I’m sad that so many of my clever, talented friends had to leave Ireland

Niamh Towey: Maybe someday we’ll do a better job of holding on to our own people

'Multiple friends have left my hometown for greener pastures. They are doctors, teachers and construction managers. Chefs, nurses and physiotherapists.' Photograph: iStock

'Multiple friends have left my hometown for greener pastures. They are doctors, teachers and construction managers. Chefs, nurses and physiotherapists.' Photograph: iStock

 

One of my best friends from home returned to Abu Dhabi last week, after her holidays ran out faster than any of us wished.

She moved there to teach last year, following thousands of other young Irish people, and at the time I was excited for her and the adventures that lay ahead.

I was envious of her wandering; it all sounded like a great big extended holiday where she’d be home often enough so that I wouldn’t miss her.

It hasn’t turned out that way though. Watching her return after a relatively short time at home (one month of the year does not meet my quota of sufficient friend time), a wave of sadness hit me.

It is easy to gloss over the sacrifice that has to be made to satisfy not just itchy feet but economic necessity

I realised our friendship would have to change; she wasn’t always going to be here when I needed her and vice versa. I would have to learn to accept that and adapt to it.

That’s the thing about seeing so many of your peers leave Irish soil – for the first while, you’re jealous of their adventures.

You think about leaving yourself, about how much you must be missing out on and how daft you are to stay in rainy old Ireland.

You never consider the pitfalls, the sacrifices and the internal questioning. You don’t think about the guilt of leaving, the feeling of being torn between two places, of living two distinct lives.

Maybe you never really will understand that emigrant experience until you live it – but you can try.

It is easy to gloss over the sacrifice that has to be made to satisfy not just itchy feet but economic necessity.

I wondered how she did it – all the goodbyes, the tears, the questioning. The guilt of leaving again and the uncertainty of when she might be back

The reality of missing out on birthdays, graduations and funerals does not really sink in until you see it play out in real time.

Not being able to vote in a referendum so crucial to your future healthcare. Trying to simulate a cup of tea and a hug with your upset friend on Skype.

Sending voice messages to your mother so she can wake up to your voice in an opposite time zone.

What once looked like a never-ending holiday is now tinged with the accepted sacrifice of an emigrant’s double life.

This year, more so than ever, I was so impressed with my friend’s bravery and resolve. I wondered how she did it – all the goodbyes, the tears, the questioning. The guilt of leaving again and the uncertainty of when she might be back.

She is not the only one – far from it – and it was not until I saw them have to leave again, to have to say tearful goodbyes to friends and family, that the envy began to fade and be replaced by respect.

Figures published by the Central Statistics Office in September 2017 showed that 30,800 Irish people moved abroad in the year to April 2017.

Although that figure was down on the year previously, more Irish people are still leaving Ireland than returning (a total of 295,400 Irish nationals emigrated between 2011 and 2017, while 166,600 moved back, a net outflow of 128,800).

For those of us left behind, it’s not hard to see it, feel it and mourn it.

Greener pastures

Multiple friends have left my hometown for greener pastures. They are doctors, teachers and construction managers. Chefs, nurses and physiotherapists.

Instead of spending their talents in Ireland, they are in Australia, New Zealand, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, America, the Philippines.

The list goes on – and that is just from one small corner of the west of Ireland.

Then there are the friends who are stretched across various cities in Ireland – Galway, Dublin, Athlone and Cork. Very few, if any, of my school friends remain at home.

I wonder if the day will ever come that we are all reunited again, on home soil. The ground from which we came; the earth that is so embedded in all of us.

I wonder because home is so much more than just a place. It is the summation of all those childhood friendships and shared experiences, the intrinsic knowledge of the way life is lived in a certain place.

Home is not the same when it is missing so many people who made it what it is. Empty high stools at the bar at Christmas, one less person travelling to the match.

A quieter house and a disrupted routine; a land missing its heart.

Then the rush of blood to the head when one of our own returns; the rounds of day-trips and nights out, all in an effort to catch up on months of missing time.

Then the goodbyes, the tears, the mourning and the acceptance – all to be repeated, year after year, for God knows how long.

Maybe someday we will do a better job of holding on to our own – because without the people who made it, home is just a place without its heart.

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