Wednesday 19 December 2018

The real generation emigration? What it was like to leave Ireland 30 years ago

From left to right; Ken Tracey, Dr Eibhlin Donlon-Farry and Seamus Fagan
From left to right; Ken Tracey, Dr Eibhlin Donlon-Farry and Seamus Fagan
Denise Calnan

Denise Calnan

Saving for years to visit home, calling friends in Ireland for 85c a minute and keeping up to date with the Irish community abroad in weekly newspapers - speaks to three Irish emigrants who left Ireland in the 1980s, and still live in their adopted countries.

Could they be the real  Generation Emigration?

'I discovered what was going on in the Irish community in New York through newspapers'

Dr Eibhlin Donlon-Farry - emigrated to New York, USA in 1985

I would say that I probably come under the category of being a mix of being both an emigrant who sought adventure, but equally important to me was to find economic security for the profession I  was seeking at the time. I had a Bachelor in Social Science from UCD and then did a masters in social work in Hunter College, New York and a doctoral degree in Adelphi University, New York. I had completed an internship in the US during my degree that gave me a flavour for the field of clinical psychiatry.

I pretty much had a goal of eventually emigrating and being able to follow this through my education and profession, as well as an understanding that if I did stay in Ireland I would probably be unable to reach my goals.

Dr Eibhlin Donlon-Farry

I lived in the Bronx for a couple of years with a first cousin, my mother’s sister had emigrated to New York when she was just 17. I would say unexpected to me was some of the homesickness and the sense of feeling stuck on many levels as I had overstayed a visitor’s visa and so was illegal for four years. That certainly left me feeling kerbed in and unable to feel as free as I could travel-wise.

The lifestyle opened my world exponentially, it was an education in itself to be part of a very diverse environment with multiple opportunities. It really provided me with an enrichment I felt I could never have got in Ireland at the time. I certainly worked hard. I valued a broad range of diverse cultures, it was a melting pot in New York and an enriching experience. 

I discovered what was going on in the Irish community through newspapers like the Irish Voice and the Irish Echo, they were my pit-stops to find out what was going on at the time. I used to visit the emigration centre, it was called Tir na nOg at the time, it’s the Aisling Centre now. I asked what can I do to give back, to be involved. That’s how I maintained my connection with the Irish community.


'Thirty years ago, we used to have to save for five years to get the money to go back to Ireland'

Seamus Fagan - emigrated to Sydney, Australia in 1989

I was married to a South African-Indian woman so there were no prospects for us in South Africa because of apartheid and Ireland had an unemployment rate of 20pc. I was a qualified teacher and my wife was a nurse so Australia was the ideal location. I had a Bachelor of Arts form UCD, a Higher Diploma in Education from UCD and a masters in Applied Linguistics from the University of Durham. I was 31 leaving Ireland. 

I was very lucky. I arrived at the time when Teaching English as a Foreign Language had just taken off. I ended up as a lecturer and now I’m an Associate Professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia. I was in the right place at the right time.

You’ll laugh at our expectations. We had no family in Australia, my wife just had a distant cousin here so our idea of Australia came from the TV programmes Neighbours and Crocodile Dundee. We saw some similarities between Australia and South Africa, but it was a lot different than we expected.

Seamus Fagan

It was initially tough because we didn’t have a lot of capital and at the time houses prices were very high in Sydney, interest rates were at 17.5pc, but we managed to get a house and once you have one you’re alright. I set up the Irish Association in Rockhampton, and I’m involved in the one here in Newcastle. I have a strong affinity with Ireland, but equally I have a lot of Australia friends. One in four people in Australia were born outside of Australia, so it is very multiculture.

The difference between us and the later emigrants is the ability to travel home to Ireland - we used to have to save for five years to get the money to go back. Now I go back to Ireland regularly and most of my family visit here. Ireland is my spiritual home and it always will be.

Thirty years ago it was very expensive to keep in touch with home, now it’s virtually free.


'That first summer is just one of those things you'll never forget... I thought, 'god, I've just landed in one of the best places''

Ken Tracey - emigrated to Toronto, Canada in 1989

I emigrated on May 6, 1989, so it's coming up on 30 years. I emigrated for two simple reasons, one; I had been to Canada when I was 8 because my parents had siblings here, I always said I'd love to go back there, and two; I had finished school and the prospects in Ireland in the 80s weren't great. I had plans to come out and enjoy a little holiday when I got here first, but I ended up meeting someone through an aunt who offered me a job. My holiday went out the window and I started straight into work.

I worked for the Pepsico organisation for 10 years. I always wanted to do my own thing with my own business and working for a corporation gave me a good foundation. After 10 years I decided I would go out on my own and started a software company with a couple of friends. After that I decided to go back into the snack business and started my own company with another colleague, it's called Garavogue after the river at home in Sligo. It's very successful in Canada and we brought it and Broghies snacks home to Ireland in 2011, it was a logical step for me, I thought why not bring my success home.

Ken Tracey

Myself and a good friend, from Laois, Mark O'Brien host a radio show every Saturday morning at 11am EST for an hour. It was our good friend Eamon O'Loughlin's radio show 'Ceol Agus Craic', he had run it for 13 years. When he passed away suddenly five years ago, we didn't want that hour of radio for the Irish community to disappear. In his honour, we've kept the show going.

When I arrived, I wanted to stay in Canada for at least three years. I felt if I went home before then, it'd be too easy to go home. I had a good life in Ireland, I didn't have to leave, it was a choice I made.

I was only turning 22 when I arrived and I would say the lifestyle was excellent. When I woke up on May 7, there was a light snow falling and I thought, 'what have I done?'. By the time May 8 rolled around, the weather was phenomenal. That first summer is just one of those things you'll never forget, wonderful weather, I thought, 'god, I've just landed in one of the best places' and I knew the opportunity was amazing and the lifestyle was going to be good.

I had a good relationship with my whole family and I still have most of the letters we sent each other. We did have telephone but it was mostly letters, we enjoyed the tradition and it was amazing to receive a letter every week or second week, a bit of news from home, a bit of craic about what was going on. We used the telephone to call friends, but back then it was 85c a minute to make a call.

I always received a very positive reaction from people here, everybody I met, and it still happens now with younger people, the minute you'd tell someone you're from Ireland, they'd ask; 'What part? I'm Irish too, well my great-grandfather was Irish.'

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