I’ve lived abroad for longer than in Ireland. Was I gone too long?
After 23 years I’ve moved home with my Canadian husband and Norwegian kids
Emma Prunty: ‘We were really starting to feel the lack of one key ingredient that we have seen truly connects you to a place. Family.’
“Will there be a school play I can be in? Do they have scouts in Ireland? Can I have my own room? Does this mean we can finally get a dog?”
Our kids were very excited when we told them last spring that we would be leaving Italy and moving to Dublin in the summer. They had visited Ireland many times, for Christmas, birthdays, funerals; they knew the parks and libraries, and they felt like they could really live there. And when we knew my husband’s contract in Florence was due to end, it seemed like the right time for us to decide to give Ireland a go. Finally.
I left Ireland 23 years ago and I have lived abroad for longer than I lived there. I grew up in Dublin, but I’ve been a “grown up” in other places. Having met my Canadian husband after college in London we moved around with his career (US, Canada, Norway, Italy). So, out of the four of us, I was the only one qualified to know about what life in Ireland would be like. Or thought I was.
Many good things came to mind. Digging around in my own misty memories, I thought about how the kids would enjoy novelties like the panto, team sports (not part of the school system in Italy), a zoo in the same city, walking on Dun Laoghaire Pier any time we liked. And arts centres for kids, playgrounds better than many we’ve found in other countries, and the possibility of popping up to Belfast, now that it’s only two hours away with the motorway.
They loved the idea of living near their granddad and cousins, eating Superquinn sausages and Curly Wurlys, and finally going to school in English. Two years previously, in 2015, they were dumbfounded when we told them we were going to move away from Oslo - the only home they had known - to live in Italy. It took them months to adapt to it, to make new friends and feel at home. People like to say that kids are adaptable, but for us it was a very slow and complex process.
Change and routine
Even after two years in Italy, the girls would say they had “had enough of earthquakes and mosquitoes and snakes and olive trees”, and would much rather live in Ireland. I reminded them, mammy-style, about the rain but their Norwegian selves had no problem with that. I also said friends and family in Dublin won’t always be free for a last-minute Sunday walk, and our daily life would eventually become a routine, even a drag.
I was secretly curious to think how their accents would change as they’d begin to hear other Irish people (not just their mother) say things like “janey mac”, and how they’d cope with learning Irish, wearing a school uniform, and dealing with being told about Jedward.
All four of us carry in our spirits - in our identities - the attitudes and ideas we have picked up from experiences of different places and people. Some of that Italian expressiveness and joyful (or, at least, fiery) attitude to life; Norwegian independence and social cautiousness; Irish sense of humour and ability to talk; Canadian openness and tolerance.
We thought carefully about trying to continue in our wonderful Tuscan life: the kids now spoke Italian, we had gained great friends, favourite ice-cream flavours and local methods for avoiding heatstroke and mosquitoes. Some people thought we were mad to leave, but it clearly felt like a fork in the road. Staying there would have meant settling down, buying a house, and committing to an education system we weren’t thrilled with.
More importantly, as in our home in Norway before this one, we were really starting to feel the lack of one key ingredient that we have seen truly connects you to a place. Family. Moving to Dublin would mean we would finally be living within a thousand-kilometre radius of any family member. Even during our years in Canada, we lived at least a three-hour flight from my husband’s family, adding in snow-delays if travelling at Christmas.
Pull to home
For most of my life abroad I did not feel a strong pull to return to Ireland. I left by choice to see more of the world, and I’ve been lucky not to have been too homesick along the way. Perhaps having a non-Irish husband made a difference and we are so grateful to have found kindred spirits in different places who have stood in place of family.
I have done the Irish social scene abroad to varying degrees, mostly through music, and as any emigrant would agree, it’s the best nationality card to play in many social situations. I also feel lucky to be Canadian, the nationality I chose to adopt. And I have enjoyed having two lives: one in the home abroad where we set up house and lived our lives, and the original home where my family was, back in Dublin, always there in the background to visit when needed.
But my connection to home changed three years ago when my mum passed away after a short illness. During those difficult months, when I’d fly back to see her, and in the period afterwards, I started to hear a clock ticking, loudly. I was having to face the fact that the time we have with the people we’ve known and loved the longest will run out, and the time to cement the future for others, for our children, has to be considered. In other words, I wanted my kids to live in Ireland.
Gone too long?
Making the decision to move, I had no illusions. Living in Ireland would be a challenge: extortionate car and health insurance, the craziest housing market in Europe, ongoing discussions on women’s rights, shocking homelessness, and all sorts of issues big and small that would become more real to us only when we started living there. Maybe I’m too old, I wondered; have I been gone too long? What if the kids didn’t like it? I read stories of other returning Irish who couldn’t handle the move and left again.
A part of me also worried that moving back would mean the end of my moving days, that this was settle-down time. Or that I would become simply “Irish” again and the other experiences and attitudes that colour the person I now am might be pushed aside, not relevant to those I come back to, even if the country is now more diverse than it ever was.
Irish people tend to have a black-and-white attitude to the country: you’re either here or you’re away. Other Irish emigrants I’ve met abroad have wondered if going home might mean you’ve failed in some way, giving in by to returning to where you came from.
But there is one thing I have learned from moving around so much - the grass is not really greener. People in any country find reason to grumble. Even in Norway people complain about the healthcare system, and in Italy about the quality of school lunches.
When we thought about Ireland as our next big move, we were starting from a neutral shade of green. We saw the chance and decided to take it. It felt like a jump for our careers, we’d need to find a house, schools, consider keeping other options open, just in case - but this time round, for this move, family came first. We owed it to ourselves, especially the kids, to give it a go.
And someday we will settle long enough to let a dog join the family. Maybe an Irish dog, called Dante (or Ulisse).
Emma Prunty is writing a series on her experiences of settling back into Dublin after many years abroad and seeing it with fresh eyes, along with her family of foreigners: a Canadian husband and Canadian/Norwegian kids. After living in the UK, US, Canada, Norway and Italy she knows there are pros and cons to every place you move to. She blogs at washyourlanguage.com