‘My defence against loneliness was to quit looking back to Ireland’

All the Lonely People: Generation Emigration readers share their experiences of loneliness and homesickness abroad


All the lonely peopleLoneliness is a huge issue for many people when they move to another country, away from their established support networks. As part of the All The Lonely People series running in The Irish Times this week, we asked Generation Emigration readers to submit their experiences of loneliness and homesickness abroad. Below are a selection of some of the responses we received.

‘My defence against loneliness was to quit looking back’: Anonymous, Winnipeg, Canada
When I emigrated from Ireland in 1994, I was fortunate to move to a city in Canada where my brother and sister both lived. I kept the craic in my life by watching the footie and talking rubbish with the lads at the Irish club, and participating in any Irish events. I arrived in the summer heat to clouds of mosquitoes, and when the first snow arrived in late October I naively thought the city would grind to a halt. But unlike Dublin, life went on as normal despite the piles of snow and freezing cold.

The first long winter was a trial but gradually I found myself becoming more Canadian, with a healthy respect for the recent pioneers who built their lives and towns in extreme conditions. The Irish scene became less of a crutch. I became aware that by trying to hang on to my Irishness, I was making it harder on myself to be away. I was between. So I distanced myself from the Irish scene, embracing ice hockey and winters that froze to the bone.

My defence against the loneliness of self-imposed exile was to move on and quit looking back. I met a woman and became a part of a large Canadian family and my immersion was complete.

I went back to Ireland after six years for a visit and my sense of loss hit me hard. I walked past the house where I was born, on a corporation housing estate in west Dublin, now owned by a new family. I walked past several times and found myself torn apart… a stranger in the place where I had grown up. Every detail was tattooed on my subconscious. I felt grief for the lost past, grief for a kid being dragged up in a broken family in a rough neighbourhood. I had turned my back on the past, but the raw nerve was exposed.

Distance and time can create a lens that doesn’t flatter the past. Now, after 21 years I return to Ireland frequently and enjoy myself as a visitor. West Dublin is no longer on my list of places to visit. That grief has been exorcised, and when I return to Canada I’m coming home.

‘I recently had my first baby’: Anonymous, Sydney
I recently had my first baby boy. He is now three months old. It is so so so hard to deal with all the changes that you have to go though while being on your own. My husband went back to work when he was two weeks old and I cried as he walked out the door. I have cried every single day since.

Our little boy is demanding and doesn’t sleep well during the day. It is so exhausting. To spend every day by yourself at home with no family to help is just soul destroying. It’s the little things like just popping over to my mam and dad for a chat and a cuppa would break up the day. Or knowing your neighbours. Just to know if it gets really bad you are not alone.

But living in Sydney you can’t get much further away from family and so we really are alone in dealing with everything. They say it takes a village to raise a child and I fully understand that concept now. I’m wishing away every day in the hope my little boy will become more settled and I will feel confident being on my own with him. Right now I don’t. I would love to be near my family and feel so lonely.

‘Loneliness came unexpectedly’: Alyson Meadowcroft, Channel Islands
I moved to Jersey from Northern Ireland in 1990 to take up a teaching post. From the start, I loved living and working here. In 2013 my mother died back home, so that was the last tie to my home town. I never married, despite a few serious dalliances along the way.

When I retired from teaching just over two years ago, I decided to stay here in the Channel Islands. Retirement from a demanding job running a department in a large private school was a relief. At last I had the time and money to enjoy life and travel. New horizons opened for me and I am fortunate to have a very dear friend who often travels with me. She is also a retired teacher who lost her husband four years ago, and we get on like a house on fire, going to the gym regularly and baking together.

But she has her grandchildren who visit Jersey regularly, three of them, all under the age of four. I am not very good with small children and when they visit, she knows to give me my space. Many of my other friends are involved with families, and some of them are still working.

Don’t get me wrong, I never want to work again, I enjoy being my own boss and doing what I like. But a lot of my activities depend on good health and the chances are I won’t always be blessed with that. My dear friend had her grandchildren for two weeks recently, and it was during that time I realised how lonely life could be. Once I had been to the gym, had a coffee, done a little bit of shopping, well, it was home to a silent apartment and a silent phone. It was not easy this time, and gave me food for thought.

I also lost my dear Aunt Belle just over a year ago. She lived in the UK and I visited her every six weeks. Now there is no one to visit, just her grave.

So how will I deal with this loneliness that crept up on me without warning? I will make the best of a bad job, as they say. Continue travelling a bit, sometimes on my own, sometimes with my friend, making sure I stay healthy and fit, and go out every day, regardless of the weather. Life is what you make it, even when it isn’t easy. But it’s the little memories of home that can bring a few tears to the eyes when all is quiet in my apartment.

Rita Holmes: 'Nothing makes you feel lonely more than having to explain a joke to new friends.'
It was like living in a cartoon, the day I left Ireland in 2002. The loneliness had already settled in for the ride.  As the plane left the ground, in my mind, I saw my arms lengthen to grasp hold of the runway, as Mickey Mouse would do to bring the plane to a stop, but no such luck.  How the dead weight in my heart didn’t bring down the plane is truly an amazing testimony to engineering.

Even coming to a country in Europe where many people speak English, there is still a loneliness in the everyday things of life. Staring into a foreign supermarket freezer for the first time, looking at the contents and thinking “what is it and what do I do with it?”, loneliness takes the opportunity to remind me: Mum would know! (ouch!)

As is often said, you can be lonely in a crowded room, and what makes this especially poignant I think for Irish people is the lack of people who share your sense of humour.  You can crack a joke and there is silence in the room. Nothing makes you feel lonely more than having to explain a joke to new friends. You quickly learn to shrug. Loneliness reminds you: “Maggie would think it is funny,” and you can hear her laughing from across the sea. (ouch!)

What kept and still keeps me going are the voices of heaven and earth, faith and family and friends.  Family and friends who call and without trying, just being their own Irish selves, reassure me there are other people out there who understand my humour and who speak my language, my real language, not just the English words but the language which is me.

Today, in 2015, I still look into the freezers with the same questions, and I still wonder how a whole nation could survive without a sense of humour. But the “ouch” is not as sharp.

‘I miss the everyday chat’: Helen Langford, Italy
Having to operate in a second language has been the cause of my loneliness since moving to Frosinone in Lazio, Italy, where my husband is from.

We lived in Ashbourne in Co Meath for several years, and one of the things I miss the most is the everyday chat - as you go about ordinary life and come into contact with neighbours and shopkeepers. I fondly remember my regular chats with Jimmy, who owned the fruit and veg shop in Ashbourne. Now there was a man who could talk! That kind of casual banter is something that I greatly miss.

It is nigh-on impossible to joke in a new language until you have a good degree of fluency. Instead, I hear myself repeating the same stock phrases that I know are suitable for “daily interactions: out and about” as a school textbook might put it. These kinds of “conversations” seem to only add to my feelings of isolation.

I started a blog www.trulymadlyitaly.com as soon as I moved to Italy, and it has been a great help in keeping the loneliness at bay and helping me to make sense of all the adjustments I have had to make. It has also helped me to hold onto my sense of humour. Encouraging comments and feedback from fellow bloggers, other expats, as well as close friends has kept me going during the “what the hell were we thinking?” moments, of which there have been several.

Italy is hardly the expat dream location. The climate, food and lifestyle are undeniably good, but it’s finding work and making money here that is the problem.

‘People all over the world experience isolation’: Noel Purcell
I have worked and lived in many cultures, the most time spent in France, Germany and England. I have worked as a community worker with the Irish in London, teaching aggressive children in London, dyslexic children in France, and in international schools. I have worked with the richest and poorest, as well as in chip shops, bars, grocery shops, night clubs, building sites and farms.

My London experience often had me on the verge of contacting Gaybo back in the 1980s, to request that he tell parents and schools to prepare people for migration, especially into large urban cities like London. Even in Ireland I had young girls telling me they just couldn’t wait to get out of Dublin because they felt lonely and isolated there. They were only happy when they were on the train home every Friday night, and overjoyed when they got their civil service transfer back down home. Thousands still stream out of Dublin every weekend.

People move all over the world and experience this isolation everywhere. The millions who leave rural Africa to flock to Lagos, middle America to its coastal cities, North Brazil down to Rio and Sao Paulo, 100 million all over China, 48,000 a month into New Delhi: they all live with it. Millions of them want to be back home. They are no less lonely or isolated than the Irish. Perhaps they are even more so, as their poverty does not allow them to Skype home every night, text every minute, watch every match from home online, read the Irish newspapers or fly home on just an hour’s or week’s pay.

‘I have sacrificed a lot to be an expat’: Therese Cronin, Nantes
I left Ireland in 2005. I didn’t have any plans for staying away and might never have left if I thought there was a threat of becoming a true emigrant. I set off for Paris with the express purpose of acquiring the skill-set needed to advance at my job back home. Not even the pollution and overcrowding could extinguish the electricity in the Paris air, and the excitement I felt living there. Special friends and memorable experiences came my way with impromptu picnics on the banks of the Seine and scrambles through forbidden parts of the catacombs.

While in Paris I fell in love, and was no longer travelling alone when I followed an offer to work in Philadelphia. It too was a great city to spend some expat years. But its social problems were hard to ignore. Ultimately, the obligation to return to work six weeks after having a baby was enough to send me looking for a job back in Europe. Switzerland became my next stop. Basel is full of brilliant, high-functioning individuals working their asses off to remain the best and the brightest. I always felt I was failing terribly at achieving any sort of work-life balance, so once again after three years I wanted to move on. I now live in a beautiful place near Nantes.

It’s not surprising that the desire to lay roots eventually kicks in and curbs the expat impulse; trouble is when that time comes you might not find yourself back home where you expected to be.

So suddenly now, the pining for Ireland starts in earnest. It’s not the Tayto’s or the Barry’s or even the pier walks that I miss. It’s Irishness. For instance, in conversation, Irish people seem motivated to put the other at their ease, whether it is with self-deprecating humour or reassurances, a trait perhaps not observed as often in other countries. This delicacy in human interaction is what makes the country such a pleasant place to live.

In retrospect, I am more conscious now of the experiences I sacrificed in being an expat - looming largest of all that I was not there to hold the hand of a loved one as he slipped away. And when I think of all the Irish people I am close to who are also displaced - my sister, aunt and uncles, numerous cousins and friends - it becomes clear that emigration is still a far too common Irish story. A letter from those who stayed at home and made it work - that is the Irish experience I would like to read more about.

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