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‘I left Ireland at 17. I’m returning 25 years later with two kids’

After years of talk, the end of a contract gave Jennie Ritchie the push she needed to leave Antigua

Jennie Ritchie: packing up in Antigua to move back to Ireland

I am sitting at my desk in Antigua in the Caribbean surrounded by quotes, paperwork and packing boxes. The scent of jasmine blossom fills the air. The view from my desk, through the louvred window that lets in the warm breeze, looks over Galleon beach and the sea entrance to Nelson’s Dockyard. The beach is dotted with coconut palms and the garden is bright with hibiscus and bougainvillea. I am overwhelmed with excitement, fear and busyness.

The phone rings and it is the job interview I have been waiting for.

“So, why would you want to move back to Ireland?”

The woman in the mortgage department in Bank of Ireland asked me the same thing, before politely telling me I don’t have a hope of getting a mortgage for the next 12 months.

Sometimes I think everyone in Ireland wants to leave, and everyone that has left yearns to be back home.

I left when I was 17, to study abroad, and never went back. I was having too much fun. I moved with ease from country to country following jobs, dreams and love. Eight countries and 25 years later, I am a wife and a mother to two children – global, international, third-culture kids.

Proud to be Irish

But I don’t want that label for them. My children are going to have an identity: that of an Irish mother and a father from New Zealand, born and pre-schooled in Switzerland, speaking French, followed by a few years on a Caribbean island but soon to grow up part of Irish culture. That is something I have been proud of in my travels – proud to be Irish and proud of my heritage. They need to know the soul of the country whose passport they hold.

‘My children are going to have an identity... They need to know the soul of the country whose passport they hold.’

The urge to return to Ireland has been getting stronger over the past 10 years and I spoke of it often with friends and relatives. “It is easier to talk the talk than walk the walk”, “the grass is always greener” and “be careful what you wish for” are phrases that sing in my mind now. I wished, talked and dreamed and then the universe whistled back with some subtle hints and finally a great big kick in the backside.

“What? Our contract is up? What on earth are we supposed to do?”

“Why, move back home to Ireland of course!”

If we weren’t stranded on a desert island, would I have had the courage to move back to a country where I don’t really have any close friends, where I have no job and no car, but thankfully I have a roof over my head (bless you Mum and Dad)? I am not sure I am that brave.

I enrolled with a life coach to talk me through the little voices in my mind saying: “Are you mad? The hayfever? The taxes? The weather?”

Why and why not

I could spend all day and night reading other people’s stories of why and why not, but this decision is my own. My husband is not Irish so he has no strings pulling him across the Atlantic. My life coach asks me to write for 10 minutes about what I love about life here and what I don’t. Afterwards, she tells me that everything I like is available anywhere. Don’t base the decision on the country. Then we work on who I am and what I want.

She also wants to test the foundations of our marriage, so my husband gets involved. Fair point – we are going through this together.

Desk with a view: Looking over Galleon beach and the sea entrance to Nelson’s Dockyard.

My friend Gavin makes me laugh. A fellow Irish person abroad, he says we all need to have a plan for our next move, not just an idea that sounds good after a few rum and cokes.

I am drawn to life near my family. I am struck with the realisation that my network of friends abroad (with the exception of Australia) are all expats in the countries we lived in. I knew locals, but I never integrated enough to call them close friends. There was always a chance my nearest friends would leave for another country. This is especially true where I am now, which makes the decision easier, not so much to go “home” to Ireland, but to return to a life where I can be part of the country and the politics (good and bad) and not think about how much more time I should do in this particular place. Life in Ireland, come what may, will be real.

Rose-tinted glasses

I have never lived in Ireland as an adult, so I still see the country through the rose-tinted glasses of my childhood. There were gymkhanas in the summer and pantomimes in the winter, filling the nature table at school with conkers and acorns, pilfering chocolates from the Christmas tree, playing board games by the fire while the huge stock pot bubbled on the stove after our weekly roast dinner, Sunday lunch at Nana’s house when she wheeled in the trolley of coffee eclairs for dessert, and playing tag in her rose garden.

There were chilblains and hot-water bottles too, Bible passages and money worries, complaints about the endless muck in the autumn, winter and spring.

As a child, I knew about faraway shores where the sun always shines. I grew up at a time when a year in Australia was a rite of passage. I moved and kept moving – when things started getting too serious, settled or grown-up somewhere, it was time to move on to new and exciting lands to begin life all over again – a life lived always in colour with an interesting story to tell. I shared this journey with new friends each step of the way, friends that became family, friends that moved on too when their time came.

Then one day I realised I had missed all of my cousins’ weddings, my grandparents’ funerals, and my children don’t know how good my Mum’s Sunday roast really is, or the family traditions at Christmas.

So here I am. I return to my paperwork: the €1,200 to fly the dog to Dublin, the €1,500 to ship our belongings, the €2,200 to fly the four of us with eight suitcases from one continent to another. All of my worries are in the hands of the life coach who disposes of the junk and lifts my head above water.

Soon we will be picking blackberries and making jam with purple fingers, riding bicycles and saying “How’ya” to our neighbours.

A view I’ll miss, across to Montserrat from the beach in front of my house.

Big life decisions

There will be big life decisions to make, too. Where will the children go to school or which school has a place? Will one family car be enough? Jobs? When can we get a mortgage to buy our own place? I’m not moving home to live in a rented house. I’ve done that for years and now it is time to have our family home where we can nest and create a safe space for us all to grow.

I never laugh as much as I do in Ireland and laughter is medicine for the soul. The decision has been made. The children will not hear a whisper of doubt.

Over a glass of wine before bed, we parents talk and share our fears and dreams. A toast to the Ireland I knew and the Ireland I am excited to meet: “To the green, green grass of home; we’re on our way!”