I’ve left my husband behind in Boston to ‘emigrate home’ from the US

It was a wrench to leave my American life. At least my smallest nieces and nephews, unlike their older siblings, won’t think that I ‘live in the computer’

Gráinne McEvoy: we’ll muddle through the next year like the best transnational couples

Gráinne McEvoy: we’ll muddle through the next year like the best transnational couples


At the beginning of the summer, after living in Boston for eight years, I flew back to Ireland on a one-way ticket. I have emigrated, just for a while, from the second real home I’ve ever known to the first.

The contradiction in “emigrating home” conveys my ambivalence towards a move that requires me to split my life, emotionally and practically, between two places.

I have returned to Ireland for about two years, with the possibility that I will move back to the US after that. In many ways I’m delighted. I’m living near my parents, my siblings and their families, and some of my oldest friends.

Yet I am also very rooted in the US, and it was very hard to leave. I moved to Boston in 2007 to undertake graduate studies and have since built a life there. I’ve had to take a leave of absence from very dear friends, colleagues and, with the biggest wrench, a new husband.

Our wedding was in August; now my husband and I will be compelled to split our marriage across an ocean for the greater part of its first year. This is at the heart of my reluctance to consider my move to Ireland as a move at all and the reason for the biggest knot in my stomach. But transnational couples and families are not uncommon, and we’ll muddle through the next year like the best of them.

I have had a fraught relationship with the concept of “emigration” since I left Ireland. As a historian of migration I’m aware of the baggage that those permanent, frequently alienating emigrations of the past have placed on the term, especially in Irish history. Personally, I have never fit that historical mould or its more recent iterations.

When I left I stubbornly objected to suggestions that I was “emigrating”. I wasn’t going very far away, and my emotional centre of gravity remained in Ireland. But as time passed my feelings changed. I found it irritating when people described my life in Boston as a great experience, as if I was an overgrown exchange student. Then, when I met my husband-to-be and realised my future may not be in Ireland, the term “emigrant” began to feel more applicable.

Above all I’ve remained ambivalent about the concepts of emigration and immigration because I’ve come to realise that your legal, official status in a country can be completely at odds with your lived experience.

I’ve been in Boston on a J-1 exchange visitor student visa for eight years. For at least seven of those years I’ve felt aware of the impermanence of my legal status only on isolated occasions: my visits to the US consulate in Belfast to extend my visa; the few minutes once or twice a year when I’ve shown my passport and papers to a US immigration officer at Dublin Airport; and the two times I desperately wanted to vote for Obama but wasn’t allowed to.

It is impossible to spend the better part of a decade somewhere and still think of yourself as a “non-immigrant exchange visitor”. I have a Massachusetts driving licence, I’m a taxpayer, and I know Interstate 90 between Boston and Ohio like the back of my hand. Nothing about my daily life felt impermanent, and I certainly didn’t feel like a visitor.

But I fully intend to make the most of the next few years in Ireland, my first home. My smallest nieces and nephews, unlike their older siblings and cousins a few years ago, don’t think I “live in the computer”. Like the rest of my family, I’m able to pop in to see my parents on a Sunday or a random weeknight, and I can catch up with old friends over lunch rather than just “liking” their photo on Facebook.

My conclusion is that leaving Boston does feel like emigrating. This move will transform my day-to-day life for the next few years. But I hope it will feel natural to emotionally transcend the jurisdictional boundaries and keep a foot in two homes.