Irish emigrants and the Brooklyn question: Home or here?

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn, Irish emigration

Homesickness, like seasickness, does not feel good.

And it is best not to dwell on.

So for me, watching Brooklyn, the film adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s much loved novel, felt a little like steering a rickety boat through choppy seas.

As an Irish emigrant, lying in the beautiful outdoor surroundings of Kings Park Moonlight Cinema in Perth, I cried and laughed at its portrayal of Irish emigration in the 1950s.

It is a sad realisation that few things have changed. Emotional farewells (and reunions) no longer take place at the docks. But airports tell their own tales.

We still look to our fellow ex-pats when we arrive in new countries, in Irish bars and through GAA clubs.

We help each other get set-up, find work, and offer support in the way our families and communities support us at home.

And, while communication may be so much easier and faster today than it was in the ‘50s, homesickness remains the same.

At its worst early on, it is a unique, heart-wrenching loneliness.

It eases but it hits at times later, maybe at Christmas or a significant day at home: someone’s birthday; a wedding; an anniversary; if someone dies and you can’t make it home for the funeral.

When events like that come along, they can wipe you out for a few days, leaving you feeling alone, like an outsider in your new surroundings.

The challenge thereafter, which becomes central to Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis, is a question that haunts most Irish emigrants abroad today:  home or here?Ellis Island immigrants

Responsibilities being neglected towards family and friends are keenly felt. The want and need to have them around us; to be a part of their daily lives and have them a part of ours.

Just the want to be home, in a place that is yours.

And then there is this new world, where opportunities seem so much greater and life seems lighter, with beach days and lattes in the park. Sunshine! And the happiness sunshine brings.

Left-over money at the end of the month (in theory!)

I used to look at Irish ex-pats, holding on with all their might to their national identity, singing romantic songs about their homeland, and I would think ‘if you love it so much, why don’t you just go home?’

Perhaps, when it comes down to it, it is that simple – but it certainly does not feel that way.

I left home as a traveller and never thought of myself as an emigrant because I left a good job. But I feel like an emigrant now because my desire to go home almost equals my desire to stay. Almost.

Anyone who has seen Brooklyn knows the choice Ronan’s character makes.

For Ireland, it will be interesting to see how our generation – and the generation after us – answer ‘the Brooklyn question’.


Here versus Home: Anecdotal evidence from Christmas 2015

If reaction to this post by Irish Around Oz on Facebook is anything to go by, ‘here’ is kicking ‘home’s’ ass:

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has issued a Christmas message in which he encourages Irish people living abroad to come back to Ireland for work. What do you think heading back or not?

Posted by Irish Around Oz on Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Below is a pretty representative sample of comments (excluding the expletive-laden posts):

“If u want the youth that left to come back,

Irish emigrants chose Christmas at the beach,
John Lyons accompanied this photo with the line: “Let me think enda??? Not a hope”.

punish the banks that put our country in that hole were in, then step down for not doing it sooner,” John O Mahoney posted.

Seve Cafolla said: “2000 people queuing for food parcels the week of Christmas and another 1000 expected. No minimum wage increase to match the rental prices, health care is crap and they expect us to go home with zero job opportunities unless youre degreed up to the hilt…#pissoffenda”

Irish emigrants in Australia
“I think I’ll stay”, this photo was captioned.

And Gemma Grant’s outlook was not any brighter: “I came home on Monday.. I spent a few months before I returned applying for jobs.. No such luck so unfortunately it looks like I will have to return to Australia in the new year not by choice but by necessity.”

In general, I thought the post – and responses to it – was quite an eye opener as to how angry and pessimistic many emigrants are about (what I’m now calling) ‘the Brooklyn question’.

However, a Christmas Facebook feed full of ‘coming home videos‘ – all those people who surprised loved ones with their return, all those tears – I think suggests something more positive.

That there is one thing powerful enough to out-muscle sunshine, beaches and even job opportunities – Irish mammies!

(And daddies) (And brothers and sisters and aunties and uncles and cousins and friends).

I know that as well as the next.

Family, Christmas, Skype, Irish emigration, Australia
Skyping home for Christmas just isn’t the same thing (that’s me on the TV…out of sight!!) 2013.



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