Every Irish family has its emigration story. Mine begins, as so many do, in the 1950s, when my mother left her home in Dublin to live in Great Falls, Montana, with her new husband. By 1972 they were back in Dublin, six kids in tow, another three to come, only to see all nine leave Ireland at different times across the decades that followed (and to return…and to leave again…).
Over 60 years from its start, this pendulum swing between Ireland and North America continues, now into a third generation. I can’t see it ending any time soon.
I know that many emigration narratives focus on loneliness, severed family ties and displacement. But for the Stevens family, the pattern has been positive: complicated, at times soul-searching, but for the most part enriching and adventurous. We hold two passports. We follow American football as closely as we follow rugby. We feel at home in Boston and in Dun Laoghaire (though sometimes we don't feel home anywhere). We are bicoastal and bicultural.
My parents met in 1949 when my dad, Chris Stevens, traveled by tramp steamer from New York to Ireland, meeting my uncle, Michael Walsh, a fellow vagabond, on the boat. Invited to the Walsh family home in Churchtown, Chris met my mother, Nuala, and… well, you know the story. It’s as old as time itself.
The Walshes were staunchly Catholic and Chris was raised Presbyterian, but their marriage would admit no impediment. At a time when a “mixed marriage” was, at best, an ambiguous state in Ireland, my grandmother had nothing but love for my dad, even knowing that he would take her daughter 10,000km away. She already had another daughter in San Francisco and a third who would eventually follow a husband to London.
Ironically, it was Michael, who loved travel more than any person I know, who was the only Walsh not to emigrate; though he amply compensated by founding Michael Walsh Travel and pioneering Irish pilgrimage travel to Rome and the Holy Land from his offices on D’Olier Street.
Montana’s charms - big mountains and rivers, a bigger sky, the world’s loveliest vistas - were not enough for my mother, and by the 1970s she had convinced Chris to bring the family back to Dublin. She would pay for it (he did not stop talking about Great Falls until his death 30 years later), but she was home again. As her sisters were.
At 17 years of age, I went overnight from an American life of cruising for burgers and high school pep rallies to the coalsmoke monochrome of Dublin and the cassock-swishing, chalk-redolent classrooms of Presentation College Glasthule.
Was I homesick? Not at all. It was an adventure. I studied English in UCD, worked summers in Soho and the south of France, formed literary relationships and close friendships I maintain to this day. I missed the US, of course, and made a fetish of describing Montana to my Irish friends until they told me to shut up, but I loved Ireland.
By 1981 I was married and living in Boston. By chance or design, I had met Janice who, like me, had a foot in both countries, her own father a Dalkey transplant to Connecticut who had also returned to Ireland. We stayed ten years and planned to stay longer. When our first two children were born and we hadn’t been back to Ireland in several years, we started talking, and ended up taking the same plunge our parents had 20 years earlier. Back to Dublin.
Of course this was the 90s, and we grew into our repatriation with all the benefits the boom conferred. My job brought me back to the US several times a year. Ireland’s diversity and international awareness deepened. Our children grew up, travelled, attended Trinity and UCD, and emigrated.
And why wouldn’t they? They are citizens of the world, truly, and feel at home in Europe, North America, Central America. They are in search of a living, as they must be, and yet they also want adventure, experience, the pleasure of meeting people with backgrounds very different from their own.
My daughter, Alice, who has spent the last two years in Central America, described recently how, when meeting Dublin friends in Guatemala City, she felt a comfort and a thrill - the thrill of familiarity when living far, far from the familiar - that made her realise how Irish she is and always will be. The pendulum has not stopped swinging.
These days Janice and I divide our time between Boston and Dublin. My job allows me that luxury, and I know all too well that my emigration experience is a privileged one. But I am an emigrant, no matter where I am. As my kids are. Christian and Andrew live in Boston, Alice is in Mexico City. And they have no plans to move on.
For now, anyway.
Kevin Stevens is the author of the novel A Lonely Note, just published by Little Island.