leaving for Australia in 2015 was a big decision for us, leaving family and friends and stepping into the unknown. We absolutely love our life here but we always assumed home was only a day away, a 24hr flight should anything happen at home to nearest and dearest. Now that option has been taken away, Ireland has never seemed so far away, we feel every inch of the 13,000 miles.

The uncertainty of when we’ll get back to Ireland next, missing out on family occasions that prior to Covid you’d go home for, yet to meet new nieces and nephews and the fear in the back of your mind of someone at home getting ill from Covid or some other illness and not being able to get back to see them weighs heavy on the mind.

I guess it’s now like what previous generations that emigrated experienced, they knew trips back to Ireland would be few and far between. Australia is a great place to live, great opportunities and a fantastic lifestyle but now it feels so detached from the rest of the world so isolated and our lives here now are like living in a bubble that cannot be burst.

Louise King
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Louise King’s children
Louise King’s children

As Head of Learning Support in an international school in Malaysia the pandemic has been extremely tough. Our children, including my own eight- and 10-year-olds have had 12 weeks of school since March 2019. School closure has been a hotly debated topic, especially when considering the difference between the large classes and underdeveloped facilities in local schools compared to the more spacious, well-ventilated international schools.

Many parents of international school children want them back in school whereas lots of local families are scared and worried about the virus. Malaysia was getting back on track during the earlier parts of this year but full lockdown was implemented in June 2021 with even parks closed.

Luckily, the embassies had worked with the Malaysian government to allow ex-pat teachers permission to travel back into Malaysia after a trip to their home country. This came at a financial cost and a mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine. My children and I decided to make the trip back to Armagh. For three weeks I got up at 1am and taught through the night on Malaysian school hours. Then we had three blissful weeks of freedom at home with family and friends-, even the Irish weather was good to us for a change!

We returned to Malaysia in August for another 14 days of hotel quarantine. When we exited quarantine, things were slowing beginning to open up for fully vaccinated people.

Restaurants and bars opened with a 10pm curfew. Pools and parks opened and even Gaelic football was able to start up again this week and I enjoyed a run out with the Orang Eire GAA club. The kids settled into a pretty normal life with the exception of face-to-face learning at school. Full school opening remains uncertain.

The last 18 months have been tough but I have a new sense of gratitude and for the small things in life – trips to the park, a day at the pool and dinner with friends are all things I took for granted but now cherish.

Malaysia is a beautiful country and continues to offer us many opportunities and experiences although restrictions here have been some if the strictest in the world, the vaccination rates are high and we are hopefully coming out the other side. The trip to Ireland this summer was amazing and I think lifted our spirits and helped us to adapt and accept things in Malaysia.

Seamus Hennessy
Attécoubé, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

Seamus Hennessy
Seamus Hennessy

I spent the first 18 months of the pandemic here in Abidjan watching infections, lockdowns and deaths soar around the world. Considering the very minor impact here I felt like a draft dodger.

The government here was very proactive in arresting and controlling the initial spread of Covid-19. They had airport checks and tracking and tracing teams in place before the first positive case was detected here. Thanks to this there was never a full lockdown. There was an evening curfew for the first month or so and masks were, and still are, required indoors. Schools (and I work in a school) went online. By the summer of 2020 everything was open again and have remained open since.

Our school was fully open on campus with all students present for the entire year. Life continued as normal; restaurants on weeknights and beach hotels and nightclubs at the weekend. Vaccination rollout began on March 1st. Here teachers and people over 50 were all included in the first group and, being in both categories, I was able to have my first jab on March 2nd.

While life remained easy here international travel was to prove difficult. In fact 2020 is the only year in my 54 years that I have not set foot on Irish soil. In normal times it’s just 12 hours door to door from here to home, from here to family and for the first time ever I had to accept the reality that if anything serious happened to a family member I could not be there.

Thanks to being vaccinated I was able to travel home this summer and I look forward to fewer restrictions going forward. In the meantime I will continue to soak up my sunny vitamin D here and suggest that anyone reading should consider spending two weeks on a tropical Ivorian beach to build immunity before the coming Irish winter.

Steve Boylan
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia
Living abroad has always come with its own challenges. But the world seemed pretty small with WhatApp, easy access to the phone and a constant stream of information from back home (I have cousins who used to line up on one phone once a month and get posted videos of the Late Late show, so we’re pretty lucky now).

Australia (as usual) tends to follow trends about six months after things, so to be honest when everyone was locked down in Ireland, we were able to go to the beach, no masks, a small lockdown ended and we pretty much went back to normal. Then, Delta, and we have found ourselves totally locked down here in regional NSW. Not being able to get home to mourn the death of a loved one last year left me and my wife with a sense of sadness and guilt.

Not being able to get home to celebrate my brother’s wedding was the same, albeit bittersweet. We feel for everyone back in Ireland who went through a terrible 18 months and it gives us great heart to see things slowly starting up again. Meanwhile we face a few more months of lockdown here as we try to wrestle Delta to the floor.

Paula Doherty
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Gone are the days when as an Irish emigrant to Australia, I could say “ah sure if anything happens, I’m only ever a 24-hour flight home….” Thankfully since the start of Covid, for me that “anything” hasn’t happened. On the contrary, having struggled with infertility, to the absolute delight of my husband (also Irish) and I, in May 2020, I became pregnant! Little did I know that Melbourne’s strict lockdowns and all they entail, coupled with my complete fear of catching Covid, ironically lead to me being healthier than I’d ever been. Which I believe helped us conceive our miracle lockdown baby!

We have no other family here, so my hope is that we get to see our family in Ireland soon and introduce our little boy to them. I know that in a parallel universe where Covid didn’t exist, I would’ve got to go back to Ireland on my maternity leave and would have got to spend precious time and make priceless memories with our baby and his family in Ireland. Hopefully we’ll get to make some of those memories in the near future and they’ll be all the sweeter!

As I write we are still in lockdown here in Melbourne. My husband and I are very lucky to get to work from home. We currently also mind our little baby (as daycare is closed to us). It can get a little tiring/full on at times but all in all I feel truly blessed to have (what I think is) our little miracle lockdown baby!

The song of my home county, It’s A Long Way To Tipperary, feels so true at the moment but please God in the very near future I will again be able to jump on one of those 24-hour flights home!

Deborah Cleary
Gran Canaria
I had a flight to Dublin booked for March 13th, 2020, my Dad was in hospital and Mam had a medical procedure coming up and I wanted to be with her, plus St. Patrick’s Day, the craic would be mighty. I felt very guilty about not taking the flight but the thought that I could pick up something worse (Covid) and infect the family was worse, luckily the flight was cancelled by the operator so the choice was taken away anyway.

Lockdown was extremely strict here in Gran Canaria, I have two young boys and home schooling was very tough along with trying to set up working from home... Life has quickly become digitally dependant and we survived!

We are still suffering the consequences, hubby still not back to work and I am only 50 per cent, but it’s my children’s sadness of not being able to go to Ireland this summer that made us book flights for this Christmas and we are going no matter what! Any chance of snow?

Marc Haughey
Dunedin, New Zealand

Marc Haughey
Marc Haughey

We (my partner Judith and I) moved to New Zealand in 2018, originally just for a year for the classic Kiwi backpacker experience. We worked in any jobs we could get at the time and were lucky enough to explore Aotearoa. The one year turned into two years and that is now 3.5 years, and trying to get residency.

Experiencing Covid from New Zealand has been like living in a bubble. On the whole we have been pretty unaffected. Continuing to ski in the winter and get and enjoy the four good days of summer in Dunedin (not hugely different to Ireland). But when you dig a bit deeper the impact of Covid has certainly made it to New Zealand.

Migrants are returning home in their droves as Immigration NZ close basically all visa options for anyone not a resident to stay. The uncertainty that brings, while in the grand scheme of things is fine, does make it hard to plan anything. We have no ability to buy a house or really settle down here. It feels like we are in limbo and Immigration NZ aren’t budging.

The other side to Covid in New Zealand is the stringent borders, which have definitely kept us all safe and enjoying freedoms which most of the world had taken away at some stage.

We haven’t been home to visit for 2.5 years now. I have four friends getting married this year and no hope of attending their weddings. We can go home but getting a place in managed isolation is nearly impossible. If we were lucky enough to get in it would add an extra $5,000 to an already expensive trip, plus an additional two weeks in a hotel. At the minute it isn’t worth it, but that may change depending on how long this goes on for.

All in all, we know we are very lucky to have spent Covid in a beautiful part of the world that has been largely unaffected, but the time for us to make a decision around our future is looming: Ireland or New Zealand, and more things are starting to pull us home than keep us here.

Caroline Mulvaney
Brisbane City, Queensland, Australia

Caroline Mulvaney
Caroline Mulvaney

I love Australia and I’m currently exploring all my options to stay here permanently. When I left Ireland three years ago, I knew I was leaving for good. I’ve only been back once for a visit and that was before Covid took over the world. I had no plans to go back again anytime soon anyway and I’ve been really fortunate being in Queensland the whole time because we’ve been in a sort of bubble.

I tried to view it as a little holiday but I was also careful not to rub that in anyone’s face especially on social media because I knew how much everyone back home had been struggling. I don’t know how my mental health would have coped if I had gone through the pandemic the same as my friends and family.

I’m really trying to appreciate what I do have because I think that’s the only thing that has got a lot of people through this. I think the last two years have been a really tough time globally and if there was ever a time that we need to take care of our mental health it’s now.

Sandra True
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
The year 2020 started with hotel quarantine for the whole family having returned from visiting my sister and family for Christmas on the central coast New South Wales (NSW). In a few hours NSW was a red hot spot and all five of us, including three children 13, 11 and 9 we mustered off to a hotel in the airport where we endured five days of hotel quarantine in two rooms whilst my husband tried to work. Since then we have endured six lockdowns in Melbourne.

My husband lost his job with an Asian company and was out of work for four months . The three children have home schooled for most of the year. I work in healthcare and returned to full time work. Financially we have survived but the hardest thing is not seeing my parents or family in Ireland and then not coming out. Australia is a great place as long as you know you can get home to family. Because of the state borders I can’t see my sister in NSW. One of the main reasons I came to Australia in the first place. Family is everything and Covid has reinforced this making me now question why I’m here.

Mike Keogh
Shanghai, China

Mike Keogh
Mike Keogh

Been blessed really, made it back into China on one of the last few flights before forced quarantine was able to continue working and having a social life. I’ve probably been more active and healthy then I have been for years. The time difference is hard and not being able to leave and re-enter is one of the hardest things here. I haven’t been home in nearly 2 years but we need to keep going until this is all over.

Leighton James
Waitemata, Auckland, New Zealand
In the midst of another lockdown here in Auckland I’m still thankful for what has been a relatively normal 18 months. I’m blessed to work for the government here, so finances have been stable even if the working environment has not been. Anxiety levels have been tested hearing about life back home in Meath.

We buried my aunt days before the pandemic restrictions kicked in globally and I raced south before borders closed, leaving behind a broken, grieving family. I’m looking forward to coming home and reconnecting with them all, to make more positive memories and speak my native tongue again.

Elizabeth David
New York, US
I flew back from Ireland via Aer Lingus on September 11th, 2021. The plane was about 15 per cent full. So much has changed since my last visit in 2019, but thankfully my mother and immediate family looked older but are still here. My maternal uncle passed away from Covid earlier this year. At the time it hurt to think of my mother standing out on the road watching her brother leave his house in a hearse on his way to his funeral Mass. (A Mass that she could not attend in person.) Living abroad my mind continuously fears the time when I will get the call saying a loved one has died.

Over here in NYC my cousin’s wife passed away from pancreatic cancer in May 2020. His mother and Irish based siblings were not able to console him and his sons in person. His oldest son is celebrating his wedding in October, will they be able to come here for that, we hope so. I personally was working from home until April this year.

My husband returned to his office full-time this week after working from home since March 2020. Earlier this year when both our mothers receive their vaccine my fears of losing someone else to Covid began to abate a little. In April I joyously received my first and second shot. At that point, I knew I would get to see my mother sooner rather than later…. Life here has slowly but surely gone back to a semblance of normal. Broadway opened this week and children went back to in classroom learning. We are getting there.

Susie Murray
North Carolina, US
When my sister tells people I moved to North Carolina in the teeth of the pandemic, they shake their heads. I have, they presume, joined a cult. They imagine me barefoot, in a smock, next to my trailer park home that doubles as both chapel and meth lab. Nothing, they assume, short of manic religious fervour could have prompted me to move to the Southern United States in late 2020.

In fact, I came to the USA to work as a doctor. My plan to go the US had been years - and thousands of euros worth of exams - in the making, and last summer, with two travel bans against me, it had seemed like it might not happen at all. But eventually, in November, three days before the presidential election, I set off for North Carolina to begin my job in the nephrology department at Duke University.

Having travelled trans-Atlantic via a comfy, mostly empty, appropriately socially distanced, Aer Lingus flight, I got an immediate lesson on how Americans view Covid when I was squeezed into an over-packed United Airways flight for my last leg and handed a single alcohol wipe.

I was vaccinated in January, and for a time, while my friends and family locked down at home, life here returned almost to normal – if a normal where I work 12 hours, six days a week and everyone thinks I talk too fast. But in the last month the jaws have snapped shut again. The hospital is choked with Covid, whole floors of ICU beds filled with nothing but people on ventilators who have little hope of getting off. Last week, I sat with one of our kidney transplant patients as she cried over her son’s refusal to get the vaccine. It’s hard to watch.

Neil Costigan
Luleå, Sweden
Pre-March 2020 I would have been on a flight a week. I made 20 trips across the Atlantic in 2019. Then bang !

I followed the herd to daily long walks and loved it. My new cooking skills surprised everyone. Learning to play an instrument seems to have impressed just me.

I did this in Sweden which ran an intriguing and different game plan from the rest of the world. It was quite surreal to hear of local lockdowns, “mandates” etc. and then be one of about 10 per cent of people to be on a bus wearing a mask. I did get to Ireland, finally after nearly two years, and it was so good to see everyone. Refreshing to see the optimism that we are coming out of this lost 18 months. I am now about to get back on a plane for a business trip to London and it will very interesting to see if “back to business” is back to the the way it was. Guess the next few months will tell.