Return of the Wild Geese: Emigrants come back as recovery continues

With the CSO reporting the highest number of returning Irish nationals since 2007, lifting the country's population above five million for the first time in 170 years, Joyce Fegan caught up with some ex-pats to ask why they have stayed away and explore their views on the country they left behind.
Return of the Wild Geese: Emigrants come back as recovery continues

The Gollogley family in Hong Kong on Paddy's Day in 2019. Louth man Gavin Gollogley has what he describes as a "multinational family".

They’re coming home. In April 2021, for the first time since 1851, the population in what's now the Republic of Ireland was estimated to have passed the five million mark. Part of this story has to do with returning Irish nationals.

According to CSO findings last month, 65,200 people immigrated to Ireland in the year to April 2021, 30,200 of whom were returning Irish nationals, the highest number of returning Irish nationals since 2007.

The numbers returning (30,200) almost coincides with the amount by which our population increased in the 12 months to April 2021 — 34,000. However, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) says it is “uncertain” how migration will evolve as a result of the pandemic.

“Because of the pandemic, we are uncertain about how migration will evolve over the coming years,” said Adele Bergin, a researcher at the macroeconomics department of the ESRI.

“As a result of the pandemic, if people are more uneasy about travel or have concerns that public health restrictions may be re-imposed etc, they may be less likely to move, so there is a lot of uncertainty here,” she said.

The ESRI provides evidence-based research, which is used to inform public policy debate and decision-making. Ms Bergin estimated that net immigration (immigration less emigration) will reach about 30,000 people — around the same number that made our population pass the 5m mark this year.

“Given the recovery under way in the Irish economy, I would imagine net immigration will move to somewhere in the region of +15,000 to +30,000 over the coming years.

“However, this is very much driven by expected economic conditions,” explained Ms Bergin.

There have also been reports of Irish people returning home permanently, because of the pandemic, from places such as Australia and Canada, where they might not have had permanent residency or citizenship. Another reason for returning home is the advancement of remote working.

The Irish Examiner spoke with Irish people around the world — who emigrated as far back as 40 years ago to as recently as 10 years ago — to see if they would make the permanent return home, and to hear their reflections on the Ireland that they had left behind.

Gavin Gollogley: from Louth to Hong Kong via Sydney

Louth man Gavin Gollogley has what he describes as a "multinational family". His wife Carmela is Filipino, his eldest daughter Mia, 14, was born in Australia and his two younger daughters Zoë, 10, and Ava, 8, were both born in Hong Kong where the family now call home.

Gavin is nearly 20 years out of Ireland having left in 2002, right on the cusp of his 30s, and right in the middle of our Celtic Tiger.

"I was a late backpacker at 29," explains Gavin, over Zoom from Hong Kong. In his backpack he took a degree and master's in computer applications from DCU, and four years' work experience on Ireland.com - which was one of the first iterations of the irishtimes.com.

"It was a real hay day in the Irish Times, and hanging out with journalists was super. The web traffic was crazy and there were about 50-strong-plus staff but then we brought in a paywall," explains Gavin.

He took voluntary redundancy and decided to follow a lifelong urge he had to visit Australia.

"I had always wanted to go to Australia and the clock was ticking as there was a one-year working holiday VISA I could avail of up to the age of 30. 

So when I flew out to Australia I had been dating someone and we broke up at the airport. 

"It was an itch you can't not scratch so I had to do it," says Gavin.

Several serendipitous situations occurred in that first year. Gavin took his first swimming lessons while in Australia, meeting a girl in the pool while doing so. He also needed to have a surgical procedure done during this time and had been paying his VHI back home. And as he had been busy travelling, he never secured a "white collar job" in those early months.

All of this came to mean he travelled home to Ireland for an operation. While he thought the Australian dream was over, during his six weeks of recovery it dawned on him he had three months left on his VISA.

"I said to myself: 'I'll go back. I have this beautiful girl back there'. And when I got back with two weeks left on the VISA I got a job I would spend the next eight years in," says Gavin.

And what about the girl from the pool?"

I married the girl and we bought a house in Sydney and had a child (Mia) there too," he adds.

Gavin Gollogley in Bundanoon with his wife Carmela in 2006.
Gavin Gollogley in Bundanoon with his wife Carmela in 2006.

In 2010, a call came in from a friend in Hong Kong. "Gavin, would you like to come work with me?" is a summary of the call.

The family of three left their life in Sydney behind for a new one in Hong Kong.

"If someone had given us a plane ticket back to Sydney in those first few months we would have gone back. With the high rises and the super small apartments - it was some culture shock," says Gavin.

However, 11 years and two children later, it is where the "multinational" family of five now call home. And where Gavin works for Sun Life as chief client experience and marketing officer for the whole of Asia.

Pre-Covid they got out of the city and moved to a "village house" which means they're a four-minute walk to the beach where they take their dog and paddleboard on a regular basis.

"It's a good life," says Gavin.

But is it good enough to stay or would a return to Ireland ever be on the cards?

"For the first two weeks of July for the last 18 years we have come home. Those two weeks are my favourite weeks of the year. It's unlikely it's going to be sunny but it feels fresh and the smell of my parents house and the cooking - I just love it. Those two weeks are special for my kids, it's a magical time," says Gavin.

Gavin and Carmela Gollogley in Sydney in 2008. Gavin says the "right opportunity" would have to present itself for a move back to Ireland.
Gavin and Carmela Gollogley in Sydney in 2008. Gavin says the "right opportunity" would have to present itself for a move back to Ireland.

The summer of 2018 trip was an especially memorable one, with Carmela saying to him at Dublin Airport: "If you ever want to go back...."

The "right opportunity" would have to present itself for a move home, says Gavin.

However, Hong Kong remains home for now with the connection to Ireland nurtured through things like The Late Late Toy Show - an unmissable annual family affair for the Gollogleys. And does he see his native home as having changed much in the intervening 20 years?

"The year I left it was 'up up up' with the property prices and it was the year people bought a lot of luxuries for themselves. But now I go home and I see a lot more diversity with many different races of people and inclusion with the passing of gay marriage. And religion for sure has changed too - when we're home we go to church with my parents and there are definitely less people there than in 2002," says Gavin.

"On a micro level though it doesn't feel it has changed," he adds, "it's still the same topics on Joe Duffy."

Eva O'Connor: from Clare to London via the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Awarding-winning writer and actor Eva O'Connor has a "huge respect" for London.

"I had this realisation a while ago - I was going to a meeting in central London, and I thought: 'I've forged a path for myself that means I'm living in the city, I've earned my place here'," explains the Co. Clare woman.

Eva O'Connor early in her Edinburgh days.
Eva O'Connor early in her Edinburgh days.

So far she has multiple runs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival under her belt, several award-winning plays that have toured both here, the UK and New York, as well as adapting one of them for the BBC - Overshadowed.

She left Ireland in 2009 to study English and German at the University of Edinburgh, a location that allowed her to follow her desire to write and perform.

"I had been in a play with Manchán Magan in Dublin before I Ieft, so I went to Edinburgh thinking: 'I want to get into this'. I started writing my own work in first year and I put on a one-woman show. Someone saw it and said to put it on at the Edinburgh Fringe - I didn't even know what that was, I didn't know about flyering or anything.

"Then 10 friends came over from Dublin to me in my one bedroom in a rented house and they helped and flyer-ed. We were so green and blissfully ignorant and I started bringing shows every year," explains Eva.

"All I knew was that I wanted to stay in theatre when I graduated as I had built a theatre company and I wanted to keep making. I applied to go to drama school in London and I didn't think anymore than that and I've been here ever since," she adds.

Eva O'Connor in one of the many plays she has appeared in. "I've forged a path for myself that means I'm living in the city, I've earned my place here."
Eva O'Connor in one of the many plays she has appeared in. "I've forged a path for myself that means I'm living in the city, I've earned my place here."

Eva met Hildegard Ryan during her college days and the two have worked together ever since, bringing to stage most recently the play Afloat which took on the issue of climate change, as well as friendship.

London's proximity to home has meant Eva has had the best of both worlds as an emigrant.

"I have always gone home a lot and I do go home a lot for work so that staves off my craving to come home permanently. But, we went to West Cork recently and I thought: 'I could stay here' but then you have to imagine all the trade-offs for the type of work I do.

"London is so amazing, you live alongside so many cultures. I have huge respect for London as a city, but I wouldn't say I'm a Londoner. People only say that if you've grown up here," explains Eva, which brings her to one of the core reasons Irish people do move home.

"I did a poem for the London Irish Centre and I performed it in the Irish embassy, and there was a line in it about Irish people having children with English accents. So many people related to that and told me the moment their kid turned around with an English accent was a moment they considered their ties with home."

Most Irish people will say 'We'll move home eventually'. Very few people are fully settled here, it's just that homing instinct we have as Irish people but we still are fully committed to our lives here. But I've met Irish people in their 80s who talk about moving home," adds Eva.

Eva O'Connor on stage at the VAULT Festival. "All I knew was that I wanted to stay in theatre when I graduated."
Eva O'Connor on stage at the VAULT Festival. "All I knew was that I wanted to stay in theatre when I graduated."

For now, while the air feels "cleaner" in Ireland, there is always a sense of "excitement" when Eva's plane touches down in London.

She might not be moving home any time soon, but she is able to work both here and in the UK. Her recent play Afloat was supported by Culture Ireland and just ran at the Edinburgh Fringe but will tour here in 2022, as will her multi award-winning play Mustard, which was produced by Irish theatre company Fishamble.

Noelle McCarthy: from Cork to New Zealand via Cork Opera House

Cork woman Noelle McCarthy, a well-known voice in New Zealand from her broadcasting days on Radio New Zealand (RNZ), left Ireland twice.

In 2001, she went backpacking for a year but on landing in New Zealand in 2002, stayed for nine. This brought her up to 2011, the height of the crash in Ireland and a year where more than 80,000 people emigrated from Ireland. Noelle chose 2011 to return.

What would make some return to a country in a deep recession?

"I was really homesick, I had been away for 10 years and I had come home for a holiday and had a great time," explains Noelle.

Noelle was a college friend of Mary Hickson, who was CEO of Cork Opera House at the time, and a job came up there.

Noelle McCarthy in 2001 with her Dad before she left Ireland for the first time.
Noelle McCarthy in 2001 with her Dad before she left Ireland for the first time.

"I got a job there, and I sort of felt the whole time I had been in New Zealand that I had never stopped missing Ireland. I had had great career opportunities in New Zealand, but I thought about making Ireland my home again," says Noelle.

"I enjoyed being back, it was lovely being near my family, but I missed radio and I missed broadcasting," adds Noelle. So when Radio New Zealand rang her with an offer she was, in fact, ready to go back.

"There was a wrench leaving my family but I was excited," says Noelle from her home in New Zealand, where she's just read her four-year-old daughter Eve her bedtime story.

But back to 10 years ago when she left Ireland for the second time, and again it was not a straight route to New Zealand.

"The following year I met my husband (John Daniell) in Auckland, he had been living in France, he's a retired rugby player and had been there for 20 years. When we met I went over to France for a few months and we came back to New Zealand together, we bounced between Europe and New Zealand for a while seeing which would work," explains Noelle.

Noelle McCarthy with her husband John Daniell and daughter Eve in New Zealand now
Noelle McCarthy with her husband John Daniell and daughter Eve in New Zealand now

"It was the long-standing question in our lives: 'Where will we live?'" she adds. Eventually New Zealand won out with the couple marrying in 2018, a year after their daughter Eve was born and the same year the couple started their podcast production company, Bird of Paradise.

After 20 years abroad, Noelle is anything but ambivalent about her life choices and where she has ended up on the map.

"I love New Zealand and I love the life we have here and all the different freedoms we have here, the work we are able to do. I live in a small community now Featherston on the North Island. Things have always felt possible here and I have beautiful friends here too," says Noelle of her life abroad.

"After 20 years I feel I am more culturally suited here," she adds.

And what of home?

As is the great worry of every emigrant, Noelle's mother became ill and died at the start of the pandemic in March 2020. 

Noelle McCarthy with her daughter Eve in 2019 in Cork. "I idealise Ireland a lot. Things are either very funny or sad. I'd be interested to know if other emigrants feel like that."
Noelle McCarthy with her daughter Eve in 2019 in Cork. "I idealise Ireland a lot. Things are either very funny or sad. I'd be interested to know if other emigrants feel like that."

She was able to travel home to be by her bedside but because of the increasing alarm over the virus had to return to her daughter and life in New Zealand before her mother passed, in case she would be locked out.

"It was incredibly surreal saying goodbye to her. I feel so grateful I was able to be there because that's the awful fear for every emigrant, but I missed her funeral," says Noelle.

Due to the ongoing restrictions and travel uncertainty she has not returned to Ireland since, noting that the pandemic has changed the emigrant experience.

"Ireland was always just two very long plane rides away, now everything is different. It's hard not knowing when you can come back," says the broadcaster.

Having missed the entirety of the Celtic Tiger or as Noelle says "the era of people going to weddings on helicopters", her perception of Ireland is not based around economic stability or instability, but rather, emotionality.

"I think the thing I notice most about Ireland is the emotional intensity. In New Zealand people are quite practical and understated. In Ireland things can be intense, but that's possibly because of the emigrant coming back. I idealise Ireland a lot. Things are either very funny or sad. I'd be interested to know if other emigrants feel like that," she says.

Eileen Littorin: from Cork city to Stockholm

Cork woman Eileen Littorin is nearly 20 years out of Ireland, and is on the cusp of becoming a Swedish citizen.

Her journey to Sweden began when she met her now husband and the father of her two children at the end of her Erasmus year in Germany in 2002.

"With six weeks to go I met this Swede. We were really young, I was 22 and he was 24. I had a year left in UCC and he had a year left in university in Stockholm. So we said: 'Let's just see what happens,' and 10 months later I moved to Sweden.

"Thank god for Ryanair because back then you could go from Cork to Stockholm, and we went back and forth in our final year every four or six weeks. The internet was terrible and we had dial-up at home. We would chat on MSN messenger and I remember Meteor were relatively new and they were giving the cheapest phone calls," says Eileen, who teaches at an international school in Stockholm.

In the intervening years there has been time spent in Canada, Tuam (for teacher training) and five years in Berlin - where the couple married in August 2010.

Magnus and Eileen in 2004. "We would chat on MSN messenger."
Magnus and Eileen in 2004. "We would chat on MSN messenger."

"In 2012, we decided to come back to Stockholm because we were thinking of starting a family and we had been saving and wanted to buy a house and settle down - we've been here since," says Eileen, who adds, "the feet are still itchy but now we have two children, David, 7 and Sophia, 6."

Is everything we hear about the cost of living and raising a family in Sweden true?

When their two children were in crèche at the same time, and nappies were even included, it cost the couple €180 a month.

"And that's the top end of the payment," explains Eileen, as people who earn less would receive a great State subsidy towards childcare.

Right now, both of her children are in school until 1pm and are registered with an after-school service until 5.30pm. That equates to about 40 hours of registered care a week and the cost of that?

"€150 for the two of them for the month," says Eileen.

Her children also have access to free healthcare until they're 18 and the dentist until they're 25, and if they are sick and unable to attend school, a parent receives a payment to stay at home and mind them.

"When you have a child it's very gender neutral, the father is expected to do the same as the mother," says Eileen.

She describes Sweden as having a "socialist mentality".

Eileen, with her husband Magnus and her two children David and Sophia in Stockholm, where the cost of their after-school service for a month costs €150 in total.
Eileen, with her husband Magnus and her two children David and Sophia in Stockholm, where the cost of their after-school service for a month costs €150 in total.

"You're happy to pay your taxes because everyone is entitled to the same level of benefit because everyone contributes, you can contribute what you can. It's a very nice place to live as there is no judgement, there is no stigma. We pay 34% tax. It's the place to have kids, it's the place to have a family, you don't need a nanny," says the Cork woman.

And what of Ireland?

"When I touch down in Ireland it just feels like a part of my soul is complete again. I know it sounds cheesy, but seeing the green and knowing what's waiting for me; the culture and family. I've been gone so long but I never feel I've left," says Eileen.

Would she ever return?

"I would love it from a social side - knowing everyone has your back, but it would turn our lives upside down in terms of getting on the property ladder, commuting and schools. But I miss that cultural aspect where we take care of other people - but it's one of the sacrifices you have to make," she says.

Enda Murray: from Drogheda to London to Sydney

Enda Murray, 60, is gone from Ireland nearly 40 years - he's gone from making dollar-a-minute calls home at Christmas to having instant connectivity via social media.

"I listen to the Late Date on RTÉ radio - they play Phil Lynott and Rory Gallagher. I'd be listening to the sea area forecast in Belmullet while walking the dog," says Enda, who lives in Sydney, Australia.

"The way media and social media now is, it allows you to see where your family is going on their Sunday walk, you're very connected compared to my own experience when we first landed in Australia in 1996, when a phone call at Christmas would cost you a dollar a minute," he adds.

Enda Murray, who founded and nowadays runs the Irish Film Festival in Sydney.
Enda Murray, who founded and nowadays runs the Irish Film Festival in Sydney.

There is another facet to his emigrant experience - Australia wasn't his first port of call, London was. Originally from Drogheda, Co. Louth, Enda left Ireland in 1985 for London - there were several reasons behind his move.

"I had finished a degree at Trinity College in Dublin, it was a science degree and I wasn't very interested in it. I had also spent a summer in New York which gave me a taste for living abroad.

"I am also one of 14, and so I needed to get away to develop as a person. I found a large family was very suffocating so I wanted to get away. And in general, Ireland was pretty depressed in the mid-80s and London was the place to go," explains Enda.

It was here that the science graduate embraced the arts and began working in film and music - an exciting lifestyle that saw him study for an MA at the famous art college, St Martin's, for the "grand sum of £1 thanks to the socialist mayor of London at the time - Ken Livingstone," and live in very affordable accommodation.

"Initially it was quite fun, underground in London with film and music was interesting and it was cheap and there was a lot of squatting - that kind of lifestyle was possible back then," says Enda.

However, after 10 years in London he wanted out and that's when Australia appeared on the horizon.

"I wanted to move on and long-term it wasn't very attractive to stay in England long term," explains the filmmaker. 

The military campaign was going on in Northern Ireland and I was conscious of my accent.

His brother was living in Australia at the time so Enda went out to see him, a place he has stayed ever since and where he now has two teenage daughters. He works as an arthouse filmmaker and has a PhD in film, which allows him to teach as well. He also founded and runs the Irish Film Festival in Sydney.

One of the core reasons for starting the festival was to "facilitate" a connection with home. But would he ever return?

"I wouldn't permanently be far away from my children, but I do certainly think that I would enjoy spending time in Ireland. The last 18 months with Covid has made that more acute because I've realised the conservatism that exists in Australia and the xenophobia, it's a very socially conservative country, and Ireland seems more developed," says Enda.

Enda is neither nostalgic about Ireland, nor does he have one single "crystallised memory" of it because technology allows him to be both present in Ireland and Australia, but he does hold ambivalence about his native country - something he describes as the "emigrant's curse".

"As a migrant you're always going to be resentful of the place you left for pushing you out and at the same time you love because it's where you grew up and where you have formative memories of," says Enda, "and that's the emigrant's curse".

Fiona McEntee: from Dublin law student to Chicago lawyer and mum of two

The first time Fiona McEntee left Ireland she never imagined she would be "almost" gone for good. What began as a year abroad to Chicago during her law degree in UCD, turned into setting up home in Chicago, with a husband, two children and a thriving law practice of her own.

"The first time I left I never imagined I would be almost gone for good, it was more like: 'Let's just go to Chicago for a year'. It was my first time being away and when I got there I remember sitting on the back porch of the house and thinking: 'What have I done?'," remembers Fiona.

She was 20, and the year was 2002, just 12 months shy of the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The year in DePaul University, as well as a summer internship, gave her the bug for America.

"I felt in the US you could make your own dreams, and at home I never knew any lawyers or any judges, and in the US it felt like that didn't really matter," explains Fiona, who returned to Chicago in 2005 to start on her path of qualifying as a US lawyer.

"I never thought I wasn't coming back," says Fiona, adding that she met her husband on her second night back in 2005.

Fiona McEntee at her 2005 UCD graduation with her parents. "I would have thought my parents' age group were conservative before I left but our idea of conservative is a moderate democrat in the US."
Fiona McEntee at her 2005 UCD graduation with her parents. "I would have thought my parents' age group were conservative before I left but our idea of conservative is a moderate democrat in the US."

But the pivotal moment, the line in the sand where Chicago felt like it was becoming a permanent home occurred around a conversation with her brother Ray.

She had been a solo practitioner until she set up her own immigration law firm in late 2009, early 2010. Her brother was out visiting her with their parents and a conversation began around him moving to Chicago to help her start what would become a family business.

"I said: 'What if you moved out and helped grow the firm?' And then over the next few months we started talking and he came out. We work with a lot of professional athletes who are immigrating here and he's been phenomenal. Ray's married with kids now too," says Fiona.

Working in immigration has given her a front-row seat to American life, but it also has sharpened her to change at home.

"One thing that stands out in my mind is the political nature of the two countries. I would have thought my parents' age group were conservative before I left but our idea of conservative is a moderate democrat here," explains Fiona.

Fiona McEntee: "The first time I left I never imagined I would be almost gone for good."
Fiona McEntee: "The first time I left I never imagined I would be almost gone for good."

"In Ireland it's a given we have a social welfare system and access to third-level education but Bernie Sanders [Vermont Senator and former US presidential candidate] is considered crazy trying to get the rights we take as human rights," she adds. Ireland on the other hand, she notices change in the make-up of our population every time she returns home.

"I've noticed it's become a lot more multicultural and metropolitan. When it's gradual you probably don't notice it, but anytime I'm home I see more and more immigrant communities and the types of stores that you would maybe would have only seen in London," notes Fiona.

While Chicago is home for now, walking up to passport control in Dublin airport remains an "emotional" exercise.

"I always get so emotional, I love walking up with my passport and they (immigrant control staff) always welcome me home and they're always so friendly, or there's some banter about the bags at the belt that you wouldn't get in the US. Then my parents are always there to pick us up - that I will never take for granted," says Fiona.

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