‘I’ve watched men cry about their children emigrating’ Irish Times, Nov. 2014.

‘I’ve watched men cry about their children emigrating’

Finally the impact of loss on the people left behind by emigration is being recognised, writes Alan Hilliard.

Irish Times Generation Emigration. published 19th November 2014


There is something unnerving when you watch a grown man cry. He was in his mid-50s, dressed in overalls and work boots, and spoke to me through the kitchen window as he took a short break from his job. He tried his manly best to hide the tears and the choke in his voice in the mug of tea he was drinking from.

Tonight, he told me, he was bringing the second of his emigrant progeny to the airport. Though adults, these two people were still his “children”. They came home for a family wedding. There was great intensity in their homecoming but there was even greater intensity in their departure.

As families get smaller, the echoes of emigration grow louder in homes throughout the island. Parents will tell you that all the talk about modern communications easing the distance is farcical. Technology is more often a reminder of loss rather than a connector of presence.

The recently published research from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda), entitled The Emigration of Adult Children and the Mental Health of their Parents, is to be welcomed. Of the 2,911 parents involved, 361 saw at least one child emigrate. This amounts to one in eight parents, and is representative of the total population we are told. Put simply, the report tells us that emigration is not just about “them over there” but it is as much about “those left behind”.

It is interesting that the impact of emigration is being talked about now. The initial bright excitement of moving abroad is dimming and now the reality of it all is settling in. Weddings, births, deaths and birthdays are occurring, and as the years pass since emigration started to rise again in 2009, there are fewer opportunities for people to return home for these events. The phrase “maybe next year” is being heard more frequently.

Certainly emigration is not all about pain and loss, but neither is it all about opportunity and adventure. The dominant language of our political and economic systems has mechanisms that squeeze the human heart out of the migration narrative. Isn’t it extraordinary that these same institutions can tug at the heart when they speak the language of “diaspora”, but the heart of the person who emigrates is largely ignored?

During the American Civil War, soldiers were often allowed access to leave because they were diagnosed with “nostalgia”. This was another word for homesickness. The only cure for them was a brief holiday with their families. Both armies supported this measure because the soldiers were made to feel that they fought on behalf of their families.

This didn’t last. As World Wars came to pass it became impossible to repatriate those who were homesick. They were no longer fighting for families, but for a flag. Anyone who remembers M*A*S*H* may recall that visits home to the US by the characters were never recorded. Those in the camp were family. The army provided medical care, chaplains, entertainment and places for occasional R and R. Nostalgia and thoughts of family and friends at home were the enemy of order, stability and focus.

Our globalising world is benefiting from this evolving phenomenon. The market place does not want to hear about homesickness or nostalgia. Feelings of loss and depression are your own fault and it is unthinkable to blame it on a market driven world that wants you to mobile, flexible and loyal.

Multinationals go out of their way to create soft landings. Your office in London, Dublin, Sydney or Rio is decorated with the same colours and furnished with the same furnishings. You can “log-on” anywhere with the same password. These corporations provide “family” where you work. Sports facilities, classy canteens, socials and even places for you to nap fill the gap.

International students who are now the fodder of the globalising universities are told how wonderful the experience is, how travelling is a great opportunity to experience different cultures and become a citizen of the world. But nobody has said it is ok to be homesick; that it is normal to miss your parents, or feel sad when you miss your little sister’s birthday.

The concept of “migratory mourning”’ is one that is emerging in psychology today. It is most likely a clinical name for nostalgia and homesickness. This concept tells us that mourning occurs in those who go, those who are left behind, and those who return. The findings are only giving expression to what we always knew but what we continually find hard to face.

Emigration tears at the heart of families, communities and societies. Emigration – and especially the loss of our young – grinds a country down. We are ground down socially, culturally and economically because as every person emigrates we are losing possibilities for our future.

When the last of the islanders left the Blasket Islands in the 1950s, they said they could no longer stay because all their young folk had gone. Life, in the fullest sense of the word, was no longer sustainable.

The Tilda report is brave; it is saying what many have suppressed. Finally, people are being given permission to say they miss people they love. Finally, scientific research has acknowledged the impact of loss on the people who go and people who are left behind. Finally, loss that many can’t speak about is beginning to be recognised as significant and damaging. Finally, we can see the desire among emigrants to leave in search of a place where they can “be more” leaves others with an emptiness within themselves that may never be filled.

Fr Alan Hilliard is coordinator of the Chaplaincy Service in Dublin Institute of Technology, and a board member of the Irish Episcopal Council for Emigrants.

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