Visiting emigrant friends is bittersweet


It was my first visit to London in three years. It was also the closest thing I’ve had to a reunion of my college classImage in nearly ten years, as so many of my classmates have ended up there.

The week before, I’d visited a friend at home on his family’s farm. One of four kids, all of whom have gone to college, he was about to go to Dubai, for a couple of years. His sisters are in London and Christchurch and his brother has just left for Dundee. Over tea, his parents confessed that they’re anxiously awaiting the next family wedding, as two of the kids are close enough to come home for it.

My friends are successful in London. Ireland and their families gave them solid educations and excellent work ethics. They have good jobs, nice lives, excellent prospects. They are climbing their respective career ladders, going out, having fun, going on amazing holidays. Their version of emigration is full of promise, and they come home regularly. In fact, I see them more often than most of my college friends based in Ireland – they have more money to come and visit.

On the flight, I sat beside a tired-looking man in his 30s who seemed a little out of it. I figured he’d been on the batter for a few days at home.

We exchanged pleasantries. I explained that I was going to surprise my friend for her birthday – thinking of her 21st, when it never would have occurred to us that we’d be spread all over the world by now – and he smiled. The evening sky outside was reddening and the fasten seatbelt sign beeped on.

Then he told me he’d been home to bury his sister.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’ve ruined your day”.

A Cork native, he worked in a large, flashy multinational in London – wild parties, bonuses, the lot – until losing his job and nearly his home. There was nothing for him in Ireland, he said, and returning was not an option. So he’s living alone, re-training as a tradesman.

His loneliness was a presence on the seat between us, radiating tension and pain. He told me he was Xanaxed to the eyeballs. The air stewards eyed him nervously; they thought he was drunk. I wondered how he would find his way across London, to his house.

The next day, as I sat having lunch in the sun at King’s Cross, I heard Irish accents everywhere. Signs for Murphy’s Builders loomed overhead in all directions– the greatest urban renewal project in the world, apparently.

At the party, we toasted each other and caught up on old gossip and new movements. A classmate who’s just returned to London from Canada confessed that she’s thinking of going back there. Another, who went to Sydney before returning to London, wouldn’t dream of moving back to Ireland. Two more want to come home but can’t find work in their field.

London is fun, exotic, buzzing, always on. Cork does feel like a backwater, returning. But it’s home.

When you’re celebrating landmark birthdays and finding out who’s getting married and moving house and – the odd time – moving home, emigration is full of pluses. Every time you see your friends there’s an occasion, a celebration, memories are made and the Facebook photos will be pored over. London – and everywhere else, it seems – offers a break from the relentless negativity of modern Irish life.

But it’s later, when there are mortgages and divorces and sick children and bereavements, that the cost of distance is fully known.

Burying a sibling and then wearily boarding a plane with excited holidaymakers and exhausted businessmen must be the loneliest experience there is. I hope he got home safe.

This piece was first published in The Herald, Friday 6 September 2014.

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