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Column: 'Some 90 years after my maternal grandparents left Ireland, I am returning'

My sense of humour and rose-tinted glasses are polished and ready, writes Matthew Conway.

Matthew Conway Irish American

SOME 90 YEARS after my maternal grandparents left Ireland, I am returning.

I feel justified in saying “returning” because Irish family and friends have always welcomed me “home”, and I am certain that my maternal grandparents (and my great-great-grandparents on my father’s side, who emigrated circa 1851), did not leave Ireland with joy in their hearts as they embarked on a one-way boat ride to the unknown of America.

I wonder if they gazed upon the port of Cobh wondering if they, or their descendants, might ever return?

Reclaiming the past

This is why, in 1991, recently graduated from university, I pursued my right to Irish nationality. I wanted to reclaim what my forebears had to surrender – although my maternal grandmother never became a US citizen, proudly retaining Irish nationality and periodically renewing her right to remain in the US.

I owe my fascination with Ireland to her: Mary O’Donnell from Dungloe, Co. Donegal, for the simple fact that she called me “Mattchew”. This confounded me. I asked my mother why. She explained that Grandma was not actually from Brooklyn, but from a place called Ireland, on the other side of the Atlantic. For a five year-old, this was amazing. I lived my earliest years not far from the New Jersey shore. I recall staring from the beach in summer, wondering if I could catch a glimpse of Ireland on the horizon.

I never gave much thought to, or fully understood, the advantages an Irish passport. But as time went by, it became increasingly clear to me that the aggravation of documenting my lineage for the Irish Consulate in New York City had been time well spent.

I would eventually find myself working in the international aid sector. Travel sometimes brought me to places where Americans were not appreciated. My Irish passport solved that. Fortunately, these were places where English was not people’s first or even second language, and my lack of a lilting brogue would not betray me.

Why now?

After 22 years working in international aid – 18 of them outside the US, with the United Nations – I have reached a crossroads: commit, and spend the remainder of my working days as an itinerant international civil servant, or listen to the inner voice that has been nagging at me to pursue my adolescent dream of living and working in Ireland.

With a vibrant economy, and my daughters not only entitled to Irish nationality through me, but still young enough to learn the Irish language, what better time than now?

Anticipation

I was fortunate to have had parents who understood my passion for Ireland, sending me to spend the summer of 1986 there, 17 years of age. I have returned numerous times since then, though nowhere near as often as I would have liked.

While many Americans of Irish descent get labelled by the Irish as “plastic Paddies” – and, oftentimes, not unjustly so – I think of myself as genuinely Irish-American. I have studied Ireland’s history, distant and recent. I have tried to learn the basics of the Irish language – a wee bit more than the cúpla focal. And I have tried to keep my rose-tinted glasses in check, to understand the realities of life in Ireland – although surely a bit of idealism couldn’t be so bad?

My “return” to Ireland will no doubt be full of challenges, some trivial, some substantial. Already, I have been unable to open a bank account from abroad. And I gather I shall have to pass a written and practical driving test, despite 30 years of experience. However, I intend to take it all in stride. My sense of humour and rose-tinted glasses are polished and ready.

Matthew Conway is a public communications specialist, arriving on Ireland’s fair shores in late June. You can follow his adventures at theirishamericanirishman.net.

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About the author:

Matthew Conway  / Irish American

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