Irish abroad: ‘Friends from home will always be my closest’

FRIENDSHIP WEEK: Generation Emigration readers on leaving lifelong friends behind, and creating new social circles from scratch abroad

Belgium, Angola, Denmark and Korea are just some of the places my friends and I have lived in the 20 years since we met at university. We've mostly been scattered. Addresses, jobs and boyfriends have changed countless times. Wedding invitations, Christmas cards and birth announcements have arrived in my letter box, to be followed up by lump-in-throat phonecalls, where the reality of physical distance hits hard.

The emotional closeness is a great consolation but one that can easily be forgotten in the wave of longing to be near those familiar faces, clink glasses, exchange a knowing look or literally have a shoulder to cry on. Strange thoughts surface every now and again. How long will we still stay in touch? Am I missing out on too much?

I emigrated without much thought to friends, naïvely expecting that we would keep in touch, that there would be visits, texts and phonecalls and that new friends would be made too. Once here, worries over finding a flat and a job took precedence over thoughts of finding friends. Trying to make new friends in standoffish Germany was difficult. But it proved to be worth the patience. Here you build a friendship, slowly, but once it is built it is strong and treasured.

For a time it seemed I would ever be stuck in friendship limbo, drifting in and out of the lives of my old friends from home but not fully accepted in Germany. That time has passed. I’m not quite sure when it happened but at some stage I found things had righted themselves. The scales balanced between old friends and new. My naïve expectations have, happily, been fulfilled.


Maeve Rafferty: ‘During a trip home for Christmas, a good friend died from cancer’

During a trip home for Christmas, a good friend died from cancer. To say that she was my friend would be to claim an ownership that’s false, because it was Mary’s vocation on earth to bring healing, colour, joy, warts-and-all-honesty, upcycled tweeds and warm bread from the Aga to all who crossed her path.

Mary belonged everywhere, and to everyone. Nevertheless, I felt when I visited her at home that she was in her Realm, that I was one of many people seeking the wisdom of her hands - she’s a renowned physiotherapist - and her intuitive life advice, but that it was from the constancy of her family that she derived strength.

I could divine the love from every sketch and photo on the wall, every hand-stitched blanket, and even the piles of junk concealed in the drawers. There were intimate suppers around the fire, dog laid flat, husband Dermot’s hands resting on his tummy, mid-story, and someone making the tea. I was lucky enough to be included in several of these, along with guests from Pittsburgh, where I now live.

Days before Christmas I was at such a gathering - three of us watching Mary make blankets, captivated by her energy. The blankets were for sale at a local café; all proceeds to help Syrian refugees. We were instructed to view them. Because I follow Mary’s instructions verbatim, I arranged a lunch date at that cafe with another fan of Mary’s. We got the news of her death and details of her funeral, which I would miss, from the waitress.

I know it’s selfish, but I only felt lucky. Lucky to have known her, lucky to have that last memory of her, lucky to have been spared the news of her death by Facebook or email, thousands of miles between us.

Mick O’Grady, Tennessee: ‘Starting from scratch gets harder as you get older’

The import of that cursory adieu to my Dublin friends was perhaps understandably lost on me when I emigrated to San Francisco in 2005. I was reuniting with a girl I had met in New Zealand, who would later become my wife. I had spent the previous two years travelling, and revelled in the fleeting friendships that ebbed and flowed during that quarter-life hiatus.

On my first weekend in the Bay City, I ran into a young entrepreneur from Leitrim at a party and he kindly adopted me into his cadre of North Beach compatriots. That gave me an immediate sense of camaraderie and opened up the city to me. Those connections also helped to secure my first Stateside post, at the satirical newspaper The Onion. (The headline that week, 'Donald Rumsfeld Pays Surprise Visit to Wife's Vagina,' instigated a flurry of questions from my parents on the validity of my dubious career tack.)

Since then, I’ve found myself starting from scratch in Chicago and again in Nashville. I’ve learned it gets harder, especially as you get older and become more selective. You have to work at and cultivate friendships, and doing that makes me a little uncomfortable sometimes. But I’ve been lucky enough to eke out friends here in the South, a region known for its surface hospitality, but with an insular and cliquish flip-side.

Trips home have taught me that friends move on, but return to old dynamics quickly. Technology has allowed me to stay in touch regularly and I’m grateful for that; but truth be told, there’s a sting in the realisation that’s it’s not quite the same as being there. I talk to my friends in Dublin on a weekly basis, but miss the inability to actively participate in and share our lives, especially now as our focus dilutes to the fresh joys of parenthood.

Patrick McKenna, Montreal: ‘My soul mate is my most precious friend’

Over my years in Canada, I must have got to know more than a thousand people, either professionally as colleagues, subordinates, managers, suppliers, and clients, or socially as fellow students from my M.Ed., German, Yoga or Tai Chi classes. Yet, out of all these people, there is not one that remains in contact.

This is neither mystery nor tragedy. It’s just life in the Giant Box of Strangers that is the typical North American metropolis. You, or they, change jobs, finish a course, move to another part of the city or to another city, or they move back home, and if you see them again it will be in cyber space.

On the other hand, I have half a dozen neighbours, who help me as I do them, in many small and not so small ways.

Then there are two people I describe as friends, meaning if I show up without notice they will take me in, let me stay as long as I want, and say “we’ll figure out the details later”.

One is an Algerian man who was one of my ESL students back in 2000. The second is a lady back home who runs a B&B that, since 1987, when I stayed there first, has become a home away from home.

My soul mate is my most precious friend. She and her family, here and in China, consider and treat me as one of them. I share in the joys and heartaches of their lives. For that I am very glad indeed.

A long time ago, when I asked my mum about friends, she replied that if you have two, you are doing very well.

So I guess I am doing very well.

I'm a Canadian, born to Irish parents who emigrated in the 1970s. They longed for home and we immigrated back to Ireland in the early 80s when I was 12. While our immigration didn't last long, moving to Ireland changed my life and shaped my future. I know how it is to leave Ireland and have it forever in your heart.

It wasn’t until I got involved with gaelic football in Toronto 25 years ago that I found a part of what I’d been missing. My playing career is now long over, but last year I stepped down from a 17-year run as the ladies manager of my club.

The sport is has given me so much because of the friendships I’ve made through it. I also ended up marrying the cute Irish boy I saw in the parking lot at my first match.

My story is similar to so many of the Irish girls who have recently flooded into the team. I found a familiar community where I made great friends and learned lessons for life. Before I stepped down from coaching I involved the girls in a team-building project that illustrates what football and the friendships mean to the girls. I loved the results, because each girl’s answer is so telling as to where they are on their journey.

Gaelic Football away from Ireland is about more than a game - it’s about the friendships and the strength that comes from them. I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for the Irish girls who took me under their wings when I first joined. And I wouldn’t be as aware or grateful if it wasn’t for the Irish girls who have come recently.

Maureen Mac Niallais, California: ‘When we meet, it is like no time has passed’

If you pass a couple of carefree ladies driving towards Mayo this April, singing along to Supertramp, Squeeze or Adele, it’s probably me and my best friend Ann, taking a trip to catch up. The last time we were together was eight years ago.

We’ve been friends for 45 years. Our youth was spent in Dublin, and my memories are of summer days at Blackrock baths, long summer evenings playing on the street, and later, as teenagers, running for the last 46A on a Saturday night after discos at Belvedere RFC and Stradbrook .

We spent summers in London living in Eaton Square, grape picking in France, and as chambermaids in Amsterdam, before I emigrated to California 26 years ago and our lives became very different. At first, our communication was by snail mail or very expensive inebriated phone calls, always on St Patrick's Day and Christmas, before our chats migrated onto email and Facetime. We can go very long periods of time without meeting up but when we do, it is like no time has passed.

Now when we take a walk around Seapoint, our pace is a lot slower and we talk about our grandchildren, blood pressure, and stress at work, but it seems like yesterday we walked the same path, confiding in each other our hopes and dreams. I wanted to marry David Bowie RIP), she wanted Marc Bolan. We have not always agreed on each other’s life and love choices, but our friendship has always grown stronger.

On this upcoming trip, although we’ll be wearing wide fitting comfort shoes rather than our over-the-knee lime green platform boots from days gone by, in our minds we will be the same carefree gals who once jumped a train from Paris to Amsterdam.

Ellen Momo, Fiji: ‘I miss my life-long friends’

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my friends in Ireland. Although it’s approaching my second year here in Fiji I still struggle to belong. I feel I have exhausted my efforts to find like-minded people.

My friends have always been an enormous support to me and I relied on them for advice and guidance from everything to colic babies to career changes. We made a lot of noise in the restaurants and bars where we hung out and shared stories, laughed and cried together.

These are the kind of friendships that are simply irreplaceable. Now we connect through email and Facebook and an occasional phone call. It’s tough, and to say I miss my life-long friends is an understatement. Language barriers with vast cultural differences add to the challenge.

Danielle Mac Mahon, Toronto: ‘He is in London and I’m in Toronto, but our friendship is stronger than ever’

When you’re young you have a different best friend every year in school. Going back to a summer’s day 17 years ago when my brother’s friend dropped his little brother off to play with me, who knew he’d still be one of the most important people in my life?

We survived secondary school, living together in university (a true test of our friendship), living in different countries since graduating, an unforgettable road trip across the US, the best and worst times of our lives so far, and now he is based in London and I’m in Toronto, but our friendship is stronger than ever.

Moving to a different country, particularly when you’re as much of a home bird as I am, is incredibly daunting. You make new friends but they don’t know you like the “old ones”. You know this single decision to move away will reverberate through your life but it’s a journey like this that makes you realise how wonderful your friends, new and old, are.

We may not speak every week and are on two very different paths in our lives, but distance is irrelevant. Knowing that day or night you can pick up the phone, Skype or WhatsApp and they’ll be there to tell you what you don’t want to hear and give you a kick in the arse, makes it all a little easier. When you do get to see each other and absolutely nothing has changed (other than being a little bit older and none the wiser), you know it will always be ok.

We will hopefully end up in the one country at some stage and there will always be a room in our house for him.

Aoife Blicher, Denmark: ‘I expected the girls to stay the same and be there forever’

After living abroad for almost 21 years I still can’t get my head around the fact that I have lived half my life away from my friends. They are still friends I could not live without, because they knew me for the first 20 years of my life and we have shared so many good times.

At first I never thought about the future, caught up in the excitement of travel and new friends. In the back of my head I expected the girls to stay the same and be there forever. But as time moves on and lifestyles change from partying and studying to dirty nappies and parent teacher meetings, it is hard to hold the foundations together.

These days the airline “sale” mails are a top inbox priority, in the hope of flights fitting in with a girls night out. Since we all hit 40, there was no way I was missing any of those parties or chances to have a few drinks and a whole load of laughs.

After 15 years in Copenhagen, I have a great life. I have been extremely lucky to find some good friends, and one very close friend that I have a much closer relationship with when it comes to everyday socialising and interests than my girlfriends at home. But no matter how close we are, I still can’t reminisce with her over the stories from “back then”. Because of that I will always be booking flights, and always be trying not to miss out.

Emma Corcoran, Australia: ‘My friend’s selfless decision is the reason I’m where I am today’

My plans to go to Australia to my brother were all going smoothly until his visa fell apart. I had just sold my car and given up my dream job, and was left with a one-way ticket to a strange land where I knew no one. My dreams of beach beers and brother-sister bonding had disappeared and my brother was soon on his way home. He encouraged me to still do it, to follow my dream and travel. I wasn’t so sure but he knew I needed to get away from a bad situation.

That’s when Fionnuala stepped in. She knew I needed this too. With only a few weeks left until my impending departure, Fin took a month of work and bought a return ticket to Australia. Shortly after landing, we hired a little car and off we set from Brisbane. We drove, with no map, satnav or working mobile phones. Her fun-loving spirit got us to our destination. We took the road less travelled and made many fantastic memories along the way. She pushed me to talk to and meet new people. She came with me for an interview where I got my first job and home.

At the end of the four weeks, we had to say our goodbyes. This was and probably still is the hardest goodbye I’ve ever done. I was left in this beautiful, exotic but strangely daunting country. I had made a few friends but it was early days, and I would have done anything to get on that plane with Fin.

We have spent the last four and half years sending daily messages and photos, Skype calling and watching each other’s lives develop. Before we left as 25-year-olds, we were up for adventure and fun. Our weekends were spent slapping on fake tan, heading to the local disco and downing shots of vodka.. Now at 30, Fin has recently had a beautiful little boy who is a big part of my life, even though we’ve not yet met. I’ve just become an Australian citizen and am about to marry my other soulmate in four weeks time.

Fionnuala’s selfless decision is the reason I’m where I am today. Life is good and I feel blessed to have friends like Fin in my life.

Lianne Hickey, Tokyo: ‘Emigration is a litmus test for friendship’

The thought of building a new web of friendships in an unknown and distant land is daunting, but the silver lining is the freedom of cutting ties with unwanted acquaintances, exes, and unpaid electricity bills. This is liberating.

In Ireland we only have 3 degrees of separation, but If your new home happens to be a large city (in my case Tokyo), there is no fear of being caught wearing your pajamas to the supermarket, nor is there a need for strategic road crossing after a heavy night of drinking and disingenuous bonding in a small country pub.

Emigration is a litmus test for friendship. If the bond manages to withstand the strain of distance, then you know you have the right candidate for a life-long buddy. Maintaining these friendships can at times prove tricky, but you have to make an effort or else no one will send you bars of Dairy Milk at Christmas.

Aisling McDonnell, Hong Kong: ‘There is an element of freshness to the new friendships made abroad’

Friends come and friends go. Only the true ones last a lifetime.

I left Ireland three and a half years ago to come to Hong Kong, supposedly for a year. I had a myriad of leaving parties, and many promises were made to keep in touch, to see each other soon. A few of us managed to maintain contact, and we Skyped or messaged for a while, but it soon slackened off. I was in a land of opportunity, working towards my dreams, and the pace of life was fast. Without realising, I was losing contact with the people I thought I would know forever.

I have amazing friends here. Friendships abroad seem to be so binding. You are far away from home, and these people come to mean so much to you. You experience new things together, and elements of your past become insignificant. They are friendships built on the present, on the prospect of a bright future. They are not the friendships of home, where people know you forever, know your family history, know rumours and secrets about you. There is an element of freshness to the new friendships made abroad.

Does that make these “fresh” friendships better ones? Who knows? All I know is for now I am lucky to have the circle of friends I have.

Patrick Masterson, Toronto: ‘Friends from home will always be my closest’

Before leaving Ireland I really didn’t appreciate how important my friends were in my life. I didn’t know how much I would miss my family, how hard it would be to find a job and embrace a new culture. But above all, missing my friends has been the most difficult thing.

As I approach my two year anniversary in Canada I am content. I feel settled here and have a job I enjoy. My girlfriend and I have a new circle of friends and are in the process for applying for permanent residency.

Nights playing 5-a-side at the Spawell, going to gigs in Whelan's and watching Champions League with a gang on a Tuesday night have been replaced by 5-a-side with new Canadian friends, drinking Canadian beers and recording the Champions League so I can watch it when I get home from work on snowy midweek nights.

I have definitely learned to appreciate my friends from home more, and much like with my family, strangely I sometimes feel closer to them. WhatsApp and Skype keep me up to date with the banter. During my first year in Toronto, the constant updates from home on Facebook were like torture, but now they don’t hurt so much.

I left Ireland at the right time, and as I approach my early 30s, my friends at home have adopted a different pace. I love visiting, but I’m always ready to return to Toronto and embrace the slower pace I have also adopted here myself.

I know whatever happens in my life in the future, the friends I made in Dublin and my friends from my hometown on Achill Island will always be my closest.

Ciara O’Leary, Vancouver: ‘New friends made abroad have been paramount to discovering and understanding myself’

When comparing my different groups of friends depending on the country or circumstances in which I met them, I have come to one happy realisation. That is, I never laugh as hard as when I’m with those I grew up with in Ireland. Months and years can go by without contact but when I get together with these friends for a birthday or Christmas party, I am guaranteed to have streaming eyes and aching sides from the laughter.

I like many others left Ireland to seek out something which even the best of relationships in Ireland could not satisfy. I had itchy feet to discover different cultures, climates, and opportunities. During my travels, I have developed new friendships, which have been paramount to discovering and understanding myself.

Living abroad has allowed me to have conversations which often felt brushed under the rug in Ireland. In crossing paths with others who are on a similar journey, I can discuss the “mushy” things such as life’s purpose, self-fulfilment, and self-compassion. I have developed relationships with others who are seeking the same so naturally, an easy bond forms.

In front of old Irish friends, I sometimes feel the need to be satisfied with what I have. My employment and health were something to be grateful for, and I felt selfish asking for anything more. Irish people are terrified of appearing self-indulgent and when discussing careers I’ve often been responded to with “Sure it pays the rent doesn’t it?” What motivation is this for any young professional striving to find their passion?

Although I am grateful for the new, life-enhancing relationships developed abroad, I don’t believe they will ever change me enough so that I can no longer connect with old friends. I often say to fellow emigrants that moving abroad is all the worthwhile even if it’s just to realise that home is where you want to be. I know someday I will return and I look forward to streaming eyes and aching sides with those friends once more.