Irish in Britain: ‘Scotland is a home from home. London never was’

Work and job prospects are stronger, but it’s far from family, the coast and the craic

Writer and editor Eimear O'Hagan first moved from her home in Belfast to Edinburgh in 2000, but on that occasion it was to study at university. She then moved to London to pursue a postgrad and stayed there for work, until she met her now-husband and the couple moved back to Scotland.

O’Hagan’s two children were born in Scotland and she finds a notable difference raising them in another country.

“It does feel strange at times to be raising them in a country I didn’t grow up in, but particularly being away from extended family, as I grew up with lots of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents around me. And they [the children] don’t have the same family backdrop, as neither of our families live near to us.”

In spite of this, O'Hagan says she's very "settled and happy" in Scotland, something she partially puts down to the similarities between where she lives now and where she grew up. "It's very similar to Northern Ireland/Ireland. Culturally there are lots of similarities – national pride, food, native language.

“The people often are very alike in their outlook and love of a bit of craic and treatment of each other,” she says. “I’ve always felt very integrated and welcomed here. It’s a home from home in a way London never was, and I always knew I would not stay there, as much as I enjoyed my years there.”

Having lived away from Belfast for a long time, O’Hagan doesn’t “actively miss it”.

“I’ve lived away for so long, longer than I actually lived in Belfast,” she says. “I miss my mum, who lives in Belfast, and she represents ‘home’ to me. I love getting back to visit. It’s a different city to the one I grew up in and it’s fantastic seeing it grow and thrive.”

Pandemic life in Britain, away from home and family support, and facing the restrictions, proved “challenging” for O’Hagan and her family.

“My husband and I were both working full time from home with two young children at home. It was incredibly stressful and tiring and I worried a lot about my mum and her getting sick. The distance then between us felt enormous,” O’Hagan says.

“We went from seeing one another every month to not seeing her from March to August [2020]and then December to April 2021. That was hard for all of us. I felt lucky we live rurally so at least had plenty of space to tire the kids out, but lockdowns are something I never want to repeat.

“Beyond that, our area was always in a low tier, so we were more fortunate than other parts of Scotland in that respect, as more stayed open between lockdowns.”

O’Hagan has no immediate plans or desires to return to Ireland. “I have made a good life in Scotland. My closest friends are here. My children are Scottish, albeit with Irish passports, and I feel settled and happy here.”

Galway to London

Joe Curtin from Galway moved to London in 2019 after completing physiotherapy studies at the University of Limerick. "Despite joining the HSE staff panel, job propositions were minimal in Ireland," he says.

Curtin left to join the NHS, for a year initially, and hasn't "looked back since".

Curtin lives with two friends, one from Dundalk and another from Cambridge, whom he met at work. His girlfriend, from Cornwall, lives 15 minutes away.

“A Tricolour hangs proudly in our sitting room, and staples like Kerrygold butter and Barry’s and Lyons tea are in ample stock. I’m quite lucky that when I moved here initially I started playing hurling with St Gabriel’s, one of London’s oldest club teams, which is predominantly comprised of Galway lads, and settled in very nicely.”

While there are some similarities, Curtin says: “Overall, London is a big multicultural city with influences changing depending on where you are. The joy of London is, if you seek similarity out, you can find it.”

Curtin has found himself developing friendships with a lot of Australians. “They get it – you can’t wander down to the shops to get your home comforts. The language is the same, but it’s just different.”

A big plus is London’s public transport system: “It just works.” He says that while rent is expensive, “there is the ability to rent good-quality accommodation”, adding: “The situation is better than in Dublin and Galway by all accounts.”

The pandemic and resulting restrictions were very difficult for Curtin. As a physiotherapist, he recalls how he had to “rehabilitate patients when they are still on a ventilator, awake and following commands. We help clear their chest of secretions, hold their hand in times of uncertainty and tell them everything will be okay.”

In addition to the significant work stress, Curtin was affected by the restrictions on a personal level. “I will never forget when the Government announced a ban on flights into the Republic. I remember being on one of our Covid ICUs with my Irish colleague from Mayo . . . and both of us crying. The hope of getting home for Christmas got us through so much. Alas, it was not to be.”

He believes life has changed for Irish people living in Britain over the past two years. “It’s hard. We’re no longer just a simple trip away and there are no longer multiple daily flights in and out of local airports.”

Brexit has also changed things. “Brexit has been tough to endure as delivery of Irish goods is no longer as easy with customs checks and a lot of Irish companies no longer ship to the UK.”

So is London home now? “I get told off by my best friend when I say London is home – but it is. I do miss aspects, obviously my family, but I especially miss people-watching and just taking in the characters, or Croke Park on All-Ireland final Sunday,” he says.

“I love hearing Gaeilge spoken casually in Galway. Above all, I miss the chance to dip into the Atlantic at a moment’s notice, or the opportunity to get a decent pint of Guinness.”

Curtin currently has no plans to move back to Ireland. “Work and job prospects/progression are stronger. My life is in the UK,” he says, even though he misses his “family, the coast and the craic”.

“My close friends are here, my partner and my social life, and I see no medium- term end to that.”

Antrim to Newcastle

Ian Courtney from Antrim left Portrush 20 years ago to study at university in Newcastle in the north of England. "My parents had encouraged me from a young age to fly the nest when I was able to do so – I think they feared the lack of opportunities for me.

“I had been to Newcastle several times before and it really felt like a great place, so I didn’t really consider anywhere else. My instinct proved to be correct as I’m still here with a house, two dogs and a Geordie girlfriend.”

Courtney sees lots of similarities between Newcastle and Ireland – “the openness, the welcoming nature, real salt-of-the-earth people who could not do enough for you. There’s a real work-hard, play-hard mentality here, which I definitely recognise too.

"One similarity I've noticed, which may be more specific, or perhaps more relatable to people in Northern Ireland, is a sense of having a unique identity within an identity," Courtney says.

“Obviously, that can be a tricky topic to discuss openly at home, but there is a cohort in Northern Ireland that see themselves neither as British or Irish, but Northern Irish. It’s not dissimilar in Newcastle: many would identify as Geordie before they would call themselves English.

“My girlfriend would be one of those: she has no interest in being English or British. Even when it comes to sport, she wouldn’t be an England fan. She simply sees herself as a Geordie first and last.”

Courtney considers three places to be home now. “There’s home, Portrush, where I was born and raised and where my parents still live; there’s home, Newcastle, where my house, job and ‘stuff’ is; there’s home, the west of coast of Ireland, which is where I consider to be my spiritual, natural home.

“The only place I’ve felt truly at home is Ireland. It’s not political or religious. I’m a Prod, well, by birth anyway, I’ve just felt like it’s home – a place where I belong. The North never gave me that, Newcastle is close, but sometimes you just feel it. England will never really be home and the fallout since Brexit has confirmed that.”

While Courtney wrote songs, trained for an ultra-marathon and learned Irish during the pandemic, he found things very difficult “psychologically, mentally, emotionally”.

“Of the things that give me greatest pleasure: going to sporting events and gigs, travelling and going out for a few jars with friends, I couldn’t do any of them. I really struggled with that, on top of working from home,” he says.

Courtney says he never had to deal with anti-Irish sentiment in Britain until Brexit. “I’ve been told to ‘f**k off back to where I came from’,” he says, calling them isolated incidents. He’s making plans to return to Ireland with his girlfriend, but to the Republic rather than the North.

It’s not something he can do in the immediate future, however, as “my ex and I share custody of our two hounds”.

Courtney’s girlfriend says she feels like Ireland could be “home”. “She wants to get involved in the local community, as do I, and really try to make a difference to wherever we end up calling home.

“Ireland is home, it will always be home to me.”

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