Raising 'Irish' kids in unusual places

Parents living abroad reveal how they instil a sense of Irishness into their kids


Naming my first child made me feel like an emigrant for the first time. Back then, in 2008, I had been gone from Ireland five years. Living in Germany, married to a German, fluent in the language, holding a permanent job and with a German driving licence, I had been assimilated entirely – or so I thought.

As the years passed and two more children arrived, I felt more and more the desire to encourage an affinity towards Ireland in my sons. I wanted to avoid them feeling out of place in Ireland on holidays, or if we ever moved back. The challenge in doing so has been our location. We live in a village on the banks of the Rhine, an area with no Irish network.

Reading the newspapers online, with their reports of Irish emigrants living in the UK, the US and Australia, I feel tinges of jealousy at times. The GAA, Irish clubs and Conradh na Gaeilge – the associations which provide so much support to emigrant life in many countries – simply don’t exist in the part of Germany where we live.

When asked, my sons will say they are German. But their Irish names, our frequent trips home to my family, and the fact that I speak English – and the odd bit of Irish – with the boys has meant they are growing up with a sense of attachment to Ireland and a basic understanding of Irishness.

Realising I am not the only Irish person off the beaten track, I began to wonder how others in similar circumstances are choosing to raise their families. Eager to hear whether they are interested in cultivating a sense of Irish heritage in their children and how they balance various nationalities, I spoke with Irish mothers living in Oman, Germany and Turkey and learned of their experiences, attitudes and plans for their emigrant offspring.

Emer O’Doherty, Dubai: ‘They are children of the world yet connected to their Irish roots’

Emer O’Doherty moved from rural Co Cork to Oman with her baby in 2010 when a job opportunity for her husband Liam arose. Their second child was born in Oman. They later moved to Dubai.

“I had never even heard of Oman but I recognised it as my way of staying with my baby girl for a little longer. I never thought about it as moving half a world away from family support or from everything we knew. Liam signed up for a three-year inter-country transfer and that was that,” she says.

“In Oman a lovely group of Irish ladies who had been expats for a long time took me under their wing early on. I joined Women’s Guild and met some lovely friends, and the Oman Irish Society and went to all their events.”

Four years of living in America years earlier gave the couple a grounding in emigrant life, and the role Irish culture can play in helping new arrivals settle. In Oman Emer felt the need for more family-oriented events in the Oman Irish Society, and set the ball rolling.

“I joined the committee and worked with them on getting some family events set up. We also started a little informal Irish class for pre-schoolers. We also were very active in Clann na nGael, the Gaelic football club.”

In Dubai, Emer has continued to promote Irish culture.

“I have made lots of Irish friends and am part of an informal group, ‘the Irish mammies’. My children have a great sense of their Irish identity because we are fairly immersed in it, and we are also very strongly connected to our village back home in North Cork. I love that they are children of the world, as well as being strongly connected to their Irish roots. In their classes at school there are children from so many countries and they are learning so much about everything and everywhere.

“The hardest part is being away from the family. Our families are great, they do their best to come visit and we have the long summer at home every year to reconnect. Next summer I plan on putting my eldest into GAA football camp in our village back home. I think it’s important that they have their summer friends every year when they come back. We will go back for her First Holy Communion in May and she will attend the local primary school for the week.”

Aoife O’Loingsigh, Frankfurt: ‘We will continue to run our household in our own Irish-French way’

Aoife O’Loingsigh moved to Frankfurt in Germany when a career opportunity arose in 2004. In 2010 she considered returning to Ireland, but chose to remain in Germany. She lives with her French husband and her German-born son.

“From the start, we made the deliberate decision to reflect Ireland and France in his name, Oran Matthieu. I speak exclusively English (with all my Irishisms, of course) to Oran, and my husband speaks exclusively French to him. Oran’s daycare language is German. We try to balance the language exposure as best we can. Apart from the different languages, we don’t really think about “balancing nationalities” and are really just ourselves.

“Honestly, we of course wish for Oran to have a strong sense of his Irish heritage, but rather than raising him with a strong sense of any one nationality, we wish him to have a strong sense of his own identity. For him to know and appreciate his Irish and French sides but also feel at home in Germany.

“We chose not to enrol Oran in English- or French-speaking daycare but to enrol him in the local Kita where he will grow up with his pals living in his neighbourhood. To keep a strong feeling of Irishness alive we will continue to run our household as always in our own unique Irish-French way. We will travel to visit family in Ireland, Skype with the Irish grandparents, support the Irish rugby team, stock Barry’s tea and covet Superquinn sausages. But we live here and are part of our local community and we will also continue to cheer for Germany when the football team does well.

Like Emer, Aoife has built up a personal support system to feel at home.

“We have local support in our Irish friendship circle – most of whom are now Irish-German households. There is a local GAA team and if Oran is interested, we’ll investigate that in due course. My husband also plays Irish flute, so if Oran shows an interest in Irish music then we may pursue that.

The desire to bring their child up as Irish wouldn’t influence a decision to move to Ireland for Aoife and her husband, “but a desire to be closer to family would. We do miss our Irish family. I’m not sure that there is the same need for a strong network here as we are lucky enough to live just two hours by plane from Dublin. Modern technology has made keeping in touch with Ireland very easy too.”

Kate Fennell, Istanbul: ‘I’ve spoken Irish to my daughter since she was born’

Kate Fennell chose to leave Connemara for sunshine and a multi-cultural atmosphere in Turkey, where she is raising her half-French daughter as a native Irish speaker in Istanbul.

“I would like her to be Irish and feel Irish. I’ve only spoken Irish to her since she was born. As a native speaker that was paramount to me. I would like her to speak my language the way I speak it, and be able to relate to the things in my Connemara culture that I relate to.”

Kate’s immersion of her daughter in the Irish language is not limited to speaking the language. She feels that through songs and music Anu is gaining an appreciation of Irish culture and tradition. “The songs teach so many things such as new words, little characters, and romantic themes. It gives her an aspect of her culture which is unique while also developing her language.”

The Irish openness and friendliness to strangers is something Kate was keen to foster in her daughter. “I wanted to allow Anu to [say] hello to strangers as in Turkey it’s not hugely common. For me, though, that is one of the most valuable things I think we have here and it is so disheartening not to find it when you travel to other countries.”

Kate and Anu have returned to Ireland to be nearer their family, but also to further encourage Anu’s language and exposure to the Connemara way of life.

“Rearing her with Irish, I wanted to be in the Gaeltacht just when her speech was beginning to develop more at the age of two. Rambling in the outdoors is very important and sums up my earliest childhood, so I wanted her to have the chance to enjoy the same landscape and beauty that I knew.”

Asked about the importance of an Irish network, Kate replies: “Culture comes from home so you can cultivate it in the things you do with your child and the attitude that you pass on.”

In contrast to the local Turkish child-rearing traditions, Kate has been raising Anu with the feeling of freedom she associates with her own upbringing in Connemara.

“I let her go out barefoot in the garden and play in the soil on a daily basis. That was anathema to the way the Turkish mothers mothered their children. I would just respond, “She’s Irish, she’s fine!”

Fionnuala Zinnecker blogs about family life in Germany at threesonslater.com  and cooking at mykitchennotebook.blogspot.de.

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