‘I have cried every day since I returned to Ireland’

After six years in New York, settling back in Ireland has been tough for Nollaig O’Connor

Shoppers in front of Belfast city hall. Photograph: iStock

Shoppers in front of Belfast city hall. Photograph: iStock


It’s been one month since I returned to Ireland after almost six years living abroad. To say the transition back to life in Ireland has been difficult would be an understatement.

I’m 29-years-old and fast approaching 30. When I made the decision to return, for family and educational reasons, I wasn’t expecting the personal shock that would follow.

New York is everything people say it is. I met celebrities, diplomats, poets, artists, wealthy publishers, all-round interesting human beings, and worked in areas including journalism, music, fashion and publishing. “A mixed bag” I suppose you could say. I was indeed a very mixed bag. I lived in the West Village, the East Village, Chelsea, the Upper West Side and the parts of Brooklyn where you learn to distinguish between the sound of fireworks and gunshots.

Amid the immigration furore going on in the US, I started to consider returning to university to pursue a masters. This was not an option for me in the US because, well, I liked having money and not being in debt. That simple really. The status of my visa renewal was pending, pending, pending until I could pend no more.

I was waiting tables during that time, and while it felt stable enough to keep me going, I craved to learn more, to find my career path and experience more. I was in a rut for a long time. I arrived in New York alone and left New York alone, but also left behind a lot of memories. I felt sadder than I’d expected to. It sounds like I had my life, but still I wanted to progress.

Nollaig O'Connor.
Nollaig O'Connor.

I moved back to Ireland and decided to move to Belfast. I know technically I moved to the UK but, to me, if I am on this island, I am in Ireland. I chose Belfast because it seemed like a city with a decent level of activity, similar to Dublin without the price tag, and had enough going on to keep me occupied while still letting me focus on studies. On paper it seems fine. In reality, not so fine.

The pace of life is a lot slower than what I had lived for the last six years. In New York every single day was full, whether it was working out, taking some sort of class, meeting a friend, going to work or doing laundry – you were always moving and there was always something to do. In Belfast, and Ireland in general, things close at 6pm. Things are closed on Sunday, and good luck getting around if you don’t drive.

I realise that I had developed the comfort of a routine in New York, the absolute luxury of having things in your control, of having a plan and no interruptions. The very thing I grew weary of is the very thing I find myself sorely missing. I also seem to have selective memory when it comes to the state of transport here, where bus timetables simply serve as a work of fiction.

I’m ashamed of sounding culturally insensitive about my own country and about how my inner voice can sound about this. I should know better than to let these petty feelings interfere with my plan to progress personally and professionally, but that built-up frustration of – Why don’t people move faster? Why isn’t the line moving? What’s the hold up with my food order? – that frustration grows more by the day.

Trying to adjust and keep myself busy in Belfast, I decided to find a job in the city waiting tables. This is what I did in New York for a lot of my time as a way of making extra money. Having eight solid years experience I felt confident I could do anything.

My somewhat informal background in hospitality did not serve me well in the upmarket establishment where I found work. I was given out to for walking too fast, for chatting too much with customers (“you must not impose on their dining experience”), I was not allowed drink water in a space where I could be seen, among other criticisms.

The last straw: the nine buckets of used cutlery that I, and I alone, had to polish at the end of a busy night, a task that took until 1am. I said “thank you, but no thank you” and I can safely say that I will never default to waitressing ever again.

It has been a very difficult learning curve thus far and too early to say how long it will last. But, every day since I returned to Ireland, I have experienced at least one bout of spontaneous crying I sometimes feel sheer panic about what have I done. What am I supposed to do now? How will I fit back in?

I feel it is some sort of inverse culture shock. I have been reading a lot about social identity theory (the masters I chose is in psychology), which discusses the interplay between personal and social identity, and the consequences of this for individual perceptions.

I think about my situation, about my place in society, and have no idea where I am supposed to slot in. In New York, you can be anything you want to be, part of any crowd, even the non-crowd. But here in Ireland I feel I need a definition, a category, people need to know you and be used to you, and so it is quite insular.

I thought I was returning to Ireland as a self-aware, relatively culturally-savvy and resilient individual – the kind who survives New York City and lives to tell the tale.

Instead I feel like an idiot who wants to go back to where it all feels stable and familiar, which apparently is now New York. The rules I’ve lived by for six years suddenly don’t apply. Since arriving in Belfast, I am absolutely terrified that I no longer belong at home since coming back.

All over America, people proclaimed “I am an immigrant.” And that’s what I was there...

But what am I here?