I've left Ireland four times in five years. I had no reason to stay
There are times when you question if there will ever be an option to come home
James Mahon reporting from Mosul in northern Iraq for CBS News.
The little black plastic wheels roll swiftly along the spotless white floor. You are on your phone because you live through it now, a link that can’t be severed. There’s another announcement in the distance from a weary voice on an intercom. A line forms. You slow down, belt removed, slip your watch off. Loose comfortable clothes, no coins; make it easier for yourself, and for them.
Through the plastic portal, swish swoosh like a wiper, no beeps, screen flickers, gate appears. Tired shuffles, seat belt snaps into place, eyes shut and your passport rests in your back pocket giving you a gentle nudge. Wheels up, flaps down, and good night.
It’s autopilot, another stamp or glance, another chicken roll in a terminal full of strangers, a bus that glides along a road to a world you don’t belong to anymore, one where you are from but you are a stranger, you are a visitor.
Drifting between houses and cups of tea from cousins and friends you used know, you feel ashamed. You don’t want to be different, you want to be the same but you are not; they know it and you know it. You are an emigrant.
I was born in Romania in 1990, adopted into an incredible family in Ireland, given a chance at life and a future. Gort and Inchicore were peaceful childhood homes, one a safe Galway town and the other a Dublin community of kind neighbours and ducks that needed to be fed in the Grand Canal.
I wasn’t Irish by birth but it became my joint first language, the colour of my passport, the name of my autobiography, the title of my television series, and everything that I ever knew.
The further away I was from Ireland the more Irish I became.
In spring 2011 a whole generation of us went on J-1 after graduating, one of the last prides of Celtic Tiger cubs, many accepting we would not return to work in Ireland in the near future. Only dole queues and uncertainty awaited our return.
Working in Manhattan at a Footlocker selling Converse, I was grateful to be among a community that wasn’t Irish. I was one of the only non African-American employees, so I could appreciate the chats and pints at the Irish Haven in Sunnyside but still learn and grow in a workplace of rap and Ebonics, friendly questions about leprechauns and a land still seen as idyllic, of saints and scholars.
I knew when that summer ended, Galway was no longer my home. But neither was New York. My BA in English and Classics, diploma in Irish and TEFL cert weren’t going to get me a job in Ireland.
While hundreds stayed on illegally working in New York bars hoping to go unnoticed among the masses, I headed to Sheffield University and the BBC to study a master’s in broadcast journalism, finding a small Irish community very different to the one in New York.
This group were more serious about their emigrant status, had registered to vote in Britain and were involved in British society. They accepted that this close to home, life wasn’t bad, but it still wasn’t home.
Return to America
Tennessee and a career in television followed after that year in England. Not only was I the only Irish news anchor in local TV in the American south, but I was the only Irish person most people I encountered had ever met. This region that later voted for Donald Trump welcomed me, a non-Hispanic immigrant who spoke English and was from a white Christian background.
But I felt closer to the Mexicans I played soccer with than many of those who imagined I was their long lost Irish cousin.
The Latinos also understood the struggle of visas, collecting proof of residency, fighting with immigration over and over. I spent thousands of dollars and wasted countless sleepless nights for three years trying to get a green card. It could take two years to process I was told, and in the meantime my driver’s licence and right to work would be suspended.
I understood why my generation choose Canada and Australia to emigrate to instead. America makes it close to impossible to legally enter, remain or plan for a future.
Two years ago exactly, I sold my car, broke up with girlfriend, quit my job in Chattanooga Tennessee, said goodbye to the loyal 6 o’clock news viewers, the awards and the life I had grown to know, and moved 6,000km back to Gort, and signed on the dole.
It was the first time I had lived with my parents since the week of my Leaving Cert. I applied for jobs daily to no response in Dublin, Cork, Galway or anywhere else that might take me, but my hundreds of hours of live broadcasting experience covering gang shootings, tornadoes, and White House press conferences were all deemed a nuisance because I was “Gone too long, your experience isn’t local enough, it’s too international”.
Once again, for the fourth time since that first J-1 journey in May 2011, I couldn’t find a reason to stay in Ireland. There are times when you question if there will ever be an option to come home.
I signed a deal with a Galway publisher to write a book about my experiences called Through Irish Eyes. It kept my spirits up while I was on the dole, as job rejection after job rejection dripped in.
By Christmas 2015 I had finally despaired of Irish employment options and switched my focus to the UK. A Scottish university which valued my experiences responded, and once again I was leaving, this time to take up a position as a journalism lecturer.
New York, Sheffield, Knoxville, Chattanooga and now Glasgow in five years. Another car to be bought, deposit for a flat, one month’s rent up front, a new phone contract, another life to set up, another move. Another chance to keep going, because if you can’t move forward, at least move sideways.
I am lucky I have work. I have my health, and I have my family now just a Ryanair flight away.
My story is not unique. So many other young Irish emigrants of my generation can’t come home. We are still an empty chair at the dinner table, a space on the couch, a voice on WhatsApp or Skype.
We refuse to be a burden on Irish society, which can’t provide us with employment or the prospect of a stable future. So Glasgow is it for me for now.
James Mahon currently lecturers in journalism at the University of the West of Scotland. He tweets @jamesmahontv
If you are part of “generation emigration” and like James, would like to return to live in Ireland but can’t see how it would be possible financially or otherwise, Irish Times Abroad would like to hear from you. To share your experience and opinions, email firstname.lastname@example.org (max 300 words). A photograph is optional. A selection may be published online next week. Thank you.