Thank God I’ve a good excuse not to come back to Ireland and my dysfunctional family

Lots of Irish emigrants hate being unable to visit home. For me, in New Zealand, it’s a blessing

No New Zealand travel ban: I could get a series of flights back to Ireland if I wanted to. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty

No New Zealand travel ban: I could get a series of flights back to Ireland if I wanted to. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty

 

I’ve noticed a few stories in Irish Times Abroad about how difficult Irish emigrants in Australasia have found Covid-19, as they have not been able to travel back to Ireland or to have family to visit. One such piece was headlined “Irish in Australia: ‘It’s scary here, not being able to visit home at the drop of a hat’”. “Being so far away from family during the pandemic is taking its toll on some emigrants,” the subheading read.

No article has captured my own experiences as an Irish Antipodean. First, I’m in New Zealand, not Australia. Like Australia’s, New Zealand’s border is closed to anyone except citizens, permanent residents and the occasional American billionaire. Unlike Australia, however, New Zealand doesn’t have a travel ban as such. I could get on a series of flights back to Ireland if I wanted to, albeit at considerable hassle and cost, not least of which is that I would need to go into two weeks of mandatory quarantine upon my return to NZ, which would cost several thousand dollars.

But the real difference between Irish people in Australia and New Zealand who miss being able to go home and my own situation isn’t the material context, it’s the emotional one. If I am to be honest, my headline would read: “It’s great not being able to visit home at the drop of a hat: Being so far away from family during the pandemic is a liberation for some emigrants.”

Yes! Really!

It’s great not being able to visit home at the drop of a hat. What sort of a heartless daughter says such things about her parents? I’ll tell you. One who has spent the past 18 months in psychotherapy

What sort of a heartless daughter says such things about her parents?

Abroad during Covid

I’ll tell you. One who has spent the past 18 months in psychotherapy, emerging from the long shadow of family dysfunction.

I’ve been living in New Zealand for a grand long time. (I am being vague about the details to protect my anonymity, but The Irish Times knows who I am.) I am very much settled here, and have the mortgage, the rates bills and the smattering of Antipodean abbreviations – sunnies, op shop, this arvo – to prove it. I originally left Ireland after I finished college and wanted adventure. After that there was never a big decision to emigrate; it just happened.

Until Covid-19 struck I was never able to articulate fully why I would find moving back to Ireland quite so stifling. Of course dismal weather and lingering cronyism do not appeal, but they are not reasons in themselves to permanently decamp to the end of the earth.

Quarantine hotel: if I visited Ireland I would need to go into two weeks of mandatory quarantine upon my return to New Zealand. Photograph: by Hannah Peters/Getty
Quarantine hotel: if I visited Ireland I would need to go into two weeks of mandatory quarantine upon my return to New Zealand. Photograph: by Hannah Peters/Getty

Rather there are other reasons, which I have shielded from even myself until recently. There are reasons I live as far as possible from my “family of origin” (one of the phrases I’ve learned during all the therapy). I won’t get into the specifics, but I lived through traumatic events as a child – my mum roaring and shouting around the house as a way of “coping”, my dad checking out of the situation entirely. Care workers noted that I shied away from physical contact. A psychiatrist and social workers had to tell my parents to pay a bit more attention to me. And then none of it was ever mentioned again, in that familiar triumvirate of secrecy, stigma and shame.

Taking my cue from the adults around me, I never mentioned it again, either, and believed it hadn’t affected me at all until, well, I realised that it had. So last year, as we headed into lockdown, I started talking about it, painfully and haltingly, for the first time.

I’m like a nuclear bomb of rage – the rage I didn’t get to express as a ‘parentified child’ who had to be the good girl around two parents who were struggling to cope with their own emotions, let alone those of their children

As I’ve explored these experiences in therapy, I have been feeling hurt and angry. No, angry doesn’t really cover it. I’m like a nuclear bomb of rage – the rage I didn’t get to express the first time around as a “parentified child”. This is another of my therapy phrases, meaning having to be the good girl around two parents who were struggling to cope with their own emotions, let alone those of their children.

So now I am learning to speak “emotion”. As with acquiring any language, I’m able to understand it before I can speak it myself, and I haven’t raised any of the above issues with my parents yet. Maybe I will in time. For now, being 20,000km away from my parents during a pandemic and having a rock-solid reason for not returning to Ireland has been hugely helpful. I have used the closed border as a shield to sidestep the difficult but necessary conversations until I feel ready. If I ever will. There’s a way to go before there are easy reunions at Dublin Airport and journeys home with a big smile for a pot of Barry’s tea.

What I also wonder is, how many others out there are like me, quietly relieved, for whatever reason, about a tour of duty back to Ireland being off the cards for a while longer? I’m sure I’m not the only one.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

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