Returning home: It is fragile to restart your life after a quarter of century away

‘What makes a person connect to Ireland so strongly that they will uproot everything they have built over many years to return?’

I grew up in Howth in Co Dublin, emigrated 25 years ago to the US and returned seven months ago. How long does it take to begin to assimilate back into Irish culture? Three weeks. Three slow weeks to let your feet touch the soil, to feel the solid earth of home sink in as you realise there is no going back, you are here, finally "home".

It takes about three weeks to let the “isms” of your past life fall away. Mannerisms that have grown over a quarter century like the the tainted accent and the thought process that has blended itself into maturing in another land. They begin to slip away as you observe the differences and re-familiarise with what was the home you grew up with.

You feel your younger compass adjusting. People you remember have aged noticeably. You forget you have too as you are back to being the 19-year-old that left to find work and a new life. It’s like being in an age and time capsule, going back and forward all the time.

The promise I made to myself before arriving back "for good" was to return with fresh eyes and observe everything. To try and answer the questions why do people return and what makes a person connect to place so strongly that they will uproot everything they have built over many years to return? What is the drive to hold on to Ireland before the pendulum swings its last swing.

Soon after I landed back in Ireland my father's best friend died. My sister and I went with my father to see him laid out at the funeral home. Gone was the west Cork boom, a voice that had woven stories and laughter into our childhood and teen years. The Cork man was dead. He was a schoolteacher and after retirement he and my father, and four or five friends, would gather in our local pub in Howth to chat and listen to traditional music every Sunday morning. Sometimes they would stay to watch a sports game from the bar. They roared for different GAA teams, had raucous and different political views that sometimes broke out in a disagreement, but they came together over rugby.

My family spoke in hushed whispers about how Dad would take his friend’s passing. The following Sunday, on Father’s Day, my brother and I took him to the pub and the Cork man was there in spirit. He hung there like a ghostly presence. We sat and watched the match together.

It was hard to know what more to say about his passing, only to reassure Dad that he had his family and that we were here for him. “It’s my round,” said my brother as I pondered on how we communicate. Where do you start when a man, your father, has lost his life-long friend?

I wanted to ask him so many questions like, “what was your best memory of all your trips together” or “what will you miss most?” Or strike out with a “do your remember the time … and recall a great story of them having too much fun. There were many stories of the pair misbehaving, but I faltered. I was worried that he would be upset. He was stoic and seemed untouched so maybe it was best to leave him intact, to leave him be strong.

A young waitress came out from behind the bar. She was taking lunch orders but then put her pen and note pad down, walked gently up and put a hand on Dad’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just heard he died. What happened?” She searched my father’s eyes and he leaned towards her and quietly told the story of how the Cork man had come to pass, all the time her watery eyes searched his. She nodded at his every word and her hand never left his shoulder.

I was struck by her genuine tenderness. Here it was – the Irish touch. It is of caring and compassion. It is the gift of time and listening. There was nothing uncaring about the moment. The waitress, a Howth girl, knew the Cork man on a weekly, yearly, Sunday morning, taking-care-of-him experience, bringing him his pint or his food, or stopping for “the chat”, exactly as she was doing now and giving of her time to connect. The importance of what she did struck me deeply as I came to see it with fresh eyes. The importance of connection and giving time and listening, caring and compassion.

Once I had seen it in action I could see it everywhere. I noticed it in offers of help with transport from friends and family as I waded through the “returning home and getting your driving license mill”.

I saw it in getting the shopping done and setting up my daughter’s school meetings. I noticed it in the “welcome backs”. I noticed it in the way Irish women tell stories to each other in the supermarket aisle. One the teller and one the listener, and the listener is also the supporter. “Yeah, yeah,” she says as she encourages the storyteller onwards at a rapid rate and then they both throw back their heads and laugh out loud. People give time and effort into each other’s stories. I noticed it with offers of professional help setting up a small business in this new Ireland. I noticed it the way old friends picked up on ways to help without ever being asked. I noticed that if you take the time to listen, Irish people are by nature quick to want to help.

I began to see how much is invested in connection. Little details now became major players in answering my own question. Why do we want to reconnect back to our roots so deeply? Are we homing pigeons by nature or is there something missing all those years away? Is it longing for the familiar, or do we seek this cultural and unique bond? Not just the gift of storytelling but taking the time to listen. We are a nation invested in each other’s lives. We listen. The way we exchange stories is a currency of gold. Listening connects. Listening fights loneliness.

My daughter arrived in Ireland recently and got a job in the local pub on Friday. It was her first waitressing job.

I wrote about coming home in the Irish Times before we got here, about how she had wanted to move to Ireland. After the article was published Irish men and women living in different parts of the world emailed. All had one common thread– the will to to be nearer to family and to be “home”. While many Irish emigrants settle abroad and have no will to return, so many live with the intent of coming back with a constant pull to return.

There is a peace to not looking into the horizon, to accepting your feet are on native ground, even if the soil is soft from rain, slippery. It is fragile to restart your life after a quarter of century away.

I was in a supermarket pondering which chocolate bar to choose, getting lost in the nostalgia and thinking how so much has changed in Ireland.

I heard my daughter talking and turned around. An old man was chatting brightly to her. Slightly bent in the back, he held a basket with milk, a pork chop, and two potatoes. He struck out his hand, “And you’re the mother,” he said, “she takes care of me every Saturday, knows my order, stops for a chat. She’s a great young one,” his eyes never left mine in his appreciation and I had to look away. I tried to focus on the salad bar and quickly wiped a tear away before it hit the coleslaw and tomato cucumber mix. So she had learned the Irish touch without me saying a word, a welcome gift handed to her from Ireland.

Lara O'Brien is living in Howth, Co Dublin, studying to be a celebrant and is the founder of Howth Writing Workshops (

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