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Friday 9 June 2023 Dublin: 17°C
Shutterstock/Chamille White
Column An anatomy of one family’s emigration
A generation on, we’re still scattered across the US, England and Australia.

SIX OUT OF our family of ten now live abroad.

It began with Breda – the first of us to go. She was eighteen. She’d replied to an ad in the Irish Independent seeking student nurses at a London hospital. When we’d got word of her impending departure, being the blabbermouth that I was, I raced up to the haggard to break the news to my father. He paused for a few moments, stared into space and then he continued with what he was doing. Breda had done the Leaving Cert and then she’d finished a year-long secretarial course; neither had led to any openings anywhere in Ireland.

We must have known that leaving was always a likely option

I don’t remember anything being said about her going. I wasn’t party to any discussions my parents may or may not have had. Emigration is well-woven into the fabric of many working class Irish families. Our family was no exception.

We were getting by on a modest-sized farm in Westmeath and the Irish economy of the early 1980s wasn’t especially kind to farmers. I suspect the childrens’ allowance my mother collected every month was probably putting most of the food on the table. We’d grown up hearing about aunts and uncles, who, by all accounts were “doing well” in the UK and the States. Deep down, I suppose, we must’ve known that leaving was always a likely option.

Anyhow, one minute Breda was there and then she was gone. Of course, she dutifully mailed Ma the news of her new life in London. I remember those photographs of her posing like a tourist in front of familiar London landmarks. But, of course, she was no tourist. She wrote about the other students in her class who’d been lured from far-flung places like the Philippines, Malaysia and, of course, from all over Ireland. And I remember her coming home that first Christmas with presents for us all. Presents she could probably ill-afford, working as she was for a pittance in Thatcher’s Britain. She’s still there today, over three decades later, still nursing after all this time.

The following year, my brother Tom left for New York. Within days of his arrival he was working as a barman in the Bronx. His going wasn’t such a surprise. We’d known he’d go somewhere before too long. An extrovert, his optimism knew no bounds. During his Maynooth years he’d regaled us with fanciful tales whenever he came home on breaks. He was prone to recounting the shenanigans of some seminarians. Diocesan students, it turned out, were up for the craic as the next person. His going was inevitable and I don’t think Ma even blinked when he flew out from Dublin one morning at the start of summer with a briefcase and a backpack.

Perhaps we Irish are too quick to accept our lot in life

Where I grew up, almost everyone seemed to be going. But we weren’t regarded as some kind of generation emigration. There wasn’t any bravado surrounding our departures. Maybe it was more of a quiet resolve make a go of things abroad. Perhaps we’d refined the art of stoicism. Perhaps we Irish are too quick to accept our lot in life. And I don’t think we were signing up for some kind of Irish Diaspora. We were simply seeking some kind of better life; going seemed like a no-brainer. I can’t recall emigration getting much attention in the Irish media. Perhaps the violence in the North was garnering all the headlines.

I left in 1983, and two years later, Paddy, one of my younger brothers would join me in Melbourne. So in the space of a handful of years, four of us had gone. But we weren’t done yet. Three younger siblings, Mairead, Kevin and Liam would leave over the next decade. And invariably within the first week of arriving in our adopted countries, all of us were receiving regular pay packets – and regular aerograms from our mother.

We are leading parallel lives

A generation on, we’re still scattered across the US, England and Australia. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, we’ve become middle-aged and middle-class.

Social media hasn’t held us together. Maybe our family is an exception, but I suspect that no particular form of communication can ever compress the distance and the disparate time zones as the decades slide by. No doubt many of us even consume some of the same news. But for all that, we are leading parallel lives and the occasions when we can catch up face to face are few and far between. Cousins are yet to meet each other and our major milestones often slide past without much fuss or fanfare.

Three decades later I still call Australia home. You could do alot worse, I reckon.

Philip Lynch emigrated to Australia in 1983, trained as a nurse in Melbourne, and now lives in rural Tasmania. When he’s not nursing he works part-time as a barista in a cafe his wife and he own in the local town.

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