‘Returning home represents an admission of failure’

‘Ireland and Me’: Niall Sreenan, London

I have lived in London for four years, apart from a nine-month period of uncertainty in which I oscillated between this smoggy metropolis and my hometown, Cork. I was unemployed, playing in a (not unsuccessful) band, and drinking probably a little too much for my own good.

There was little else to do then, shuffling daily between the practice room (cans), pubs (pints), and my childhood bedroom (hangover), with no other responsibilities other than the odd job around the house. Although I had designs on “great things”, I was comfortably suspended in a state of prolonged adolescence.

Being offered a PhD in London removed any insecurity about where I should live, but brought with a new type of uncertainty. Now in the third year of my studies, teaching and working at the same time, I’m still no closer to knowing where I’ll settle, where I’ll work, or build my life. Ireland’s too depressed; London’s too expensive.

This is a particular sort of limbo. Returning home represents an admission of failure, an inability to make it in the Big Shmoke despite all that fancy education. And yet staying away, you’re just another Paddy in London; a rootless denizen of “Irish” chain-pubs, bellowing out ‘The Aul Triangle’ at 3am as if you actually missed the place. As if you were imprisoned.


It is, perhaps, an unfairly bitter attitude to hold on to. After all, this is not the emigration of old, where starry-eyed girls and boys arrived with no more than a few shillings. Something of the naïve determination of this previous generation makes me both sentimental for the Irish spirit (whatever that is), and strengthens my own determination to stay.

It hits me hardest when, walking numbly through a supermarket in South East London, a whole shelf is given over to an Ireland that only exists in the emigrant imagination. TK Red Lemonade, Porter Cake, and powdered curry sauce sit uneasily beside the trappings of contemporary metropolitan living: elderflower cordial, gluten-free bread, and something called Sriracha, a Thai chilli sauce synonymous with fashionably-bearded foodies that serve burgers from vans, not because they have to, but because it’s cool.

I leave the supermarket only to encounter another bearded man, this time begging for spare change in the hybrid accent of Hibernia via Kilburn. He grasps a paper cup. Milky looking tea steams into his gnarled face. No doubt, some generous Londoner gave it to him earlier, but I can’t help think that, like me, he thinks the tea’s crap here anyway.

In the safety of my flat, I turn on RTÉ News to see families at airports crying, hugging, welcoming home those who left home for better things. And yet, how is it that these scenes are celebrated? As if our failure as a country is precisely what we wanted, a part of a larger narrative of beautiful Celtic melancholy. It reminds me, that for all my solipsistic uncertainty, I may never go back.