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Moving to Australia has shown me emigration means relationships at home will inevitably degrade

If Irish emigrants are honest, it is fair enough that loved ones at home feel rejected

In a way, moving to Australia is a bit like a death. Friends instantly descend into mourning upon hearing of your decision to go. Some openly lament – to your face – that this will certainly mean the end of the friendship. They are presaging your physical absence.

“Oh,” you think, “but I’ve been in London for six years and we managed to stay in touch. Remember you went to America for a while and we didn’t see one another at all? And yet, here we still are. I helped name your dog, like.”

This can feel in the moment as though the people you love are more casual about the relationship than you are. Upon consideration, it seems more like a sort of anaesthetic pre-emptive detachment – they anticipate that you’ll both drift too far apart over time. Rather than watch the friendship wane and sicken slowly, they may deem it kinder to run at it with a cudgel. You’d like to at least give the long-distance thing a go before you take the friendship out behind the sheds and mercifully shoot it, but people cope with change differently.

As a set of ideas about an alternative way to live, Australia is a very familiar concept to Irish and British people (the former especially). Its appeal seems universally understood within our culture. It’s constantly presented as a place of escape and adventure. Irish young people migrate there in huge numbers. It is a sort of promised land fantasised about around tables in cramped, overcrowded pubs all over Ireland while wintry condensation sweats down the windows.


Australia is the sort of place where many of us would love to spend a few years if we could. Because think of the sun, the space, the higher standard of living. The sea and the wildlife and the endless vastness of the natural landscape. Broad horizons in every sense.

All of it is so different from what we’ve grown up with (Limerick has many merits, but wild cockatoos aren’t one of them) and yet Australians are quite like us in some ways. Broadly humble. Relaxed to an occasionally shocking degree. Generally friendly. Always ready with a joke, often one involving tricking someone into believing something that is patently false (the more ridiculous the better) so everyone can have a good laugh about it later. Their society reflects socioeconomic division like everywhere else, but is less driven by the particular flavour of class division of our British neighbours, making Australia a more comfortable environment for some Irish people than that traditional first stop of the Irish emigrant, London.

For so many Irish people, Australia is representative of, if not a new world, then an alien one. Familiar enough to prevent drastic culture shock upon moving, yet different enough to promise an entirely new way of life.

If you do make the move, however, despite every technological convenience of the last 15 years, there’s still a widely held belief that to go to Australia is in a profound metaphysical sense rather than merely a material one, to be “gone”. Gone away. Disappeared. Departed. Lost to those you leave behind.

Among themselves, relatives talk about you in the past tense. While distance liberates you from (arguably) the more tedious filial and familial responsibilities, for example – frequent meetings with a parent will not begin with a request that you look at this email to tell them whether or not it’s a scam (it is), and you’ll never have to help a sibling move house (why are they collecting DVDs – who collects DVDs?) it also renders you somewhat irrelevant. It ceases to occur to people to share their news with you until long after an engagement or a new job has lost its freshness. You’ll probably be the last to hear the new baby announcement because the time difference is enormous. They may not invite you to events (in fairness you’re probably not coming as you’re 35 hours away) or swap regular WhatsApp messages with you the way they would have before – even those friends you didn’t actually see often and who lived in other countries but which “felt” closer than Australia.

When I told my beloved uncle – the one who spends his spare time running up mountains and inviting people he just met to stay at the house for a week as though that’s normal and my aunt couldn’t possibly mind – that we were going to see what Australia was like, he was very supportive. He talked about how content everyone he’d known who moved there appeared to be. He mentioned the surfing (I can’t swim) and how their mountains are doubtless bigger and consequently harder to run up than Moylussa and then said, in a maudlin but utterly resigned tone: “But sure, we’ll never see you again so.”

It was a little heartbreaking to hear. They will, of course, see us again. Hopefully, this summer, but if Irish emigrants are honest – those who leave electively rather than of dire necessity – it is fair enough that those we love feel rejected. We are, ultimately, choosing the potential for a different life over the one we know now – the one they feature in, have contributed to and recognise.

When you go, to them you are gone. You have separated yourself. Entitlement to be included as though you never left departs with you. Accepting that can be hard. Leaving might be the very best possible choice for you but there is a cost. Even treasured relationships will degrade somewhat.

Emigration can make us feel both freer and less connected.