Coming home - Day 3: We talk to the emigrants who have returned home to Ireland

Coming home - Day 3: We talk to the emigrants who have returned home to Ireland
Amanda Keane originally from Nenagh, Co Tipperary was working for almost the last year in Vietnam as a Programme Officer for UN Women in Vietnam. Pic: Moya Nolan

Amanda Keane didn’t want to be pouring pints forever. She soon landed an exciting UN job in Hanoi — but now she’s happy to be back in Ireland and surrounded by family this Christmas, writes Kelly O’Brien.

Growing up in rural Tipperary, Amanda Keane used to look forward to exchanging letters with her pen-pals in Kenya.

From a young age, her parents told Amanda and her brother about conditions overseas. She became acutely aware that not everyone was as lucky as her — there are people around the world living in poverty.

This knowledge is what inspired Amanda to try to work in the area of overseas development — the ultimate goal being to work for the United Nations.

“After completing a BA in Applied Languages in UL, living abroad a few times, moving to Dublin, working in hospitality for four years, completing an MA in Gender Studies in UCD, and spending time in Mexico working with women affected by prostitution, my long-time dream of working in the UN finally came true,” says Amanda.

“I was beginning to despair of ever putting my experience to good use, and thinking I’d end up forever pouring pints, when I came across the UN Volunteers programme sponsored by Irish Aid. Every year, Irish Aid sponsor around 10 Irish 20-somethings to go abroad and work for the United Nations for 12 months. I was selected to join UN Women in Vietnam.”

Settling into life in Hanoi was easy enough, Amanda explains.

“It was easy for me to manage on my living allowance and I found a place to live no problem, made friends quickly, and found my way around the city.”

She faced some challenges in work initially, struggling to understand the UN systems, but soon found her feet.

“I ended up doing some pretty substantial work within UN Women on gender equality in ethnic minorities, and co-ordinating an effective response to violence against women,” she says.

“My social life was good, and homesickness was rare. My biggest issue in Vietnam was the physical environment, and my body never fully adapted to the high pollution, heat, and humidity. All in all, though, life was good.”

That being said, Amanda reveals that there were some things that “didn’t sit well” with her.

“I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that, deep down, I wanted to put my skills and knowledge to use in Ireland, even though I knew how hard it was to find a paid role in the not-for-profit sector,” she says.

As I had grown older and began to understand how things like gender, class, and race intertwine to create inequality, I started to see all the problems in Irish society that I thought only happened abroad. While the experience and exposure I was gaining in Vietnam was incredible, I also knew that ultimately I wanted to work in the NGO sector to end sexual exploitation and always planned to revert back to this area.

In September, Amanda was offered a second year with UN Women, and verbally accepted — glad to have 2019 figured out, and happy to continue working in the area of gender equality. Scrolling through Twitter in September, however, she saw Ruhama was hiring.

“I knew I had to apply,” she says. “Ruhama is Ireland’s dedicated frontline NGO providing support to women affected by prostitution and sex trafficking. After returning from Mexico and before departing for Vietnam, I had volunteered with Ruhama as an English language tutor and was extremely passionate about the organisation and its stance on the abolishment of prostitution.

“Part of me was afraid to apply for fear of rejection but I did, knowing that this was exactly what I wanted to do.”

She was offered the position in October and, though passionate about the work being done in Vietnam also, made the decision to hand in her notice and return to Irish shores.

“Fast forward to right now and I am back in Dublin, settling into my new job and, even though I’m freezing, I’m extremely content,” she says .

While Amanda admits it is a little daunting to be home, and is currently living with family due to the state of the rental market at the moment, she is happy to be back.

“I love it here,” she says. 

I have my friends, there’s the buzz of the city, and there has also been an increase in the number of people here who are standing up for what they believe in and fighting for equality.

More than that, I’m working for an organisation I wholly believe in, at a crucial time as Ireland continues to implement the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act passed into law in 2017 which criminalizes the purchase of sex, and decriminalizes the individual selling sex. Over the next few years, I’m hopeful that we will see a continual shift in attitudes to the commodification of women’s bodies in Ireland.

Amanda says she had been “dreading” the prospect of not being home for Christmas this year, and now is happy to be back and surrounded by family.

“I have no plans to leave again any time soon, and I’m very excited to see what life back in Ireland has in store for me this time around,”

It taught me a lot about myself and life

A distinct lack of job opportunities at home forced a newly graduated Jessie Keogh to think about looking for work abroad.

Eager to enter the working world, but reluctant to go too far from her partner, the Kilkenny native set her sights ‘across the pond’.

‘I missed proper tea and brown bread.’ Jessie Keogh went to London soon after she finished college, but is happy to be home now.
‘I missed proper tea and brown bread.’ Jessie Keogh went to London soon after she finished college, but is happy to be home now.

“I had just finished college,” she says. “There wasn’t much happening at home at the time, so I considered making the leap abroad. My other half was still finishing his final year of college… So I decided I was going to go to London.

“I hit the job boards and went hell for leather. I started researching online and applying for different jobs that interested me.”

Before long, Jessie secured an interview and flew over especially for it. Upon her return, and two days before her sister’s wedding, Jessie found out she had been successful.

“I told my family and my friends and they were all very happy and supportive of me,” she says. “Looking back, I think they might have felt it was a bit rushed though. It all kind of happened in the space of a few weeks. It was a huge decision to make at the time, especially as I was going to be away from my partner, but I was really determined and eager to start working and making my way, as they say. So, in the end, I decided to just go for it.

The most difficult thing for me was leaving my boyfriend and, actually, my car! As silly as that sounds, it was like leaving behind a bit of independence, even though I was probably being the most independent I ever was by moving away and starting a new life.

Jessie made the leap and moved to London — applied for a national insurance number, set up a British bank account, found a place to live, and entered the working world.

“The hardest part for me was letting go of college life,” she says. “I really missed seeing my friends every day and the carefree aspect of it. It took me a while to find my way and adjust.”

As it turned out, however, Jessie found she wasn’t happy in the work she’d secured.

“I really didn’t like my job,” she says. “I wasn’t happy in it at all. I wanted to stay and find another job in London, but it just wasn’t happening for me. In the end, I got offered a job back home, so I came back.

“Looking back, I think I definitely rushed into it. I was so eager to just get working that I didn’t stop to really think: ‘Is this job actually for me?’ ”

While it didn’t work out for Jessie abroad, she is happy she had the experience.

“It taught me a lot about myself and life in general and it definitely toughened me up,” she says. “But I am really happy to be home now. I’m doing a job I really enjoy and I’m close to all my family and friends.

Aside from missing proper tea and brown bread, I just missed Irish people in general while I was abroad. It’s not until you go away that you realise we are a very special breed! We are just so friendly, warm, and welcoming and I missed that.

Our Australian adventure brought us closer together

Living and working abroad was always the goal for Corkonian James Twomey and his wife, Kerrywoman Lisa Stack.

The duo talked about it relentlessly, quizzing friends who had gone abroad and returned as well as those who had gone abroad and stayed there.

After extensive research, the duo came to the conclusion that Australia was the logical choice, given the relatively easy access to working holiday visas.

We’d always talked about going abroad with our friends and families so I don’t think it was a big surprise when we did,” says John. “Our thinking at the time was we didn’t have a mortgage or children and wanted a bit of an adventure, so what did we have to lose by taking a chance?

I do remember my grandad asking me about the decision, as we were both working steady jobs, and wondering if we could just go on a holiday instead — out of concern that we’d lose that security we had — but he understood and wished us well.

The couple, who were just dating at the time, left for Australia in 2012.

“We had friends in Perth and I sent a box of clothes and stuff to them with the idea that we’d collect it and keep moving,” says James. “We travelled from Sydney to Melbourne, then flew to Perth where we hung around for a little longer… and a little longer… and then Lisa got a job where they offered to sponsor her for permanent residency. So we decided to hang around and see how it went.”

In total, the couple spent just under six years living Down Under.

“I don’t think we knew how long we were going to go for, but I knew in my mind we weren’t going for a backpacking holiday,” says James. “My intention was to go and try to live in a different place and really get to know it, and if it stuck and we liked it… we went with the idea that we were going to have a real go at trying to become part of wherever we went.”

James Twomey and Lisa Stack initially went to Australia on working holiday visas
James Twomey and Lisa Stack initially went to Australia on working holiday visas

“We were pretty lucky setting up life in Australia, and it was actually pretty easy, from what I remember. I’m an engineer and Lisa’s an accountant, so Australia and Ireland are pretty well aligned for those professions, in terms of recognising qualifications.”

While getting settled into Oz was relatively easy, James said that might not have been the case if it hadn’t been for the help of fellow expats.

“Friends in Australia were a help in getting set up,” he says. “My cousin had been in Sydney for a few years before, so we crashed with him when we arrived. Lisa’s friend has relations north of Melbourne that let us stay, and our friends in Perth put us up for the first couple of months until we got working and were able to rent our own place.”

While moving abroad was the right move for James and Lisa on the job front, the experience also brought them closer together.

“I would say we probably learned more about each other while we were in Australia that we had before we moved,” says James. “I think it’s one of the best decisions we’ve made together.”

The couple flew back to Ireland to get married in September of 2016, and then returned to their lives on the opposite side of the world. They received Australian citizenship in January of this year, but only a few months later decided to return to Ireland on a permanent basis.

“Really, I think we’d done everything we wanted to do living in Australia,” says James. “We got our citizenship, so we’ll always be part Australian, but home was calling and we wanted to come back and give it a go here together, closer to friends and family.

“And so far, so good. We’ve moved to Dublin, which is new for both of us. We both found work in roles we wanted very quickly, and we’re looking forward to spending Christmas at home together for the first time in five years. We’re looking forward to it.”

I'm very thankful that I've had the opportunities to move around

More than 80,000 Irish citizens emigrated in 2011, fleeing an economic downturn and a discernible lack of job opportunities. Mayo woman Helena Murphy was one of them.

“I had recently completed a degree… and jobs were few and far between,” she said.

“I was living in Galway working in customer service and finding it nigh impossible to get work in my area of interest – law.”

Helena Murphy
Helena Murphy

Helena revealed it “seemed obvious” she would have to get further qualification to stand out from the crowd.

“I decided to apply for a Master's Degree in International Law in Leiden, the Netherlands. It didn't even cross my mind to apply to an Irish university,” she said.

“My first step was researching the courses that interested me and I began the application process roughly nine months before the enrolment date. I also had to prepare myself financially, but thankfully the costs of moving to the Netherlands were fairly minimal. The university enrolment fees were just over €1,000 - which is a fraction of the cost of a master’s in Ireland.”

Helena’s family and friends were hugely supportive of the move. Most saw it as “inevitable”, in fact, considering the economic circumstances.

Looking back, Helena said it was the right thing for her to do at the time, but that she did have to get used to a different way of life.

“In the Netherlands I quickly had to adjust to Dutch timekeeping and also to their culture which I think is noticeably different from ours,” she said.

They have a reputation of being a bit direct and people there are certainly more upfront than Irish people.

While Helena was prepared for this, it was still a bit of a culture shock – and once that made her miss the distinctive humour and warmth of the Irish.

After one year of study in the Netherlands, Ireland was still not a viable option for Helena. The economic situation was no better than it had been a year before – even for a girl newly armed with a master’s degree.

She moved to Brussels for a year to work, followed by stints in London and Berlin.

“It’s fair to say that I had a slightly nomadic existence for a few years but I'm very thankful that I've had the opportunities to move around and have the experience of living in different countries.”

Roughly six years after leaving for the Netherlands, Helena eventually started to think about returning home on a permanent basis.

“When I initially left, I had no idea when I would move back to Ireland and it was not something I gave any thought to at the time,” she said.

“But I eventually moved back for a job opportunity in a law firm. The job market has improved hugely since I moved abroad in 2011 and I felt like the time was right to move back.”

While Helena admits to feeling a little frustrated with a number of aspects of her move home – such as the high cost of living in Dublin and what she refers to as “sub-standard public transport and cycling facilities” – Helena is glad to be back.

People here are quite approachable and still have solid sense of social solidarity which is heartening to see.

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