In California I hug my great aunt for the last time. I’ll move home to Ireland in July

Lisa Tierney-Keogh says goodbye to her great grand aunt, who will not see Ireland again

Lisa Tierney-Keogh is coming home

Lisa Tierney-Keogh is coming home


In the 1960s, three of my grandmother’s sisters emigrated from Dublin to California. Years later, a fourth sister joined them. They settled along the coast of Southern California from San Diego County up to the suburbs north of Los Angeles. They married, had kids, and grew a faction of our family far away from home, in the land of the never-ending sun.

I remember as a child when they would come home to visit. I would hound them for stories of faraway places, where people surf and go to Disneyland any time they please. It sounded like a kind of paradise, and I dreamed of going there.

Fast forward 30 years and I find myself travelling to LA for work a couple of times a year from New York, where I now live with my own family. There’s at least a dozen of my kin out West, all the cousins who grew up with Irish parents and then had kids themselves. In the depths of a harsh New York winter, I took a notion to travel to the West Coast with my daughter so she could meet the American side of her family.

Emigration means separation. You are forever apart from someone you love dearly

I am an immigrant and an emigrant. I have left a place and I have arrived somewhere else. I have felt that profound sense of loneliness, of longing for home, that many people who make this choice have experienced. When I talk on the phone with my elderly, great grand aunt in Southern California, in quiet moments, she has shared the same feeling with me.

Emigration means separation. You are forever apart from someone, or many ones, you love dearly. In a country the size of the United States of America, two relatives, both immigrants, can also be separated, from their homes and from each other. This feeling of missing never goes away.

Over the course of four days, I drove back and forth along historic Route 101 that runs alongside the Pacific Ocean. I rolled the windows down to let the ocean air rush in and kept telling my daughter to look at the water, at its beauty. She mostly ignored me and in these moments. I realised that this is what my father did (and still does): forced my sister and I to look at things we thought were so boring at the time. I know now how important and precious those moments are.

There’s an allure to Southern California. I’m drawn there. Driving beside the ocean, from town to town, I felt something pulling at me, quietly calling me. Maybe it’s in my DNA, or the proximity to so many relatives that came here. Maybe it’s my own deep-rooted need to escape, or maybe it’s the magic of the vast Pacific.

RVs were camped along the cliffs with nothing between them and the ocean. Sunsets over the Pacific are the real deal and people gathered to watch them. The pace of life is light years slower than New York and I quickly warmed to its speed. Bare feet and sandy hair always bring me calm, a sense of home in a place so far from mine.

I think of my great grand aunts, who came here from Moore Street in Dublin. You couldn’t find two more different places. And yet, I can understand why they stayed. I could see myself sitting on a cliff at sunset every night, or walking on the beach. I could even see myself surfing, in some other life, with better ankles and knees.

I consider a life there. I think about what it would be like if I followed in my relatives’ footsteps and made the move out West. The draw is real. Until I look at a map and see how far it is from Ireland. Where it rains. A lot. Where beach culture isn’t a thing. If I moved here, my daughter would grow up fully American. She’d surf and hang out with kids named Cody and Tanner and turn vegan by age 12.

This alternate life hinges on one thing: Ireland. I can’t leave her behind like my aunts did. I’ve tried, so very hard, to be two things at once. I’ve tried to live in America and be truly settled here and be Irish at the same time. But I can’t reconcile them. I simply can’t.

She will never return home. Not in this life. Our goodbye was emotional

There was a time when I came very close to moving to LA. I came within an inch of doing it. And then, as the Pacific calls to those who can’t leave her, Ireland called to me from across the world. Come home, she said. Don’t go so far. So I didn’t. I backed off and slipped back into my New York life.

My visit with my beloved great grand aunt was bittersweet. She will never return home. Not in this life. Our goodbye was emotional. We held each other, crying, quietly acknowledging that we would never see each other again. It was heartbreaking. In July, I’ll move home to Ireland. She is 86. There is a painful reality to our circumstances. She will live out the rest of her days by the ocean in Southern California and I will build a new life back in Dublin.

Though she made the choice to move and stay there, I could not help but feel like I was leaving her behind. It is the curse of the immigrant, the emigrant. Always leaving someone, always losing someone.

The heartache of leaving her washed over me as I drove north and away from the green blue majesty of the Pacific. I see my aunt in my mind, sitting by her window, looking out at the sunny sky. I’ll remember her like that. Anything else is too painful. So I pretend I’m coming back. To sit by the ocean with her, watching the sunset, and the surfers, waiting for the next wave.

Lisa Tierney-Keogh is a playwright and co-founder of Irish Stand @IrishStand,  a grassroots movement standing for justice, truth and equality. She tweets @lisatk 

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