Single, jobless and 30, I returned to Ireland after a decade in the US
‘I feel a sense of peace that I struggled to find during my time in California’
‘I’m enjoying feeling part of this place and it of me. And I am grateful for the opportunity Ireland has given me to start over.’
Just before leaving San Francisco last year, Maura McElhone wrote for Generation Emigration about her decision to move back to Ireland after almost a decade away. Here, she reflects on the ups and downs of her first 12 months at home.
It’s the morning of February 14th, 2014. As the plane touches down at Belfast International, I picture my family waiting for me in the arrivals area, ready with bear hugs and the mandatory, “how was the flight?” Further up the road, Mammy would be busy in the kitchen, filling the kettle and setting the table for the greatly anticipated fry.
It was a routine we’d gone through many times over the years I’d been away. This time, though, would be different. This time, there’d be no return journey to dread, no imminent partings casting a shadow over my precious time at home.
Single, jobless, and set to move back in with my parents at 30 years of age, I’d taken, at best, a huge risk in saying goodbye to my life in California. At worst, I’d made a huge mistake.
I’d spent six years living in the US. Most recently, I’d been in Northern California, living in the city of Novato, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge and about 30 minutes outside San Francisco. I worked for a magazine publishing company and lived in a beautiful apartment nestled into the Marin County hillside.
I’d made a life for myself in America, but it never felt permanent.
Try as I might, there was a part of me that would not accept America as “home”. Even after six years there, I felt somewhat detached from the place, an outsider looking in.
I waited for that to change. There was a lot hinging on my ability to envision a future in California-not least, the relationship I was in at the time. Eventually, the lack of settledness and daily uncertainty about my future came to a head. With me not willing to commit to “forever” in the US, and him unwilling to give Ireland a shot, the relationship ended.
I turned 30 not long after that. It’s a milestone age for many women, which causes you to pause and take stock. I spent that birthday weekend with friends in San Diego, one of them a Galway man living in the US for the better part of 20 years. We played music, we sang, and we drank. Inevitably, the conversation turned to Ireland, and the enormity of a possible move back home.
Yes, there was plenty I would be giving up, and I was under no illusion as to how hard it might be to get back on my feet in a country with an unemployment rate still above 12 per cent.
But what I stood to gain outweighed all of that. I would no longer be a visitor in the lives of my family and friends. I would rekindle those relationships that, I had realised, were integral to my sense of belonging- the very thing I’d been missing in California all those years.
Two months later, I boarded my Belfast-bound flight, filled with a fierce resolve to make my “unemigration” a positive move.
I started working for a tech startup in Dublin six weeks later. In my role as writer with Clinch, I’ve begun to find my feet within the city’s buzzing and ever-growing tech scene.
These days, I divide my time between Dublin, my Co Derry hometown of Portstewart, and Kildare, where my boyfriend is from-he was an unexpected and wonderful addition in my new chapter.
But it hasn’t been all plain sailing. In August, our family dog, a childhood pet that had been a part of our lives for 18 years, died. Suddenly, the newfound equilibrium I’d been enjoying for the past six months had shifted. Since then, cancer and Motor Neurone Disease has landed in our extended family. Each hurdle, each trial, is a reminder that no matter where you are, life comes at you, and sometimes it comes hard.
Being home for all of those things, however, has made the world of difference. Now that I’m back in the thick of it again, among family and friends, I have more strength to shoulder the burdens of loss, illness and uncertainty.
Free from the weight of homesickness and those feelings of impermanence and detachment, there’s a calmness in my life now. Whether I’m running on Portstewart Strand, making the short commute from Rathgar into town, or stretching out a Sunday morning in Maynooth over coffee and the papers, I feel a sense of peace that I struggled to find during my time in the US.
I’m enjoying being among people who talk like me, understand my colloquialisms, and have the same sense of humour as I do. I’m enjoying feeling part of this place and it of me. And I am grateful for the opportunity Ireland has given me to start over.
I’ve come to realise that for me, being “home” is something that transcends the physical. It’s more than just familiarity with a place, too. It’s a settledness, a feeling of belonging.
It’s been one year since I made the decision to “unemigrate.” Some might argue that in doing so, I had failed.
But I don’t see my coming home as a failure. Nor do I have any regrets. For close to a decade, I gave America everything and embraced what it gave me. We were good to each other, America and I, but as it turned out, we just weren’t meant to be.
Read Maura McElhone’s first piece for Generation Emigration written before she left San Francisco here.
For more about returning to Ireland, see articles by Mark Czerwin Returning from California after 26 years: My Irish friends say ‘Don’t do it’, Lucy Michael, 'After I moved home to Ireland nothing felt normal', and Ceire Sadlier, 'Returning to Ireland has been a whirlwind of emotion'.