‘Living abroad never felt so hard.’ The emigrants who can’t come home this summer

How are Irish people overseas coping without their annual visits to family and friends?

Catherine Hamilton and her family flying into Milford Sound, New Zealand.

Catherine Hamilton and her family flying into Milford Sound, New Zealand.


It is a difficult and challenging time for thousands of Irish people living around the world, and their loved ones at home, not knowing when they will be able to return to Ireland again with Covid-19 travel restrictions and quarantine. The Irish Times asked readers living abroad if they are worried about when they can visit home again and how it has affected their lives. Here is a selection of responses we received from London to New Zealand and the US.

I returned ‘home’ every month

Fiona McDonald
I moved to Belgium more than 25 years ago, and live here with my Belgian husband and two adult children. Dublin is still a huge part of my life. Returning “home” and having my family and friends to visit is a very important to us. My parents have lived in Dublin all their lives.

Fiona McDonald.
Fiona McDonald

Unfortunately, my dad was diagnosed with dementia in 2018. He has been living in a nursing home the past two years. I’ve always travelled to Ireland on a regular basis but since dad got ill, I’ve returned every month. I last saw my parents on March 1st. At first my main worry was to keep them safe and not get coronavirus. I imagined that I wouldn’t see them for six weeks.

As time has moved on and weeks have become months, it’s very hard not knowing when we’ll be together again. Technology has been a blessing. Dad’s nursing home has been wonderful in keeping us informed and we’ve been able to have Whatsapp video calls with him, but I just long to be with him again.

I’ve a really close relationship with my mam and I miss her enormously. We speak on a daily basis, but what I wouldn’t give to be able to take her out for an ice cream, walk into town or go see a movie together. I’m sure some people would say it’s only a few months, but my parents are elderly and each day is precious.

I check on a daily basis to see if things have changed, if I might be able to get home and see them, but with the current situation of self isolating for two weeks upon arrival, it’s just not possible. I look forward to the day when I’m finally “up, up and away” and I know that when I land in Dublin Airport my heart will burst! I hope it will be soon.

Living abroad never felt so hard

Hazel Stevens
My boyfriend and I moved to London in the summer of 2012. We wanted a new adventure and to better our lives. We chose London as it didn’t seem as far away as Australia or Canada where a number of our friends ventured. Living in London, we could be home the same day if needed.

Sadly over the years we’ve had to make two of those trips home. Anyone living away from home will be able to relate to the thoughts of “that” phone call.

Hazel Stevens

London has been good to us over the years – a diverse and welcoming community. We’ve been able to travel back to Dublin up to four times a year minimum, which meant we didn’t get too homesick. As the years went by my boyfriend became my fiancé and then husband. For each milestone we went back home to celebrate and for every big family event, and never felt out of touch.

Last year we got the glorious news that we were expecting a baby and could not have been more excited. The plans we had made and the fun we would have. How I would spend my maternity leave – half here and half there. The idyllic times we would have in our home town surrounded by family and lots of helping hands.

Our bundle of joy came via emergency Caesarean section on March 11th, 2020, just 12 days before the UK went into lockdown. Our little lady hasn’t had cuddles from my folks who are dying to get their hands on her. My siblings, who have been waiting a long time for their first niece, are eagerly on standby. My in-laws want to introduce her to the rest of the flock.

Lockdown had my husband and I both looking at each other in the wee hours and asking all kinds of questions. Will these new ideas of moving home pass with her growing milestones? Will moving home forever be something we think about for us and for her?

Travelling back home to our loved ones has felt so impossible. Living abroad never felt so hard until the lockdown happened – until we were told we couldn’t go back home, flights grounded and transport halted. We only live across the water but it may as well have been the other side of the world in these crazy times. Now, 12 weeks later, it seems to be a little brighter. There is talk of being able to go home for Christmas.

I’m in a strange limbo dealing with grief

Alan Fagan
Andover, US
I have lived in the Boston area for 20 years having moved here with my wife and three children for work reasons.Working for an Irish company has given me a sense, particularly in the last few years, of having a foot in both camps. I’m usually back in Dublin at least once a quarter for meetings, and extend my stay to see family and friends.

Not being able to travel home to Dublin has made me feel further away than I have felt in my two decades as an emigrant. Usually there are two flights a day direct from Boston to Dublin, and I always had the attitude that if I needed to be in Dublin I could always just jump on a plane and be there within hours. For the first time I feel completely separated from my extended family and friends in Ireland, and it is not a feeling I like.

Alan Fagan.

My brother Ken died in San Francisco at the end of March after an 18-month illness. My brother Kevin lives near me in Boston and we were able to be with Ken, along with Ken’s wife and three children. However, we’ve not been able to hold a proper service for him nor have we been able to travel to Dublin to see our mother or our other siblings who still live in Ireland.

We are in a strange limbo dealing with the grief of losing a sibling but are unable to process that grief in the usual way. I’m particularly aware of the impact of this loss on our 87-year-old mother. She has lost a son but has not had the opportunity to attend a service or see her other sons.

We will wait until restrictions ease up enough for us to be able to travel safely, gather with our family and friends in Ireland and grieve with them to mark Ken’s passing in the appropriate way.

This situation has definitely changed how I feel about living away from Ireland. I feel more isolated than I ever have and have some decisions to make over the next few years. My wife Emma and I have raised our family here in the US, but still maintain very strong ties to Dublin.

We’ve always talked about it not being a binary choice between either living in Dublin or living here in the US – and have clung to the idea that we could spend as much time as we want in either, particularly later in life when we don’t have to work. However, the current situation has us reassessing everything as a lot of those certainties are gone and may never come back.

I’m rethinking living abroad

Claire Delaney
Indianapolis, US
I moved to Indianapolis two years ago for a job opportunity, and planned to visit Ireland at least twice a year to see family and friends. A trip booked for April 30th was cancelled and I’ve no idea when I’ll be able to reschedule. This has been particularly difficult as I live alone and will, most likely, be working from home until the end of the year.

Claire Delaney
Claire Delaney

If I knew I could travel back to the US (I’m on a work visa so I’m not a US citizen) I could temporarily work from Ireland and return here when needed. But not knowing if I can return is difficult.

My friends and family have really embraced video chats, quizzes and virtual bingo, which has been great. But as the restrictions begin to ease in Ireland the virtual hang outs will be replaced with them meeting up face-to-face.

The pandemic has made me rethink living and working abroad. My parents are in their late 60s. A lot of the responsibility to do their shopping and more has fallen to my sister. I feel I should be there to help and also spend as much time with my parents as I can. Knowing that I can’t get home as quickly and easily as I previously thought I could has been very strange, and made me feel much further away than ever before.

House was sold and we were returning home

Catherine Hamilton
New Zealand
My husband and I have been living in New Zealand for 15 years. We’d made the decision at the end of 2019 to permanently return home to Ireland. The plan was to return this month and enjoy the Irish summer before the kids started school in September. Our house went sale agreed. Then Covid-19 hit. Suddenly New Zealand shut its borders, and by the time I’d found our passports I’d realised they were out of date and the Irish passport authority had closed. This meant we had no way out of the country.

Catherine Hamilton and her family in New Zealand.
Catherine Hamilton and her family in New Zealand

To add additional pain, my husband’s father passed away two weeks into complete lockdown, and we were forced to watch his funeral via video. It was absolutely heart breaking. As time passed we weighed up our options and have decided as a family of four to continue with our sale agreement.

Last Friday we handed over the keys to our home. We’ve decided to embrace the travelling lifestyle and embark on an eight-week tour covering south to north. Who knows what our outcome will be at the end of this, but we’re very eager to return to Ireland when we can.

I initially felt angry stuck living here

Rachel Sheary
I came to Malmö, Sweden, in September last year to study a master’s programme in the university. Having left Ireland in 2015, living in Scotland for two years and Vietnam for almost three, I would consider myself well accustomed to living away from home and assimilating. However, Sweden is a little different.

The social aspect of life here is not necessarily a priority for people; social distancing is pretty much practised for six months of the year due to the harsh winters, and in my opinion a sense of community is almost non-existent in comparison with my home town of Nenagh, Co Tipperary.

Rachel Sheary.
Rachel Sheary

Living in Sweden during coronavirus has been a polarising experience for me in comparison to that of my family and friends in Ireland. With a high trust society and a history of compliance with those in power, I’ve noticed Swedes tend not to question the government or speak ill of those making the big decisions. I initially felt angry that I was stuck in a country putting its people at risk, conducting a massive human experiment that I didn’t sign up for with very few voices of dissent. I eventually relaxed into the Swedish way of dealing with the virus (no lockdown approach), adopting a sort of “if you can’t beat them, join them” rhetoric.

That said, at least three of my close friends have contracted Covid-19 in the past few weeks, and the number of cases in this region is on the rise. Also there is not much testing available for those who suspect they may have the virus.

I’m not sure when I’ll get home. I had planned to travel home for Easter. I was considering travelling home for the month of August to visit friends and family, but I feel it would be irresponsible to do so with a parent at home in a risk group.

There have been some silver linings through all this. Friends and family at home have had bundles of time and energy for Skype calls and catch ups, and I’ve felt more connected to people than ever.

However, for the first time since leaving Ireland five years ago I’ve felt homesick, and acutely aware of the unique magic Ireland and its people have. We value people and community above all else, which makes me feel patriotic for my homeland living here.

Crippled with fear and guilt

Avril Dolan
Western Australia

Avril Dolan, from Co Kildare, with her fiance Lewis McDonald in Kings Park, Perth, Western Australia.
Avril Dolan, from Co Kildare, with her fiance Lewis McDonald in Kings Park, Perth, Western Australia

My fiancé and I were due to fly out of Perth on May 21st to celebrate our stag and hen parties. The June bank holiday weekend is when our local town, Leixlip in Co Kildare, has its festival which we haven’t attended since we left in 2012. The festival was also where we first got together. We were then due to fly to Budapest on June 3rd for our wedding. Our plan was to get married on our 10-year anniversary.

Since Covid-19 hit it’s been a rollercoaster of emotions. In the beginning I was crippled with fear and guilt at being so far away from home and that took some time to pass. We rebooked our wedding for May 2021, so please God it goes ahead.

If I had the choice and freedom to travel without quarantine, I would go home in a heartbeat.

I just want to see home

Shane Scott
Manchester, UK
I’m from Sligo, live in Manchester and usually fly home regularly. I’ve had four visits for weddings, birthday and a stag cancelled so far. I plan to fly home as soon as the quarantine is lifted for UK arrivals, as I just want to see home.

My mum and sister are key workers. My mum has kept our small rural shop open serving the local community. I’m very proud of her as I know she has her own fears about the virus. I’m also very proud of how Ireland has responded to the crisis when compared with the UK approach, particularly with testing and tracking.

The hardest part is uncertainty

James Keegan
Wellington, New Zealand

James Keegan with his daughter in New Zealand.
James Keegan with his daughter in New Zealand.

I worry my daughter will never meet her grandad. My dad is starting to show signs of dementia and he won’t be able to travel to come here. She is three and we had planned on visiting in October, but before the lockdown my job was restructured and I had to put those plans on ice. It’s important to me for her to have a relationship with him. Video calls are great but through lockdown he has been in isolation, and contact has been few and far between. I guess the hardest part about not being able to come home is the uncertainty.

Coming home may mean unemployment

Elayne Mulcahy
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Lots of teachers here are worried about coming home this summer as we are afraid we won’t get back to the UAE in August. There are limited flights home, but it is the flight back that many of us are extremely apprehensive about. While I desperately want to go home and see my family, is it worth being unemployed come August if not allowed back to the UAE? Nothing is certain at the moment.

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