It's the age your looks start going and everything feels more achy
New to the Parish: Dawn Conn arrived from New Zealand via the UK in 2017
Dawn Conn in her studio at Malahide, Co Dublin. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Last year Dawn Conn and her husband decided the time had come to move home to New Zealand. After three decades living between Brisbane, Sydney, London and Surrey, they felt the need to return to their roots and set up a life closer to family.
Their daughter was finished school and had embarked on a gap year volunteering through Asia before moving on to London. Conn was struggling to let go of her only child so the couple decided to move back to the UK for a year before making the final step back to their Kiwi home.
“We’d reached the point in Australia where we thought it was no longer our future. The heat was relentless and even though I spent my formative years as an adult there, I was feeling disappointed by their hard-line in terms of policies on migrants and the environment.”
“We had said we’d stay in Australia until our daughter finished secondary school. I realised she was growing up and I found it hard to let go. I wanted to hang onto the last little bit of her that still needed me. But I was happy to have some element of freedom.”
The couple arrived in the UK in April 2015 and Conn’s husband quickly found work in IT. Conn, who had left a career working with an airline six year previously to focus full time on her art, dedicated her time to her sculptures and building up a new network of customers. However, the London she remembered from the 1990s and early 2000s no longer existed.
I regretted the decision and thought ‘what have I done?’
“The world had changed dramatically, people were more guarded and weren’t that open. It was really hard and brought me back to a feeling of being depressed. I regretted the decision and thought ‘what have I done?’.”
Conn first moved to London in the 1990s where she worked a tour guide bringing tourists on trips around Europe. Growing up in a farm on the Northland region of New Zealand, she had dreamed of escaping to Europe and spent hours flicking through black and white photos of her parents during their travels in Europe and Africa. When she was 20 she moved to Australia where she spent a few years before moving on to London.
“I fell in love with the place. I met my Kiwi husband in London and we established ourselves in the UK and had our daughter there. But we soon discovered that when you don’t have a lot of money it’s a real struggle. We thought we’d rather be poor in a warm country where the sun shines.”
The couple returned to Australia and bought a home in Brisbane. However, in 2007 they decided to return to the UK so their daughter could get to know the country where she was born. Shortly after their arrival the economy crashed.
We realised all this moving business on an only child wasn’t really fair
“All the people we knew on all levels were affected. Yet, it was a whole different scenario in Australia, they seemed to sort of side-step that period. It was okay for my husband but we felt things had really changed so we went back to Brisbane.”
This time they were determined to remain in Australia until their daughter finished school. “We realised all this moving business on an only child wasn’t really fair, it was starting to show its cracks.”
Their return to the UK last year was short lived. While Conn struggled to settle back into her former English life, her husband quickly became unhappy in his work. When he was head-hunted by an Irish organisation, the couple decided to move across the Irish Sea.
“For months I said I don’t think I can do it. At the crux of it was that our daughter said she wasn’t going to come. She’d just settled in, she’d found work and people. She had found her tribe. But the key was my husband said I’m not happy with my work, it’s my turn to be happy. He had supported me greatly in my art so I thought okay.”
In January 2017, Conn arrived in Ireland and the couple moved into a home in Malahide. While she describes the initial weeks in Dublin as “a breath of fresh air”, it was difficult to build new relationships.
Your looks start going, everything suddenly feels more achy. It’s this sense of entering the next stage of your life
“My connection with other women as I get older is what I crave to have so very much. I long to find my tribe in Ireland. I don’t know what happens between your mid-40s and 50. You get this invisible chapter where you’re redefining who you are. Your looks start going, everything suddenly feels more achy. It’s this sense of entering the next stage of your life.”
Conn’s return to Europe and move to Ireland has also coincided with the deterioration of her mother’s health. “My mother, who is the only parent still alive, her dementia is developing quite quickly. She’s still on the farm in New Zealand. You feel this heavy burden of guilt because you want to do something for her. I feel like family is what’s really important now. This has played on my mind a lot.”
In March the couple visited New Zealand for a family reunion. Suddenly, their plans of returning home to set up roots on Kiwi soil no longer felt possible. “I just felt, I don’t know if I can come back here permanently. It had been so long since I’d lived in New Zealand. I fell flat on my face coming back to Ireland. What it represented was I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere”
Three months on, Conn says she is starting to turn a corner and settle into Irish life. Given the nature of her husband’s job, she expects they’ll stay here at least 18 months and is determined to build meaningful friendships. She has joined a local walking group and goes for “meet-ups” with different groups of women.
“I haven’t really established myself yet but I find my art’s connecting to people. Sculpture for me is more than making figures. It’s my emotional language, the way I see the world and communicate. Right now in Dublin as I try to feel settled, my sculptures serve as a poignant reminder to me to ‘just feel the fear and do it’.”