‘We left with a backpack and came home with two kids’

Emigrants share their stories of the joys and challenges of returning to live in Ireland

Orla Griffin with her son Daniel (3): ‘I had gotten sick of joining the family for Sunday dinner via Facetime.’

Orla Griffin with her son Daniel (3): ‘I had gotten sick of joining the family for Sunday dinner via Facetime.’


As "recession emigrants" return to live in Ireland in increasing numbers, one of the most common themes in the stories and opinions they share through the Irish Times Abroad forum is how moving back hasn’t felt like coming “home”.

A recent report from Crosscare Migrant Project found that while finding work and a place to live are the biggest practical issues faced by returning Irish, the emotional readjustment is often a bigger hurdle to overcome. One in five survey respondents said reintegrating into Irish society was a bigger challenge than they had expected.

Irish Times Abroad invited a group of returned emigrants to join us for a discussion about the experience of moving home, the highs, the lows, the well-reported challenges they expected - like the cost of car insurance, and difficulty finding accommodation - and others that took them by surprise.

The conversation was led by three panellists, all returned from Australia in the past two years. In the audience, more than half had spent time living in Australia, and most had moved back in recent months.

Orla Griffin, Orlagh McHugh, Philip Loughran. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times
Orla Griffin, Orlagh McHugh, Philip Loughran. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

Philip Loughran is a carpenter from Co Tyrone who set up his own construction business in Dublin, after working in Germany, the US, England and France. “Frustration with the industry” during the downturn prompted him to move to Brisbane in 2012. He returned to Dublin with his wife and three sons in 2015.

Orla Griffin went travelling with her boyfriend in 2007 and ended up staying in Sydney, after being told by family in Ireland that the recession had hit and there were no jobs. She trained to be a lawyer, got married and had her first child, before moving to London, where baby number two was born. The family returned to Dublin last September. She now works as a baby sleep coach (sleeplikealog.ie).

Orlagh McHugh moved to Thailand to teach English for a year in 2009, before flying to Australia. After working a few temporary jobs, she ended up in Brisbane which became home for six and a half years. She moved back to Ireland last summer and now works with Caranua, an organisation supporting survivors of institutional abuse.


A desire to be closer to family was the most common reason given in the Crosscare survey for moving back home, with 83 per cent saying that was their motivation. Wanting to bring children up in Ireland was also high on the priority list, along with homesickness.What prompted you to move home?

Philip: I had a construction company in Australia, with 12-15 guys working for me. Things were going well. But there was always a calling for home. You miss the rain, as bizarre as that sounds, the seasons, the familiarity and the friendliness of the Irish. And obviously family is a big factor; that was the main reason we decided to move home. We were toying with the idea for six months. We were torn. You can’t help constantly comparing countries. I missed my sister having a child, my dad’s 70th. There’s only so much you can see and do on Skype, like witness funerals. It is a trip you have to plan six months in advance, and it is not cheap, especially with kids. Australia is a great country. But home is home.

People have a misconception that you go to Australia and you finish work at 2pm and you go to the beach with the surf board under the arm, but that certainly wasn’t the case for me. I worked very hard. I think Ireland is a much more social country, and a better place to bring up your kids, despite the weather.

Philip Loughran with his sons: 'I have more of an appreciation for Ireland. It is a beautiful country that people travel from all over the world to visit.'
Philip Loughran with his sons: 'I have more of an appreciation for Ireland. It is a beautiful country that people travel from all over the world to visit.'

Orla: We left with a backpack and came home with two kids. My family were very surprised we came back. We looked very settled to them. Even now I still refer to Australia as home. It was never our plan to stay forever, though it almost was forever. Sydney just became our life. I had my son there and then my husband got a job offer to go to London. That came at the same time that we were thinking the grandparents are missing the first-born grandchild on both sides. Everything started to feel like this was our opportunity, also financially, to get our furniture paid for by someone else to go to London. It felt mad to give it up. We thought we could always go back – I had a passport – so we said we would give it two years and see what happened.

London ended up being a stop-gap. It wasn’t Ireland and it wasn’t Australia. We were in limbo. We were so close to home and we thought it would be great, but we didn’t have the backup of our Australian support network, or our Irish network. It was still seven hours door to door, which isn’t an easy journey with two kids. As all our decisions are usually made, over a bottle of wine, we said let’s go home. We had no jobs, we took the plunge. For your kids, you just want to see them grow up learning Irish – even though my Irish is terrible – and know their cousins and see their aunts and uncles and grandparents. I had gotten sick of joining the family for Sunday dinner via Facetime.

Orlagh: The last position I was in was with the Irish Australian Support Association of Queensland, an Irish-Government funded organisation. I worked with a mothers group, and the girls who married Australians felt a bit stuck, longing for their parents’ support. A couple of Government ministers were visiting for St Patrick’s Day and they asked if I had plans to come back. I was getting a bit of pressure from home too, and I asked their advice: should I be the first one home, or should I follow the crowd? They said, be the first – you’ll be competing for jobs, competing for houses. Six months later I was home. I didn’t want to grow old in Australia, so it was a case of getting out before you get caught and have too many ties.

We had the best Gaelic football team in Brisbane at one stage, and suddenly five or six girls were all lost in the one year and the same for the lads’ team. It accelerated very quickly. The club is now struggling for numbers, and that seemed to be the story right across the different clubs in Brisbane. The Irish are like sheep, one person goes and everyone follows. Friends that are still in Australia say it is a very different place now for them, because our network of friends are not there anymore. For me, it was the Irish who made Australia.


Did the uplift in the economy improve your job prospects in Ireland? Was it easy to find a job when you moved back?

Orlagh: I did a bit of temping while looking for the big jobs. In Australia, you could use your Irish charm. But when you come home, you are only one of five million Irish people here. You have to take a bit of a step back, to get back up the ladder again, and get a bit of Irish experience and an Irish reference that people can ring easily rather than calling Australia at crazy hours of the night. Moving from Australia to Ireland, I have definitely taken a pay decrease.

Irish Times Abroad event: Reality of life 'back home'

Philip: There isn’t much point in coming back because you’re homesick if you can’t get a job and can’t afford to pay your mortgage. There is an upbeat attitude in the construction industry in Ireland now. There’s an abundance of work. I didn’t close my company before I left, I just filed empty returns for it, so in that way it was easy. The uplift in the economy in terms of the need for housing was a plus for me. We were preparing to move home for about six months. I contacted architects and engineers in my industry to let them know I was coming back. You need to be as enthusiastic in your own country as you were when you left.

Orla: I have done a complete career change since moving back. I trained as a lawyer in Australia, but wasn’t qualified when I got back to Ireland. It seems to be a problem in other industries. I have heard nurses coming from the UK having huge waiting times to get their qualifications recognised. That is what I am hearing from friends. They are calling for nurses back here but they are not making it easy.

I didn’t want to have to study law again for years so I trained as a baby sleep coach. I set myself up and it is going quite well. You have to be brave to do something completely different, that your parents might kill you for.

AUDIENCE COMMENT: I came back from the UK in November after doing primary teaching on the job in England, a new thing over there which is definitely not liked in Ireland. The Teaching Council in Ireland is making it very difficult to get recognition. You have to do your Irish exam, with a €1,500 exam fee excluding tuition, to go to the Gaeltacht for three weeks which costs about €600 per week. That’s a huge barrier for teachers coming back. In Ireland now, we need teachers, people are leaving the UK in droves because it is an awful job over there.

AUDIENCE COMMENT: I am a project manager for the past 20 years, degree qualified, worked in Australia for large multinational companies. When I came back to Ireland, I did two interviews in 18 months. One told me I was qualified in this and had worked on that, but didn’t have “Irish experience”, whatever “Irish experience” is. I was offered a position on 30 per cent less than someone in their mid-20s. I was told if you come back to Ireland, you don’t come back for money; a professional HR executive said that to me in an interview.

AUDIENCE COMMENT: We were in Australia for 12 years. We had really good jobs and quite successful lives there. We are only back a month and are still doing interviews, but I find when you go to Australia you are braver. You think, I’ll give that a go, and if it all falls on its arse, you can still go home. When you are back home you tend to be more careful. You think you have to get everything right because Ireland is so small. I find people discount my experience in Australia. It is like another world. I was quite senior where I was. I am an event producer and director, and worked on large-scale events. I don’t know how things are done here so I feel I am underselling myself, that I have to take a step back in order to see where I fit in.

AUDIENCE COMMENT: Sarah Maria Griffin:  I work in the arts. Going to America, while it was extremely difficult in many ways, allowed me to progress professionally. Only after I hit a certain point with my own writing and secured a two-book deal was I confident enough to return. Now I am here, and people ask what I do and I say I am a writer, people say, oh that’s such a cute hobby! An American would say, Oh my God are you? That’s so interesting! I just think that’s Irish people. I don’t think there’s malice in it, it is just how we are. My adjustment period was horrific when I came home. People take the professional experiences that you have had abroad extremely seriously here though. I was a nanny, a house cleaner, a pet sitter, you name it I did it, receptionist, I did all these mad day jobs. For some reason they carry more weight here. The temporary reception work I did for several start-ups over there counts more here because you did it somewhere else.

Orla Griffin with her son Daniel (3): 'You just want to see them grow up learning Irish.'
Orla Griffin with her son Daniel (3): 'You just want to see them grow up learning Irish.'


Many returning emigrants experience unexpected “reverse culture shock”, according to the Crosscare report, similar to when they first emigrated and had to integrate into a new country and culture abroad. Has it been harder than you expected to settle back in? Has your social life changed?

Orlagh: I am learning to live with my family again. They have moved on and built a life. With friends, there have been weddings and babies and houses bought. They weren’t waiting for us to move back from Australia to carry on with life. The memories you have with your friends are from eight or nine years ago. But it is fun making new memories. We have all grown up. We make arrangements to go for a cycle or a hike now. My social scene has definitely changed. Everyone is looking towards mortgages or holidays now more so than going out.

Orla: It feels now like it is the end of the journey. We are nine months in, and I’ve been told that after a year or two you feel like you are definitely here forever. It has been great, but there have been ups and downs. There have been ups and downs. I am not used to having my parents tell me what to do. I have my own kids and I’m a grown-up now! You have to form those relationships again. My sister was 12 when I left and she’s an adult now. I’m used to telling her what to do, so that’s a different challenge. She wonders why I use my key going into my parents’ house, because I see it as home and she sees me as a visitor.

Philip: I think I have more of an appreciation for Ireland. It is a beautiful country that people travel from all over the world to visit. My attitude has changed towards the things I like to do and see in Ireland.

My eldest son is six. Kids are very resilient, they adapt to anything. You make a big deal of (the move) and make it all about them, about what you are going to do for them when they get there, that they can see their cousins. You make the effort to get them to the birthday parties of their cousins, and the grandparents make a really big deal of them. I had a son born in Australia who was two when he came back, I don’t think he will even remember Australia.

Orla: The city has gotten bigger. There are lots of places that didn’t exist when I left. The Docklands wasn’t an area when I left. I can’t go anywhere without Google Maps. 


Ireland is in the midst of a housing crisis. One in four respondents to the Crosscare survey said finding affordable accommodation was a considerable challenge on return. Some said they had to live with their parents because they couldn’t afford to rent, while others mentioned poor standards. Was it difficult to find a place to live?

Philip: I built my own house in north Dublin before I left, which we rented out. I am more fortunate than some who come back with nowhere to live. We slotted back into our home, so the transition for us was easy.

Orla: We managed to beg, steal and borrow enough money to get a mortgage in Sydney and buy a house a few years ago. It was a difficult experience. It was an internet purchase. Our parents went to view it. There were a lot of 3am phone calls for seven months.

Orlagh: I was going back to the rental market. I had been commuting up and down to Dublin from north Meath, just over an hour, into work. I got lucky and a friend of a friend had availability in a house. I had heard absolute horror stories from friends and people I worked with about going to view rooms in Dublin and being one of 15 or 20 people turning up. But I got lucky. It was the only property I viewed. I hear it is bad.

Orlagh McHugh (left): 'We have all grown up. We make arrangements to go for a cycle or a hike now. My social scene has definitely changed.'
Orlagh McHugh (left): 'We have all grown up. We make arrangements to go for a cycle or a hike now. My social scene has definitely changed.'


What other barriers or challenges have you faced? What advice would you give to other returning emigrants, to avoid some of the common pitfalls?

Philip: People shouldn’t take anything for granted. Think of the amount of preparation you put into moving away in the first instance. Your network of friends and family can help you on your return, but you still need to do your research. Set up some interviews online, and get your CV out there so you come back to Ireland and hit the ground running. There’s a shortage of housing here so have a plan about where you are going to stay.

Orla: You have to learn how to do things by looking at Facebook and talking to other people, who let you know the tricks. I added my mother as a named driver on my insurance policy, which brought the price down.

People were asking straight away if I had the kids’ names down for national schools. Getting them ECCE (free preschool) places was impossible. I would say look into that stuff before you come back, like childcare and nurseries, and the costs of it. I have to drive my son 30 minutes to playschool now. Had I known, I should have researched and had his name down.

Philip: I had proof that I drove a vehicle in Australia for three years, and the insurance company in Dublin recognised that, and gave me the fill 60 per cent no claims.

Orlagh: It is important to have the right documents ready to go. If you are leaving Australia, proof that you have sold your car or terminated your rental agreement will be important to bring home with you to show that Ireland now is your primary place of residence. That will make life an awful lot easier for setting up again here, especially if you need to claim Jobseekers Allowance. It can be difficult if you need a utility bill to open a bank account, where do you get one if you haven’t paid any bills yet? 

AUDIENCE COMMENT: I left Ireland in 1992, went to the UK for five years, and then Sydney. In 2014 myself and my wife and three young kids decided to come back. After a month I bought a car and went to get insurance and they were charging me €3,500 after spending 20 years with an unblemished record. I find a lot of things in Ireland happen very slowly. Everything is a stumbling block.

AUDIENCE COMMENT: Karen McHugh, Safe Home Ireland: I work with an organisation supporting Irish people who want to move home from abroad, particularly older people. Over the past few years the numbers returning in that age cohort has decreased. Some of it is cold feet – people have left it too late. Going back to certain parts, it is not what it was. The family isn’t there, the networks aren’t there, there’s no public transport. We support people throughout the 26 counties, and outside Dublin I don’t know how well the recovery is going. We had someone come back from Australia a month ago to live in rural Mayo, who can’t get to Galway hospital for his cancer treatment, is not able to get car insurance because his quote was €7,000. These are the real challenges and barriers. It is not that people don’t want to come back. We have two or three people so far this year who have gone back to where they came from because they were waiting for hip replacements. The service they had in the UK with the NHS was much better. 

AUDIENCE COMMENT: Sarah Owen, Crosscare Migrant Project: People with non-Irish family members don’t have an automatic entitlement to come back with spouses, de-facto partners, civil partners. When people call us asking for information, they are shocked that they can’t bring their husband or wife or partner back, and they feel quite alienated, and will sometimes say to us, I don’t think I want to come back.

AUDIENCE COMMENT: Don’t throw away any documents you have had over the past 10 years. Dealing with the Irish tax man, the amount of documentation and bureaucracy that they require is mind-blowing. I am looking to get a mortgage and it is the same.

Don’t sit at home moping about Sydney.


Was it worth it? Are you happy to be home, or do you find yourself looking backwards?

Philip: Sometimes it is difficult not to compare one country against the other, and look at the pros and cons. I have no regrets about going, and none about coming back. I have a great appreciation for my country now. Your mind wanders, what if I do get old, what if I do get sick, who will look after me? I have no regrets about coming home, I know it is the right decision. It feels right.

Orla: Coming home at first felt like the end of the adventure, but you need to make sure that you keep going to Glendalough and doing the things that you talked about missing about Ireland when you were in Australia. Don’t sit at home moping about Sydney.

Orlagh: I think I have switched off almost too much from Australia – maybe you have to do that in order to settle back into Irish life; you can’t be looking at Facebook at what all your friends are doing (in Australia)and crying because you are now in Ireland. For me, it definitely was the right decision. I have settled back well and am happy to be home. Now I have other mothers and grandmothers asking me, how can I convince my son or daughter to come back?

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