Fondness for the Irish is evident everywhere in London

Working abroad: Conor McRitchie, senior consultant with Deloitte Digital, London

‘Having left Ireland after receiving 18 years of education at home, I want to start contributing back to my own community.’

‘Having left Ireland after receiving 18 years of education at home, I want to start contributing back to my own community.’

 

I’m originally from Belfast but I studied in Dublin. I always enjoyed visiting the south growing up, and I was fortunate to come from a family that supported my decision to study at UCD and do what I loved: history and politics.

My first experience living abroad was an exchange year at college that I spent at Hong Kong University. The experience taught me two things: The first (and probably slightly clichéd insight) is the power and positivity of the “Irish brand” abroad, and how much we punch above our weight. Even in far-flung places like China with cities that contain three or four times the population of Ireland, I could find strong Irish communities proactively contributing to Chinese society and culture.

The second insight - which probably derives being from Northern Ireland (and a Presbyterian family) - was that there is always a little explaining to do when asked where you are from. Close friends I travelled with eventually tired of me indulging in the history of Northern Ireland to anyone who would listen, but to be honest I have always been very happy saying I’m Irish and it’s an identity I’m very comfortable with.

I moved to London in 2010 after I graduated from UCD, and gave myself three years to do a postgrad and get a job before returning home. Ending up in London seemed like a bit of a personal failure; it was not far enough to justify missing Ireland and not close enough to be home.

It’s also a well-trodden path. I remember lamenting my older brother - half jokingly, half seriously - for fuelling the brain drain when he decided to study in England for university. I chided him that he’d never return. Now he’s back in Belfast running his own business and I’m five years in London. Needless to say the ridicule I receive every holiday break is fully deserved.

I felt a bit guilty too for not staying in Ireland. But at the age of 22, I was still fairly clueless about what I wanted to do, bar a vague notion of wanting to work in a government department. So I decided to study for an MSc in Public Policy at King’s College London.

My first year in London as a student was tough but probably the most craic. I lived in a one-bed flat in Kilburn with a college friend from Dublin. He would eventually have his own adventure by joining the British Army and serving in Afghanistan, but at that stage we were both focused on converting our sitting room into a bedroom to give us separate sleeping areas and to make the place affordable. We ate £1 microwave meals and got part-time jobs taking pictures of visitors at London Zoo. The work paid for cheap nights out and night buses home. There was an element of testing ourselves to see whether we could stand it, and although the experience was tough at times I eventually managed to complete the degree and graduate in summer 2011.

During the graduation ceremony at the Barbican, the chancellor name checked some of the notable alumni of the university, including Desmond Tutu, Rosalind Wilkins and… Michael Collins. I had to check myself - did that just happen? Everywhere around me I could see a fondness for the Irish in London. I particularly remember sitting in King’s Strand library watching the Queen arriving at Áras an Uachtaráin on my laptop. I was very moved, and thought how fortunate I am to be part of a generation that can build on this.

My postgrad was only supposed to be a stepping-stone to meaningful work experience. I was very fortunate to be hired into a management consultancy that would train me and open the door to a new world of opportunities that I didn’t know existed. Making the switch from being a student to a working professional has undoubtedly been the biggest life change of my 20s. Those first few months where I had to wake up, put on a suit and engage in sensible conversations with people came as a bit of a shock. Insecurities flourished: why did I study Arts? What if I got found out?

I now work for a digital agency that builds e-commerce and marketing websites for other businesses. It’s a complete shift from the direction I thought I was heading in when I first graduated, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it. My work experience has also helped me to shed that sense of guilt for having left Ireland for London in the first place. One key reason is the diversity of the team I work with now. I work alongside an Indian development team, a user experience lead from New Zealand, and a Korean analyst, and we all report to our Jordanian manager. If anything, it’s taught me that Ireland does not have a monopoly in the world on stories about how people have needed to leave home to find work. There are a lot of similar narratives out there. We need to stop feeling so sorry for ourselves.

That said, the craic will never be the same here as it is at home, and I still want to move back to Belfast or Dublin in the next few years. Having left Ireland after receiving 18 years of education at home, I want to start contributing back to my own community. In the meantime, I’m learning to be patient and hoping that, should the opportunity present itself, I will have achieved everything I could in London which puts me in the best position to take hold of it.

Are you working an interesting job abroad? Want to share your experience with Generation Emigration readers? We're looking for stories. Email emigration@irishtimes.com to contribute.

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