Why I moved my family home to Ireland from Australia after 16 years

'We made this decision with our hearts. Then we planned and executed it using our heads'

After 16 years in Australia, James Parnell has moved home with his wife Anne-Marie and their children Ava (8), Erin (6) and JJ (3). The management consultant is now forging a new life working for himself with such clients as Fáilte Ireland. In a new series for Irish Times Abroad, he will detail what it felt like to leave Australia and how he handled the move, documenting the experience from pre-departure planning to arriving in Ireland, facing new challenges and surprises.

The typical conversation I had with people when I told them I was returning to Ireland with my wife and our three children after 16 years in Australia went something like this:

“We’ve decided to go back to Ireland for good.”

Silence and a sympathetic look as if someone has passed away.


“Oh! So what made you decide that? Family? Kids?”

I’d agree on both, and add: “It’s a gut decision. It’s just time.”

Fellow emigrants want to understand our decision to return because they empathise and are curious. Most others need an explanation. Were we forced? Did the decision make us or did we make the decision? Does it matter?

I prefer to believe we made the decision. But we cannot even pinpoint when the decision process started and ended. It seems to have emerged over time.

Emigrants’ ache

In hindsight, a series of events led us back:

Early 2000: We emigrate, for a year initially. From that moment – and I suspect this is true of all emigrants – we have a deep-rooted feeling that stays with us. Let's call it emigrants' ache. I have yet to figure out the cause. Guilt? Homesickness? Lost sense of belonging? Maybe a combination of all three. Once we embrace our new life, we suppress the ache and push on. It's easier when the sun shines. It ebbs and flows but never disappears.

2008: We start a family. Our perspective changes.

2010: We buy a house and make it a home. We consider it our home for life. We live opposite a nursing home and, occasionally, I consider passing the rest of my life in Australia and find myself considering dying there. I cannot get my head around it. Despite beautiful family and friends in Sydney, it does not sit well.

Anne-Marie’s father Oliver falls sick. We think he will recover. I suggest London to be closer to family and as an adventure. We don’t pursue it. Our children begin to correct our diction. They are Australian.

December 26th, 2013: Oliver passes away. Anne-Marie is fortunate to have spent time with him before his passing. We participate in the funeral over Skype.

Early 2014: Anne-Marie and I both work in banking and finance. One day she has a conversation with an Italian colleague who, upon hearing we live in Sydney with three kids though most of our family is in Ireland, looks at her and says, "What are you doing here?". It isn't just the words, it's her expression. Anne-Marie must feel something deep down for it to affect her this way. She mulls it over a while.

Looking at the options

Later in 2014: Anne-Marie suggests Ireland. But she never subsequently pursues it. This is a decision both of us will make together.

Early 2015: We discuss returning fairly seriously. We have flights booked for a holiday in Dublin mid-2015. I am doing what I do best: looking at the options, analysing the pros and cons. Sell up and go? Sell up and use the holiday to investigate? I chat with a friend. He advises us to sit on it for a few months. "The decision will make itself," he says.

August 2015: Our holiday at home is emotional, as always. We see family and friends in Malahide and Glasnevin, and go to weddings. Most of our life decisions are made en route to kid-free weddings. I am a facilitator by nature but this time Anne-Marie assumes the role. She listens and helps me to decide. I go with my heart. Decision made.

There are three questions that kept recurring. In hindsight, the answers are obvious: If we don’t return, will we regret it in later life? A resounding yes. The ache had not left us over 16 years and I don’t believe it would have.

Can we make it work? Sure, why not. We’ve spent 16 years figuring things out ourselves. We can do this.

What if it doesn’t work? At least we tried. We grasped the nettle. We lived. We learned and we will deal with it. We will have no regrets, just as we don’t regret our Australian chapter. Leaving is not a failure.

In the end, there was no choice, really, once we had figured out the right questions to ask ourselves. We dived deep inside of ourselves to reach our decision. It was an intuitive leap. We listened, we took time and it came to us.

Decisions of my heart

Ultimately we listen to our lives, to our innate wisdom and to our heart. I trust the decisions of my heart more than those of my head. I rarely regret them. We made this decision with our hearts. Then we planned and executed it using our heads. Now we are back in Dublin.

Over the coming weeks, I will write a series of articles for the Irish Times Abroad section about our return. I hope to cover all the questions any Irish emigrant would ask if they are thinking about moving home themselves.

The next phase of our lives will bring joy and challenge in equal measure. Writing is therapy for me, and I hope it will be helpful to others, too.