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Larry Donnelly: Thinking of all emigrants like me this Christmas - not getting back home is really tough

Not going to Boston for a week after Christmas Day this year will be tough, particularly when his 86-year-old dad is in a nursing home alone, says Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

MOST EMIGRANTS WILL affirm that, when they travel from their new home to their old one, they get a great buzz out of encountering the familiar sights and walking the streets they associate with where they were born and brought up.

Indeed, back in Boston, it was common to hear Irish people talking about the places and people they couldn’t wait to see on trips back and anticipating the chance to savour everything they couldn’t get in America.

The spirited inter-county slagging that usually ensued among them – “how could you want to go back to that kip?” – was invariably hilarious.

Those visits were typically planned either for high summer to escape the horrendous humidity or, most importantly, as early as possible in December right into the New Year.

I would have been a very wealthy young man if I had a dollar for each occasion I was told in a hostelry in the city’s Dorchester neighbourhood or downtown that “nothing compares to Christmas in Ireland.”

It was only after I relocated here permanently and stayed for Christmas that I grasped how significant these transatlantic pilgrimages were for the men and women who had left and for their families who had remained behind.

It would take a very cold-hearted person not to feel emotional at the annual scenes captured on television and radio at the country’s airports of bleary-eyed people arriving home from the four corners of the globe.

When there is an older parent or grandparent waiting gingerly in the terminal or a new-born baby is meeting Irish family members for the first time, it can easily provoke tears from onlookers who are total strangers.

A painfully different Christmas

Sadly, scenes like these have been rare this year. Since the onset of the pandemic, most Irish citizens abroad have abided the serious warnings and avoided coming home unless the circumstances were exceptional.

There has reportedly been a surge recently; some people really need to get home at this time of year for a variety of reasons. So long as they get tested for Covid-19 and comply with the public health recommendations, I am not going to judge them.

But I have to say that my heart is with those who are far away from here right now and wish they were getting to see their beloved family and friends, their cities, towns and rural areas and their favourite sporting facilities, pubs, restaurants and more.

It’s a special time that simply isn’t going to be all that special this year, no matter what. It may be “just one year,” but that’s easy to say.

My heart is with Ireland’s emigrants doing the best they can on Skype and Zoom because I am in the same boat as they are in 2020. Ordinarily, I spend the run-up with friends, neighbours and my immediate family, then the 25th watching 8-year-old Larry Óg rip open his loot from Santa with glee and attending Mass before going to my in-laws for dinner. It’s always lovely.

On Christmas night, however, my own excitement grows as I begin thinking about an impending week or so in Boston.

Obviously, this year won’t be the same. Nonetheless, I am sure that a similar longing for my birthplace will set in at some stage. In particular, the awareness that my 86-year-old father will be spending the festive season in a nursing home, primarily on his own, is extremely tough.

The heartbreaking distance

As all who have relations in nursing homes can attest, the current crisis has made what is already a less than ideal situation much worse.

The thoughts of an outbreak in facilities populated by vulnerable residents are terrifying and the consequent drastic limitation and even temporary elimination of visiting privileges are heart-wrenching.

Living a distance away from a loved one who is in a nursing home can be downright torturous following consideration of an entirely logical question: What’s the point of risking a lengthy journey back to have minimal or no contact with the person you most want to see?

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for my father. I wrote in this space and subsequently spoke on Ryan Tubridy’s RTÉ radio programme in 2018 about what it’s like to be losing a parent when you’ve made a new life in another country.

Dad had suffered a bad fall and his health prognosis was grim. I flew back immediately to be with him. When I had to return here, the rather dire facial expressions and non-committal answers to pointed questions put to medical professionals told me all I had to know. It was a terribly sad goodbye.

But Dad defied our gloomy expectations and kept going. Prior to the spread of coronavirus, his quality of life couldn’t be described as great. At least he had regular callers to cheer his mood, though, and was very well cared for mentally and physically.

Now, it’s merely an existence and actually painful to think about. I’d give anything to be getting on a plane and trying to lift his spirits every day I was there.

As well as that, it would be fantastic to see my brother, sister-in-law and nephew, as well as my good pals to share the banter and trade the insults and old stories that have helped sustain friendships for decades.

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Of course, we’d have to talk politics, too, and I’d resume my quest of endeavouring to figure out how on earth some of them could have voted again for Donald Trump. An atmospheric wintry stroll across Boston Common to the Public Garden wouldn’t go astray either.

I am confident that I speak for countless others in saying that, while things could certainly be worse and we should be mindful of how fortunate we are in numerous respects, not being able to get home this Christmas sucks.

“It’s just one year,” the justifiably trusted experts opine. I sincerely hope they’re correct. At any rate, I wish all readers a wonderful Christmas.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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