Ireland's expats reflect on Christmas at home and abroad

Within the last decade alone, tens of thousands of young Irish people have packed their bags for shores unknown.

Ireland's expats reflect on Christmas at home and abroad

For many, this was an effort to improve their job prospects. Others merely wanted the thrill of adventure. Regardless of their reasons for leaving, research suggests most would like to return home for Christmas. Only half will actually be able to.

One person who will be spending the holiday season on foreign soil is 29-year- old Eoghan O’Donogue from Kildare. A qualified doctor, Eoghan moved to a place called Whangarei in New Zealand earlier this year.

“I moved for numerous reasons, but mainly to experience a different healthcare system and live in a country that is renowned internationally for its outdoor lifestyle and has a warm and welcoming attitude towards foreign nationals,” he revealed.

“I had been working in Cork and Kerry for just over a year before I decided to move. The healthcare system here in New Zealand is very supportive of doctors and I think I have a much better work/life balance than I did in Ireland.”

While the job he was offered was too good to turn down, Eoghan admitted it was incredibly tough to leave his family. “They were very positive and encouraging and saw it as a great opportunity for me… but I did find leaving my family was the hardest aspect of the move,” he said.

“I did miss home quite a bit for the first few weeks, but Facetime, Skype and Whatsapp are great for keeping in touch. That made it easier.”

Due to the nature of his job, Eoghan won’t be able to come home for Christmas, which he said will be tough on both him and his family. “The job I’m working on at the moment is as relief cover for other doctors who are either sick or on holidays or working night shifts, so I’m working over both Christmas and New Years,” he said.

“It would be nice to be able to head home but it’s just not possible. There’s a change of jobs in February so I’ll have a more regular roster and should be able to organise a trip home.”

Another expat unable to travel to home this yuletide is Martin Fitzgibbon from Cork.

Cork man Martin Fitzgibbon on a night out in Toronto
Cork man Martin Fitzgibbon on a night out in Toronto

In 2015, Martin made the move from Ireland to Canada along with a number of friends.

“The main reason I left was because it was just so hard to get a decent job in Ireland. I tried for years after finishing college to find something I could make a career out of, but jobs were so scarce you just had to take whatever was available,” he said.

“Whenever anything half decent came up, there’d be hundreds of other applicants. Employers knew that everyone was desperate too, so they could treat people however they liked. It was tough.”

Martin said it was really hard to leave his family and friends, but he knew he needed to leave.

“Everyone was very supportive. By the time I left loads of my friends had already moved abroad. I think everyone at home knew that we were all leaving because we sort of had to,” he explained.

“But I do think any Irish person living abroad lives with a certain amount of guilt for being away. Family life and social life are so important to Irish people… you’re always thinking about the people you love back home.”

Since he had already spent a semester living in Calgary as part of his studies at the University of Limerick, Martin knew moving to Canada was a viable option. He had friends living in Toronto, and decided to give the city a go.

“Before I left I had been living in Limerick for nearly nine years, so I was ready for a change of pace and Toronto is definitely that. Straight away it was cool just to find a place with a totally different vibe,” he said.

“Toronto is a really diverse city, and I’ve made friends with people from all over the world, so that has been great. The way of life here suits me, I’ve found a good job and gotten a lot of opportunities, and as much as I hate to say it, I just don’t think anything similar would have happened if I’d stayed in Ireland.”

While Martin was able to return home for Christmas last year, visa issues mean it’s not looking likely that he will get to do the same this holiday season.

“I’ve just gotten Canadian Permanent Residency, which is great, but I’m in a bit of limbo at the moment because I’m still waiting to receive my PR card, which I can’t re-enter the country without,” he said.

“So technically I’m not allowed to fly anywhere at the moment. It could come any day now, and if it does come in time I’ll do everything I can to try to get home for Christmas, because Christmas is a very big deal in our house, but at this stage the flights will probably be too expensive.”

Fellow Corkonian Shane Buckley, and his girlfriend Niamh Costello from Limerick, will also be spending Christmas abroad this year.

The couple left the country in January 2016 to go backpacking in Asia. After a few months they ended up settling in Australia, before only recently hitting the road once more.

“I don’t think we ever had the intention of moving away from home, as I had a dream job working as a radio broadcaster for Red FM and Niamh had just finished college in UCC and had graduated as a nurse,” Shane said.

“But, as the cliché saying goes, we thought we might as well do something like this ‘while we are young’ and so off we went.”

Shane said it wasn’t a hard decision for him to make, because initially he was only supposed to be away for four weeks.

“But nearly two years later I’m still away from home and loving it,” he said. “My dad is pretty easy going so when I told him I wasn’t coming back after the four weeks he just said to be safe and he would see me when I was home. It was the same for my sister. But, of course, my mother was not so secretly upset that I wasn’t coming back.”

Since Shane and Niamh both managed to get work visas for Australia for one year, they decided that was how long they would stay down under.

“After a week or so we did eventually land jobs and managed to find an apartment that wasn’t stupidly priced. Then again, we did have five people living in a two-bed… but we all knew each other from home and it was a great laugh. At one stage Niamh had some friends passing through and we had 11 people staying there!”

Now it’s time for Shane and Niamh to move again, and they plan to spend Christmas exploring South America.

While both say it’s hard to be away from family at this time of year, they know their travels won’t last forever and say they more than likely will be home by next Christmas.

Thankfully, though, there are some Irish expats who will be making it home for the festivities.

Among the lucky few is Shona Coultry, a Mayo woman and University of Limerick graduate who has spent the last three and a half years living and working in the United Arab Emirates.

“The main reason I wanted to move to Abu Dhabi was to gain some teaching experience and travel. In my third year of college, studying Music, Media and Performance Technology, I was having a change of heart and wondered if I would prefer a career in teaching. Abu Dhabi offered that opportunity,” explained Shona.

“For me it wasn’t a hard decision to make. I had my sister who had decided long before me she was moving to Abu Dhabi the same year. She was able to help me search for jobs too. We are very close and were both going to Abu Dhabi so the thought of having her living nearby was comforting and made the decision to move easier.”

Initially Shona was only going to stay for two years. She is now well into her fourth year away from home. It will, however, be her last. “I am ready to move closer to home now,” she said.

It has been a fantastic experience for her so far though, and one she will always look back on fondly.

“The best thing about moving abroad was to experience a new job and a new culture. Most weekends there were opportunities to go sightseeing and do brunches. The best thing about living in Abu Dhabi is the continuous good weather, endless things to do every weekend and travelling opportunities. I have made amazing friends for life and the bond from living abroad is special,” she said.

Young Anna Steinmetz a pupil of St. Patricks Girls N.S. Cork carol singing for people coming home for Christmas at Cork Airport London. Pic: Dan Linehan
Young Anna Steinmetz a pupil of St. Patricks Girls N.S. Cork carol singing for people coming home for Christmas at Cork Airport London. Pic: Dan Linehan

“The most difficult aspect of living abroad was being far away from family but we keep in touch by skype regularly.”

Thankfully, Shona has been able to visit home fairly regular since her move in 2014.

“I work in a British curriculum school so our holidays match with the holidays in Ireland and the UK. I am very much a home bird and enjoy going home any time I can. I will be home for Christmas soon and I cannot wait. I am lucky I have three weeks of holidays,” she said.

“I am looking forward to being around my family, cousins and friends again. I always spend Christmas at home in Belderrig with my parents, three sisters and nephew, Cillian. He is turning 10 soon and always makes Christmas extra special in our house. I look forward to usual nights out over the festive season and catching up with friends.”

Fellow Mayo woman Gráinne Harte is also counting her lucky stars that she is able to travel back home for the holidays.

Gráinne Harte
Gráinne Harte

Gráinne, who boasts an Undergraduate degree from the University of Limerick and a Masters from Dublin City University, has been living and working in the hustle and bustle of New York City since September 2014.

“I completed my Masters and spent a few months interning in amazing places like TV3, Hot Press, and Image Magazine. Things were going well, and I absolutely loved Dublin, but I was getting itchy feet,” she admitted.

“I’ve always wanted to live in New York so one day, after coming back from Ibiza on holiday actually, I just decided I was doing it! I booked my flight that night and landed in JFK airport one week later. It was a whirlwind, but that’s exactly what life in NYC turned out to be, so I suppose I was starting out with the correct mindset!”

Considering this, it comes as no surprise to hear that Gráinne doesn’t yet know how long she will be living in the US for.

“It’s a question I get asked all the time and I still don’t have a definitive answer! I’m not really planning ahead too much. Things in New York are going great so I’m just going with the flow for now,” she said.

“I do think about moving home sometime in the future, but I don’t like to plan too far ahead either. So who knows? I do still call Ireland home though, and I know I always will.”

After one week in New York City, all alone with no set plan, Gráinne had tracked down a cousin to show her around and had secured a job in a bar. She later moved into a job with a recruitment company. Work visas, however, remained a constant difficulty.

“Firstly, it can be extremely difficult to find a company who is willing to sponsor you. I got very lucky in that respect, but I know many others are not and unfortunately that can often mean the end of an adventure before it’s even begun,” she said.

“If you are lucky enough to get sponsorship, you still never really feel safe that your visa is secure, especially in the current political climate.”

But these struggles are not the only ones encountered by emigrants – there is always the constant homesickness and the gut-wrenching feeling of missing people who are half a world away.

Unfortunately, Gráinne was unable to come home for Christmas in 2016 – something she intends to rectify this year.

“It’s hard to be away at this time of year. And while Christmas in New York really is magical, there is just no place you’d rather stuff your face with Roses and fight over the remote than on your own couch with your own clan.”

It’s a plan shared by Kerry woman Rachel Quirke who is also lucky enough to be coming home this Christmas.

Rachel Quirke with Laura Quirke
Rachel Quirke with Laura Quirke

Rachel made the move to Washington DC five months ago. She had always wanted to try and live outside of Ireland and so, when an opportunity came up earlier this year, she decided to take it.

“It was very hard to decide to move away from my friends and family, though, and to leave a job I’d enjoyed doing for a number of years… and the whole life I had set up in Cork,” she said. “But I was also excited at the prospect of meeting a whole new circle of friends and getting the chance to live in America.”

Some people, she admitted, thought she “was crazy” to leave her job and move away. Her family, however, remained supportive.

“I knew it would be hard as we are a close family, but they have been great,” she said. “And I was lucky in that I moved over into a new job, so at least I knew where I was going to be based and that I had employment… but I didn’t know anyone in Washington when I moved. Making friends was definitely the hardest part.”

She admitted the first few months were a struggle, but that her efforts have finally paid off and she finally feels settled.

Having said that, Rachel said she is extremely glad to be heading home for a visit this month.

“I’m really looking forward to the simple things of seeing all my friends and family. So many friends are living away from home so it will be nice to have some school reunions over the Christmas break,” she said.

“But Christmas Day, and an amazing dinner made by my mom, is always the highlight for me. I’m also looking forward to enjoying a box of Roses by the fire. I’ll get to visit family and catch up on how everyone has been since I moved away. I can’t wait.”

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