Reunion stories

t’s a time for seeing family, friends and loved ones again. Claire Droney and Pol Ó Conghaile catch a few pre-Christmas flights at Cork and Dublin airports.

Waiting: Lorna, Ava and Lucy-Kate Abbott

Arriving: David Abbott

Some 620,000 passengers are expected to travel through Dublin Airport this Christmas season. One of them is David Abbott, arriving on Emirates flight EK161 from Dubai.

“We haven’t seen him since January — save for on Skype,” says his wife, Lorna from Dundrum, Co Tipperary. “He’s in Australia, two hours outside Sydney in Newcastle. So this is a big re-union. We’ve a banner made for him.”

Beside Lorna are her two girls, Ava, eight and Lucy-Kate, five, waiting patiently in pig tails. The weather outside is frightful, but it’s all sunshine in T2’s arrivals hall. A steady flow of passengers make their way through the automatic doors, greeted by hugs, kisses, tears and squeals of delight.

“We were just so unlucky the way the economy went,” Lorna explains.

“Dave works in plant hire, but he’s self-employed, and that meant he couldn’t get a mortgage. That’s why he’s out in Australia. He’s sending home money and we’re building as we go in Dundrum. He’ll be delighted when he sees the progress of the house when he comes home. It’s flying.

“He didn’t have anything set up before he went, but he had a lot of contacts. In fact, he arrived in Sydney on a Saturday evening, and was working Monday morning. It was that quick.

“I’d be a very positive person. I knew there were good, genuine reasons for him to go. I’m very lucky — my parents collect the kids and do the homework and things like that, which is a huge help to me by the time I get in from work. But it doesn’t make him being away any easier.

“Do I remember the last visit to the airport? No. I didn’t go.”

David isn’t just coming home for Christmas, it transpires. Lucy-Kate turns six two days after her dad arrives; his own birthday falls at the end of December, and Ava will be nine in January. Throw New Year’s Eve into the bargain, and he’s got a giddy few weeks ahead.

“We’re thrilled to finally be here,” Lorna smiles. “We’re booked into the Red Cow Hotel for the night, because I know when we go home everybody will be calling in. We want some family time first!”

“Mummy, it’s landed!” Ava shouts, eyes pinned to the screen.

Shortly afterwards, David emerges, pushing his trolley. He spots the girls’ banner, and a big, goofy smile sweeps across his face. “Welcome home, daddy,” it says.

Waiting: Margaret and Donie O’Donoghue

Arriving: Noreen O’Donoghue Thomas, husband Ryan and son Liam

Donie O’Donoghue cuts a lonely figure as he sits in Arrivals holding a helium balloon weighted down by an iron horse-shoe. His wife, Margaret, has popped to the Ladies to fix her Santa hat, to ensure she is ready to greet her daughter Noreen (34), son-in-law Ryan and first grandchild Liam, arriving from Michigan this morning.

“Noreen has lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan for the past eight years. She got married to an American man in Ireland two years ago. We’ve been over several times — Michigan is wonderful at this time of year, it’s dry and very cold and there’s no rain,” says Donie.

Margaret arrives over, ‘excited and emotional’ about her daughter’s first homecoming in three years.

“Noreen went to America on her J1 years ago and loved it. She was transferred from her company in Cork to Michigan. She just put down roots there and then she met an American, and there was no more coming home to mommy. Liam’s our first grandchild and we’re obsessed with him. Skype is brilliant because you can follow all the changes in him,” says Margaret, who has two sons who are unable to join them for Christmas this year.

“We’re delighted to have Noirin and Ryan and Liam this year. I think if it was just the two of us, we’d just go away. It’s going to be so lovely. My youngest son got married in Connecticut in July and it was 100 degrees, it was terrible. We couldn’t wait to get back to the rain.”

When the family arrives, Margaret enjoys lots of hugs with her reindeer-suited grandson.

“I can’t wait for some brown bread and cheese and tea, and an Irish breakfast,” says Noreen O’Donoghue Thomas, who currently works for medical device company, Striker.

“We’ll spend Christmas Eve in Killarney and go to a few pubs and meet friends. The pubs all close at 5pm and then we’ll get home in time for mass – that’s a real Killarney tradition.”

“This side of Christmas is nice but I don’t like the other side – the goodbyes, I can’t go there,” says Margaret.

Waiting: Ron and Mary Downes

Arriving: Alex and Stephanie Downes

IT’S 10.40am in T2, and Mary, Ron Alex and Stephanie are wrapped up in a group hug.

All four are wearing Santa hats — Ron’s complete with flashing lights. Their two kids are beaming, tired but delighted after landing in on an Aer Lingus flight from Amsterdam. It’s the final leg of a long journey home, all the way from Western Australia, via Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

“They’re only gone about six months but we’ve been waiting for them to come home for the last four,” laughs Ron, from Blessington, Co Wicklow. “We’ve been really looking forward to it!”

“We’re delighted,” says Mandy. “It’s awful far, it really is. But they want to do it. I mind the fact that they’re gone, but they’re only young, and they’re enjoying themselves...”

“I’ve been travelling for a few years, and I just felt Perth was next,” says Alex (23). “I’m working on a vineyard a few hours south, doing farm work, so it’s an experience... I’ve been there three months and I’m absolutely loving it. Perth is amazing, but it’s nice to be out in the countryside seeing a bit of Australia. I’m planning on travelling for a good while.”

“I decided to follow him over,” adds Stephanie (25), travel pillow still in hand. “We have a few friends there as well. I’m working with an accountancy firm in Perth and I’ve just applied for my visa to be extended, so I’m waiting to hear back on that now. I’ve been there six months. If this goes through I can stay another four years,” she says... making sure mum is out of earshot.

“We’re back for three weeks, and we’ll spend it catching up with family and friends,” Alex explains. “How did I feel coming in to land? Well, seeing all the rain outside when we landed wasn’t great, but once we got in and collected the bags, it started to sink in. Then we saw the Santa hats on the pair of them,” he laughs. “It was enough to bring us home, that’s for sure!”

“The sunshine in Australia makes such a difference to the quality of life,” Stephanie muses.

“But then, it’s so far away. I really realised that during the journey home. You miss everybody, and that’s a big trade off. We have two little sisters back in Blessington, so we’re looking forward to seeing what Santa brings them! They don’t know we’re coming; it’s a big surprise!”

“There’s a big time difference,” Mary agrees. “But there are certain hours where you can overlap on Skype or WhatsApp. Facebook is great too. The photos coming across are fantastic.”

I wonder whether she and Ron will visit Alex and Stephanie in Perth. She smiles. “Well the plan was to go over next Easter, but now that they’re home... you never know, they might stay!”

Waiting: Shirley and Alan O’Leary, daughter Sarah O’Leary

Arriving: David O’Leary and girlfriend Lynsey McGarvey

SHIRLEY O’LEARY tears up as she watches smiling passengers being greeted by family and friends. Her only son, David, 24, has spent the last year in Sydney and is arriving home today with his Scottish girlfriend, Lynsey McGarvey. Shirley holds a sign with a photo of the couple on it.

“We’ve had a Facebook countdown going for ages and there were lots of people posting ‘Thank God he’s home today’ on it. I got so excited making the banner that I typed ‘Home Welcome’ by mistake,” she says.

Shirley’s husband, Alan, has draped the Australian, Irish and Scottish flags outside their house in Ballyphehane, Cork.

“We haven’t seen our son in a year. He adores Glasgow Celtic so we’ve all his jerseys pressed and ready for him. I’ve Celtic pillowcases on the bed for him too,” says Shirley.

“He works in the mines in Chinchilla with people from all over the world — and he teaches them the rebel songs down there. Imagine all the different nationalities singing the Wolfe Tones down the mines.

“We’re meeting Lynsey for the first time today, but we’ve seen her on Skype. He was in a long-term relationship before and he said he wouldn’t go out with anyone again for a long time. But he met Lynsey at the Celtic supporters club and he just adores her. She’s very good to him when he’s feeling homesick. David would love to come home. He had to remind me on the phone the other day that he’ll have to go back in January.

“The last time he came home from a fifth class trip to France, I ran through the arrivals gate in the old terminal and the security men were all after me. My family made me promise that I wouldn’t do the same again today.”

The crowds disperse as the family continues to wait. David has texted to say that one of the bags has gone missing.

“I don’t mind having a cry when he arrives because there’s hardly anyone left now,” says sister, Sarah.

Suddenly Shirley pitches forward and runs into the cordoned-off arrivals area. Her son has arrived. “I’d say it was the first time I was ever speechless. He’s my baby,” says Shirley, hugging her son and pulling the lapels of his hoodie together.

David, who is home for three weeks, says he can’t wait to spend Christmas with friends and family “and have a few pints in the Friar’s Walk tavern”.

“I’m working in the mines and I couldn’t ask to have a better job out there. I work 28 days on and nine days off, so it is tough at times. But the money is good and it’s not something you’d get to do in Ireland. It’s great to have a job and be able to afford flights home to Ireland.”

Waiting: Ruan Pienaar, Belfast

Arriving: Family from South Africa

A TALL, dark, super-athletic figure is hanging back from the Christmas festivities of T2’s arrivals hall, dressed in hoodie and jeans. He rises onto his toes and peers over the crowds. When I approach, an Afrikaner drawl confirms my hunch — it’s South African and Ulster half-back, Ruan Pienaar.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the family,” the rugby star says. “My sister is coming from Cape Town with her two kids, and my parents are arriving from Bloemfontein.

“The last couple of Christmases my wife and I have been alone in Belfast. I can’t fly home, because I’ve got games to play. So it’s great to have some family here this year... we’ll have a good Christmas and some good food, hopefully!”

Pienaar was scheduled to start for Ulster in their Rabodirect PRO 12 clash with Leinster last night at Ravenhill, so it’s unlikely there’ll be too much over-indulgence.

“No, but I’m sure we’ll find some time to show them around! I only get to go back to South Africa about once a year, unless there are internationals to play. We get time off at the end of the season, in May and June, but after that, it’s back to business again.”

Around us, the arrivals area — and indeed all of T2 — has been decorated for the festive season. A children’s choir is singing, fairy lights are twinkling, and a giant advertisement featuring Santa Claus slugging a bottle of Coca-Cola forms a backdrop to emotional scenes of reunion.

Right now, this hall feels like the happiest place in Ireland.

How do South Africans celebrate Christmas, I wonder?

“It’s more or less the same,” Pienaar smiles.

“Obviously the weather is a bit better. Everyone is on holiday, on the beach — so that’s a bit different — but I’ve prepared them for that. It’s the first time my sister’s kids have been overseas as well. They’re aged four and two. And I’ve made sure Santa will be able to find them in Belfast!”


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