‘It will feel strange not being with family’

Many young Irish people are taking a chance and leaving for New York. John Riordan meets some of them to talk about how they adapted to life in the Big Apple and their plans for Christmas

ON Christmas Day, at the north Cork family home of Elaine Keating, Jess the border collie’s ears will suddenly perk up.

On a Skype call from the Bronx, a familiar voice will set his tail wagging. The Keatings will hover around the computer to send greetings to their daughter, sister, aunt more than 3,000 miles away and the over-excited Jess will dart between legs and bark at the air, confused.

Jess shouldn’t be the only one befuddled by how technology has brought us closer together, no matter how far away we might be.

Elaine Keating, 28, appreciates it more than most. Although this is her second stint as an immigrant in New York, having initially lived here from 2004 to 2008. Her return in January put her firmly within the new wave of young Irish people leaving due to economic reasons.

“I left Ireland the first time for a change of scenery. My friend’s brother was living here and she was coming over so I just went with her. But it was always at the back of my mind to go back home and go back to college and be with my family again. My cousin’s wedding in 2008 was when I finally decided to try it out in Ireland again and settle down.

“I came back in January. The economy was getting to me. I was living at home, I was working, I was in college and I was always in the red even though I actually had a good job. I had good friends in New York, I’d come here on holidays and I just wanted to try it out again.

“The only drawback now is that I’m not able to go home. I don’t have a visa. I won’t spend more than two years here because I have nieces and nephews. It’s getting more difficult.”

At the frontline of this steady flow of arrivals is Orla Kelleher, executive director of the Aisling Irish Community Center, on the McLean Avenue border between Yonkers and the Bronx, north of Manhattan.

“We have encountered emigrants from 30 out of 32 counties this year,” says Kelleher. “The only counties not represented are Carlow and Laois. Their ages range from 18 to 57. I would think the new arrivals will enjoy the novelty of their first Christmas here, while the more established or long-term undocumented emigrants will be more philosophical about the fact that another Christmas has gone by without seeing their loved ones at home in Ireland.”

Elaine was away for just three years, but the communication possibilities and habits have improved greatly in the interim. It may not be the same as being home for Christmas, but many emigrants admit it makes it a little easier to have a free and accessible service such as Skype. However, the phone hasn’t been made redundant yet.

“The phone plans are great here,” claims Rachel Ormond, a 21-year-old Cavan native who is spending her first Christmas away from home, having moved to New York in October.

“I can call landlines for free at home so it’s easy for me to stay in contact with friends and family. I also use Skype and Facebook.”

Ormond, like so many young Irish who have taken advantage of the graduate visa which allows them to live and work in the US for up to a year, didn’t wait long after leaving college to try her chances overseas. She achieved a master’s in marketing from the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School.

“I had just finished college and had always thought New York would be a fascinating city to live in. It seemed like the perfect time to move.

“I haven’t been away all that long and flights are expensive during the Christmas period. I also think the fact that I have family here [an aunt and a cousin] makes a big difference. I’ll be spending Christmas day with them. It’s not as big of a deal here. People will have a traditional Christmas day but most will go straight back to work the next day.”

Ormond does point out that life in New York hasn’t been all plain sailing.

“I have mixed emotions. On the one hand, I love being here. Every day there is something new to see and do. However, it has been a lot more difficult finding suitable accommodation and employment. Competition for everything is so high. There are fewer entry level positions opening up than I would have imagined. But I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to go through with the move so I intend on enjoying every moment I have here.

“And I miss home, of course I do. I miss having the support of my family and friends and being able to see them when I want. Especially coming up to Christmas, it will feel strange not being with my family.”

Aoife Larkin, also 21 and from Castleknock, Co Dublin, is another recent graduate (journalism, Dublin Business School) although she arrived by a slightly different method.

“It wasn’t planned at all. I was on holiday in LA and Las Vegas and at the last minute, I decided to go stay in New York with a friend who had arrived in February. I planned to see out the holiday visa with her but by the time that came around, I had found a job so I decided to stay on.”

She found work as a home carer for the elderly. The grim reality of her job is there is a lot of turnover and a steady supply of new opportunities.

She enjoys it and her schedule offers a lot of free time to enjoy her new life.

However, like so many of the Irish in the US, her undocumented status means she can not be home for Christmas.

“I’m planning to go home next September. If I overstay by more than a year, that means a 10-year ban. But if it’s less than a year, it will just mean a three-year ban. When my friend moved here, I thought she was mad.

“The whole business of being illegal seemed crazy to me at the time. I said I’d go over for three months. But then when I got here, I began to notice how many Irish were here.

“It’s like home, it’s not like Dublin, it’s kind of like a country town. It’s closeknit, it’s really nice. So then when I got work, I decided to stay because it’s not nearly as bad as you think it might be once you come over. It was all very unexpected but it’s definitely worked out.”

Larkin describes herself as homebird and is always in touch with her parents by phone.

“I lived at home during college. I’m constantly on the phone to my parents because I can ring Irish landlines for free. I call home a lot more than my flatmates.

“I love Christmas, I’ve never spent it away from home but I’m definitely excited to spend it away. I have all the decorations up around the house and we have our Chris Kindle all set up.

“I’ll miss home, definitely but it’s a positive overall. My parents have sent over my stocking and a few other little things that would remind me of home at Christmas which was really nice.”

A very unscientific sample of new emigrants provided by the Aisling Center shows that young men are in the slight majority. Shaun Kennedy, a 25-year-old from Mallow, Co Cork, who lives in Queens, qualified for the 12-month graduate visa after completing his studies in public and media relations in Swansea University.

“I reckoned now was the best time to do it. I’m at a good age and with the economic troubles at home and everything else... I had been to New York on holiday before and fell in love with the city.

“It’s too expensive to go home for Christmas and I feel like I would break my momentum if I did that. I’m still adapting to life here, I’m making friends and I’m doing interviews for jobs. It’s been hectic to say the least. Getting set up doesn’t happen over night in this city. It can be tough at times, but surviving is the key.”

On Christmas Day, he plans to have dinner and drinks with a few friends before hopefully heading to Madison Square Garden for the opening day of the NBA basketball season.

“I normally use the phone [to communicate with home] but Skype is ideal for visual contact, especially with friends halfway around the world. I miss my family and friends. I don’t miss home so much.

“I like Christmas and I’m sure I’ll be a bit lonesome Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

“But I’m looking forward to it too. Christmas in New York... it should be fun when ‘Fairytale of New York’ comes on in a pub on Christmas Eve. We haven’t had snow yet so it remains to be seen whether it will be a white one or not.”

Irish abroad

Elaine Keating, 28, Boherbue, Co Cork

Second spell in New York. Returned for economic reasons, but aims to come back to Ireland in two years. Cannot visit home for Christmas as she does not have a visa.

Shaun Kennedy, 25, Mallow, Co Cork

Fell in love with New York while on holiday. Says he is still settling in, and that flights to Ireland are too expensive at Christmas.

Will spend the day with friends before heading to Madison Square Garden to watch a game of basketball.

Rachel Ormond, 21, Cavan

Will spend Christmas Day with her aunt and cousin, who live in New York.

Finds her new life exciting, but jobs and accommodation are hard to come by.

Aoife Larkin, 21, Castleknock, Dublin

Journalism graduate found a job as a home carer while on holidays and decided to stay in New York.

Plans to leave in September to avoid a 10-year ban for overstaying her visa.

Her parents have sent her items to remind her of Christmas time at home.

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