'Like a foreigner in my own home' - Returning to Ireland can be a lonely experience

After living abroad for 13 years, Irene Halpin Long wasn’t prepared for was the loneliness she felt once the excitement of returning home had died down. But she persevered to settle down again.

I emigrated in June 2003. At the time, there were plenty of job opportunities in Ireland. I simply wanted to spread my wings and live overseas. 

Aged 22, I had finished my final year exams at University College Cork 10 days previously. 

Armed with one bag and GBP£350, I said goodbye to my father who dropped me to the airport. 

Even though he was less than satisfied that I did not have a return ticket from Jersey, Channel Islands nor a job to start the following Monday, he helped me take my bag out of the boot. 

What was to follow was the same departing speech I would hear for the next 13 years each time I was driven to the drop off point outside Cork airport.

“I won’t go in with you because, you know yourself, I’ll be all day parking. Do you have your passport? What time will you get there? Ring your Mother when you land. How long do you have to wait in Gatwick for? It doesn’t look too windy anyway. Did you manage to squash all those Taytos and teabags into your luggage? Where’s your coat? Right, mind yourself.”

Living abroad was both a wonderful and sometimes lonely experience. Along with being afforded great opportunities, I met lifelong friends from all over the world.

I also met my husband, Craig, who is originally from South Africa.

In April 2015, we welcomed our baby girl into our family. At this point, we were living in Guernsey. 

The time had come to make a decision. Where were we going to settle with this tiny human? We made plans to move to Ireland in August. We would settle in Cork; my home.

Irene Halpin Long, with husband Craig and daughter Saoirse on their first trip to Fota in September 2015.

Being from two different countries, Craig and I considered both Ireland and South Africa as possible places to settle down. Having our daughter, Saoirse, proved to be a huge motivation to want to put down roots.

We decided Ireland was the best option. A move to Ireland would call a halt to the endless phonetic spelling of Saoirse’s name. Of course, this was a mere tertiary reason in our decision-making process. 

Saoirse would grow up around family in Cork and we would have some additional support which we were lacking while living abroad. We had the support of friends but there is nothing quite like family.

Primary and secondary school education in Ireland would be more affordable than living abroad. We would have a better opportunity to purchase our own house which was not a viable option while living in the Channel Islands. 

Ireland was at the tail end of recession. Job opportunities were improving, particularly in the finance sector in which we were both previously employed. 

Yes, personal tax rates in this country are high and the band thresholds were lower than other countries but when we compared the “pros and cons”, on paper, moving to Ireland was a ‘no brainer’.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the loneliness that would ensue once the excitement of returning home had died down. 

Thirteen years is a long time. Friends had moved on. I was a different person to the young woman who had left Cork in 2003.

I felt like a foreigner in my own home. 

When I had emigrated in 2003, I was prepared for loneliness. I knew that I wouldn’t have any friends and that I would have to build a new life abroad. 

Naively, I assumed that once I returned to Ireland, it would be easier. At least I would know a few people.

The reality was that I was acquainted with people but I really didn’t have many friends.

I would have to draw on my experiences from living abroad, get out there and try to make friends. 

This is easier said than done because there is no platonic dating website to upload one’s details and friendship requirements when in one’s thirties.

 I would have to join groups and attend activities. Baby in tow, I went to a plethora of baby and toddler events. 

I hated the vast majority of them because, I confess, I was not very interested in chatting about parenting, but I met a few great people who I started to form friendships with.

An element that is unique to Irish society is its sense of community. In small villages and towns across Ireland, people volunteer in clubs and societies at local level. 

Without this type of local participation, the vibrancy of rural and small town Ireland would wither. I was determined to infiltrate one of these organisations. Among the boxes that had been shipped from Guernsey lay my flute. 

I can play badly so I thought I would ask if I could join The Blarney Brass and Reed Band in an attempt to socialise with people who lived in our new neighbourhood and to improve my flute playing. 

Irene Halpin Long, with husband Craig and daughter Saoirse at Blarney Castle.

I explained my musical incompetence to the conductor and he was very welcoming, as were the real musicians in the band who are extremely talented.

 I’ve noticed since I moved home that people who live in Ireland, whether born here or who have emigrated here themselves, are willing to give others a chance.

There is one place where I did not feel so welcome. The road! Driving in Ireland is not for the faint hearted. Cars running red lights, horns hooting, hands gesturing out windows. Where’s the fire people? When I first moved home, I thought it may be safer if I got the bus everywhere. But, then the buses went on strike for three weeks. But, the less said about that, the better.

Since moving home, Saoirse has picked up some words “as Gaeilge”. As has Craig. Not a day goes by but Craig returns home asking what a certain colloquialism he overheard means. What’s a bweor, a skobe, a langer? Why do people say “so” at the end of each sentence? Why do people keep calling me Timmy – C’mere Timmy?” Craig, they’re saying “Come here to me”.

By no means is Ireland perfect. We have been living here for nearly two years and it is obvious that there are many issues that need to be addressed across the political, social and economic spectrums. The cost of living is extremely high for such a small country which is ultimately causing some of the issues relating to housing, preschool childcare and rising insurance costs. Like many European countries, Ireland seems to be going through a period of political metamorphosis with unclear signposting.

It may just be an opportune time for immigrants to return home. 

In the 1990s, an influx of Irish immigrants, along with immigrants from other countries, was one of the contributory factors in bringing about economic prosperity to the country. Returning immigrants bring new ideas from abroad and, in general, are keen to disseminate these ideas and make a contribution to Irish society. 

A future rise in numbers of returning immigrants would undoubtedly help to strengthen the Irish economy. Employment opportunities seem to be growing but the housing problem remains a barrier for returning immigrants as does a lack of leadership across government and the civil service, resulting in opportunities for corruption, mismanagement of taxpayer funds and poor delivery of social services. 

To flourish, we need to tackle these issues and open the door for more returning immigrants in order to allow their skills and experience from abroad to trickle positively into society.



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