‘The Irish love Ireland, but also love to leave’
The tension between homesickness and embracing life in a new place is ever present
Katie Lynch: ‘I packed up and left, and it was one of the best things I have ever done. But it has also been extremely difficult at times.’
You stand in the crowd of people waiting to cross when the lights tell you to. You wonder, briefly, why you have chosen to live in a city with almost twice as many people as there are on the entire island you call home.
Home. You miss it, but the ache dulls more every day. The adventure, the excitement, and the opportunities are more intense and concentrated in this environment than you have ever experienced. So much so that you sometimes want to curl up and pretend you are back on your island, without the constant noise and pressure and competition.
Living abroad will always be a sacrifice. There is a part of your soul left behind. It is clear from the Irish migration statistics that there are many other Irish people somehow coping with this void.
We learn to live with it. The tension between always feeling a little homesick, and the experience of living somewhere new and far away, is an ever-present reality for many Irish across the globe.
We could spend forever trying to pinpoint what makes Ireland special that can’t be found anywhere else: the sense of humour, the easygoing outlook on life, the ability to slag each other ceaselessly without taking an ounce of offence. But you could live in a country with similar traits, and still feel something missing.
I have lived abroad for just over two years, in Scotland and now in the US. Scotland is beautiful and its people are as warm and as easygoing as the Irish, and living in New York has been a whirlwind of interesting people and fantastic opportunities. I am so glad to have had the chance to live in new environments, and have learned so much. But still, something is always missing.
Leaving home seemed inevitable – it felt like the natural next step. It is possible I would have stayed if I had felt prepared for the job market in Dublin. But my degree and in sociology and French had set me up for little other than retail or coffee shop jobs. I wanted to keep learning.
I had been living with my parents throughout my college years and felt I needed to spread my wings and find my independence. To move out in Dublin, given the current housing market, seemed like a ridiculous notion.
So I packed up and left, and it was one of the best things I have ever done. But it has also been extremely difficult at times.
The Irish are known for becoming more Irish when they leave the island. We’ve all seen this in action: the Irish abroad who play Gaelic football, or drink Guinness like there’s no tomorrow – activities many of us did not dream of partaking in when we lived at home. We strive to keep that attachment alive, particularly when we feel out of place.
When we leave, we find each other. We help each other procure jobs, houses, friends and communities. We build neighbourhoods that are fiercely Irish. We start GAA clubs and go to Irish bars. We seek out the comfort and familiarity of home when we are hundreds of miles away.
I have always tied myself to home through what I read and listen to – radio, podcasts, music, and the newspaper. Irish news still feels more relevant to me than local news.
But we also inevitably lose some of our Irishness. We stop using words and phrases that will raise eyebrows and questions, and we conform to the environment around us – a little more with every week, month or year that goes by.
This constant tension, between becoming one with the surrounding culture, and attaching ourselves to our Irish roots, is a real experience for the estimated one million Irish-born people who live outside Ireland.
For the most part the Irish love Ireland, but also love to leave. We go in search of adventure, opportunity, and excitement. I have never met an Irish person abroad who does not love Ireland, so what is it that our beloved motherland is not providing us with?
For my part, I would love to live at home, eventually, but I will only move home for a job that matches the adventure of living away. When many of us are presented with the option of struggling to find a job and climb a career ladder while living at home, or struggling in the same way, but in a new city with new adventures, many of us will choose the latter. If we got the sense that our country needed us and wanted us to thrive, perhaps this would be a different story.
In September 2016, Cabhrú was launched, providing free counselling to homesick Irish abroad, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and supported by the GAA and Crosscare Migrant Project.
This is both encouraging and worrying. If there are significant numbers of Irish abroad experiencing homesickness and needing help, then some self-reflection might be in order.
Although we’ve had our economic setbacks in recent years, we are, relatively speaking, a wealthy country. And wealthy countries should be able to provide their people with the jobs they are trained to do, and with houses they can afford, if they want to live there rather than have to move abroad.
I realise this is a simplistic argument, and my goal is not to offer a solution to our crises – jobs or housing – but to state that these are crises.
While there are many reasons that the Irish choose to leave home, there are many who want to come back, but cannot. What are we doing as a country to enable our talented and ambitious people to build a life, without the ever-present void that comes when home is far away?
Katie Lynch, a 24-year-old aspiring journalist from Dublin, is interning at a political consulting firm in New York