By Stephen McKinley
Homesick for Ireland? You are not alone. A recent survey confirmed that Irish immigrants around the world are keen to return home and start a new life in the old country. As many as 59 percent said that they would like to return to Ireland, given the right opportunity.
The survey asked 3,893 people, "If offered the right opportunity, are you prepared to return to Ireland to work?" The trend has been driven largely by a buoyant Irish economy, as well as perhaps a deeper need — to catch up on lost time with family, or to put something back into Ireland, or even a desire to smell Dublin again, or to settle back in one’s home town.
But another statistic suggests a further dimension to the picture. The return home is not always a success. About a quarter of those who move home to Ireland end up leaving again, according to an albeit rough estimate by Father Colm Campbell. Campbell has worked with the Irish immigrant community in conjunction with the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in New York since 1992. He now works out of the Church of the Holy Trinity on West 82nd Street in Manhattan.
So concerned has Campbell been with the problems faced in making a successful return journey that he will be running seminars in April with people who have been thinking of making the move.
"I’m calling it ‘Going Home: Make it All it Can Be,’ " Campbell said, sitting in his office at Holy Trinity recently. "Someone wrote in a book on the subject, in which he said, ‘You can never return home.’ You can return to the same country, but you can never return home."
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
One "returnee" who came back from Dublin to New York after only four months is Niamh Ring, a reporter with the trade newspaper American Banker. Ring, 31, who has been in New York since 1993, decided in spring of 2000 that she wanted to move back and settle in Dublin.
"Back then in 1993, I thought I’d stay in New York forever," she said. "I’d been doing ridiculous jobs in Ireland, waiting tables, working in a video store. I had a degree and I couldn’t get a real job."
Emigrating when she got her green card in 1993, Ring said it was easy to find work, and she has worked in financial journalism ever since. But in the spring of 2000, "I was at a stage in my life when I didn’t know what to do next." If she can point to any factors that motivated her to go back, it was the challenge, and wanting to spend more time with her family. "I’d never actually had a chance to get a full-time job in Ireland, and I wanted to prove that I could actually do it."
It was a challenge for Frank and Bridget Kilgallen as well. "We decided to just go and do it," Bridget said. She went back to Dublin in time for Christmas 1999, with Frank planning to follow later, after he finished up his contract with a company that was fixing the Y2K computer bug. "People said that when we got back, with his job skills and so on, he’d have no trouble finding work."
A job was already waiting for Niamh Ring, at the Sunday Business Post. "Going back to Ireland seemed somewhat relaxing in a way. I wanted to change my life," she said.
But the immediate concern of finding work back in Ireland is not always the biggest hurdle, according to Campbell. "Life is larger than economics," he said, and described the "feelings and emotional side of things" as being a dimension of which many returning immigrants fail to ponder. Campbell paints a vivid picture of the upheaval of the return, based on many conversations he has had with people like the Kilgallens and Niamh Ring.
"When you go back home, you’re the only returned immigrant on the street," he said. "And there’s nobody else around you that really understands having been abroad. People come over here to America during their formative years, 18 to early 20s, they come to an area where there loads of young Irish like themselves, in the same situation. They can share problems, they support each other."
It is an experience Bridget confirms. "You have your whole network here in a place like Woodside," she said. "After about six weeks [in Ireland], we were over the holiday mode. Then it just seemed so hard."
Another returned emigrant, who spoke under condition of anonymity, agreed.
"You go home on vacation, and all your friends are around, but when you move there, no one understands you unless they’ve been abroad, too." She returned to Ireland with her husband after 12 years in the U.S. They planned to allow two years to settle back in, but came back to New York last year after 18 months. She was shocked at how society in Ireland had changed.
"Marriages were breaking up all around us, and people seemed as if they had no values anymore," she said.
For Ring, Dublin nightlife seemed violent. "The night buses are full of incredibly drunk people," she said. "I saw incidents of racism, and there were a couple of guys murdered just coming out of nightclubs over the summer." As for her desire to spend more time with her family, she says that she actually spoke to them less than she does now, on the phone, from New York. "I arrived home on June 19, and I was ready to go back by the middle of August. I missed New York." She returned to the U.S. last October.
The Kilgallens discovered that their oldest child, Dara, missed her friends at school, an issue that Campbell is particularly keen to address.
"I’m also including the children [in my seminars]," he said, "because from about 8-years-old upward, moving can be a really harrowing experience, maybe to be laughed at because of their accent." He also wants to look at the move home in close detail — in his draft proposal for the seminars he outlines talking about the cost of one week’s groceries and household products in Ireland compared to one week’s equivalent in the U.S. Other issues include the difficulties faced when opening a bank account, and finding that years of good credit in America may count for nothing in Ireland. U.S. driver’s licenses are not recognized by the Irish government, for people returning permanently.
As a fail-safe, Campbell also recommends that Irish immigrants planning to return to Ireland should wait long enough to get their U.S. citizenship here, in case the new life does not work out and they want to return — a point that the Emerald Isle Immigration Center also stresses as top priority.