Tuesday 21 November 2017

The reality of returning to Ireland after five years in Dubai: 'What on earth have I done?'

Erin McCafferty longed to come home during a five-year stint in Dubai. But the reality was not what she expected

Adjusting: Journalist Erin McCafferty is back in Dublin after living in Dubai for five years. Photo: El Keegan
Adjusting: Journalist Erin McCafferty is back in Dublin after living in Dubai for five years. Photo: El Keegan

Erin McCafferty

There have been many times in the last year and a half when I've thought to myself, what on earth have I done?

Times when I've looked at my pay cheque in disbelief at the amount left after tax; times when I've been shocked at the cost of parking in the city; times when I've walked the streets of Dublin and noted its rundown buildings, its peeling hoardings, and the dregs of the River Liffey at low tide.

I've had the heart torn out of me by the sight of two heroin addicts on a mattress on the street, their arms wrapped around each other like lovers.

I've turned on the radio, to hear of another family home being possessed, another CEO garnering a ridiculously high salary at the cost of the taxpayer, or another person bemoaning the state of the nation.

I've stood on the street in winter with the freezing rain coming down in sheets, and felt like crying, not just with the cold, but with the knowledge that this is now the norm.

'Ireland of the welcomes', 'The Emerald Isle', 'Ireland - come for a holiday and stay for a lifetime' - where were you when I needed you, after five years of living abroad?

Read more: 'Leaving Ireland is complicated but coming home to the same reasons that made you stay abroad isn't simple'

It's a reaction others that will no doubt have if the Irish Government succeeds in its latest plan to bring 100,000 emigrants home over the next two years. Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for the Diaspora, announced last May that the Government was trying to encourage people to come home in the first Global Irish Civic Forum, in Dublin.

As a result, the Government is planning to produce a newsletter highlighting work opportunities here. Qualifications and driving licences from abroad are to be recognised and affordable housing made accessible.

Just this month, a number of Irish recruiters have gone to both Perth and Melbourne, seeking to lure Irish workers home. There are vacancies they say, particularly in construction, healthcare and accountancy.

But the bottom line is, will 'generation emigration' - the new breed of emigrants in their 20s and early 30s who chose to live in a different country when the recession hit - be willing to forgo their new lifestyles?

In my case, I lived in Dubai for five years. When I first went there, it was not a common destination for Irish people. People here did, and still do, look at me with bewilderment when I mention the city, only nodding their head, when I clarify it with 'Middle East'.

Had I gone to New York, or London or Sydney - somewhere to which they could relate, the reaction would be different. As it is, they ask questions: "Did you have to wear a burka? Could you drive a car? Could you drink alcohol?"

Then there are those who, armed with a little information, want to judge me. "But what about its human rights record?" "Is it not all champagne and designer handbags?"

Read more: 'We're missing our grandchildren so much that we're moving to Australia to be with them'

Usually, I just sigh. I mean, where do I start to explain that yes, I'm aware Dubai is far from perfect, but what country offers a utopian society?

The Dubai I came to know was far from designer handbags and was characterised by quirky situations, unexpected kindness from strangers, and a wealth of culture.

As a journalist, I had my pick of well-paid, interesting and secure jobs. I made friends from all over the world, the type of people I could depend on if something went wrong.

I lived in an apartment beside the beach. I drove a car to work. My life was filled with interesting activities and travel. And it was sunny - albeit too hot in the summertime when temperatures could reach 50 degrees, but preferable to the rain of Ireland.

There is an optimism about Dubai - a 'can do' attitude of a city which is finding its feet with all the excitement of a toddler beginning to walk - which is infectious.

Read more: The pain of emigration most affects the mothers left behind

So, while I went for six months initially, the longer I stayed the more comfortable I became.

But it was never going to be my long-term destination. Besides, visas are work-based and even ex-pats have to leave once they retire from working there. Irish friends in Dubai cautioned me: "Are you sure you want to do this?" Others told me I was outright mad: "Sure, why would you leave, don't you have everything here?"

And I did have everything, except the familiarity and comfort of home. Besides, how hard could it be?

According to clinical psychologist Fiona O'Doherty, the experience of returning home varies from person to person and depends to some extent on why the person left in the first place and their reasons for returning.

Returning emigrants should manage their expectations of the country to which they are returning, she advises.

"Don't expect it to be the same as when you left. Your experience of Ireland will be different - this can be a good or a bad thing. You need to ask yourself some hard questions before you make the move.

"Look at what you have abroad and ask yourself what you are realistically likely to experience in Ireland, and then whether it is worth returning."

There will, she says, always be some period of adjustment. "The longer you are away, the harder it will be to come home. There is, however, nothing new about this experience. Irish people have been living abroad for periods of time and returned home, for generations."

The emotional adjustment of returning is just part of the challenge, however. While the Government talks about a forum on immigration and bandies around theories about how to entice people back, the reality is there is little available in terms of practical assistance.

And there are quite a few hurdles.

When it came to paying for my car insurance, for instance, I had to forgo my no claims bonus for the first year and pay the highest amount - simply because I had driven a rental car in Dubai and couldn't produce a letter from an insurance company. On top of this, I needed a new driving licence, as mine had expired and my UAE one was not recognised here.

Read more: Joy as two elderly brothers Frederick (78) and Jimmy (80) meet for the first time

With regard to tax, I was lucky enough to have lived in a tax-free country. But as Danielle Daly of Des Murnane and Associates points out, tax laws vary from country to country and it important to be aware of them.

"Depending on the country in which you reside, will either get a credit against your income or against your tax bill," she said. "If, however, you have spent part of year in Ireland part in another country, you need to apply for split year relief on your return to Ireland in order not to be taxed on your worldwide income.

"It depends too on whether you are working in a corporation or a trade," she adds. "Those in trade could be hit for tax on their return, so it's best to become aware of the particular laws before coming home."

Finding somewhere to live, in the midst of a housing crisis, was far from easy in Dublin, where rents, even a year and half ago, were already creeping up and the queue of people at showings was simply depressing. The cost of rent here has now almost reached the same as the city I left behind.

Read more: Return of the emigrant: 'California had lost the feeling of a prolonged holiday'

And everything else, from dry cleaning to taxis, grocery shopping to socialising, costs more in Dublin. This, despite the fact that salaries are higher in Dubai.

I was lucky to get a job within weeks of coming back to Ireland - but it was maternity cover which came to an end after the best part of a year. And whilst I had gained a lot of invaluable experience abroad to add to my CV, as a journalist, I've found it simply doesn't make a difference.

There just aren't that many full-time, secure jobs in the industry here. And if anything, they are more likely to go to those who have stayed and stuck it out.

Forget about working at something else - in my experience, the majority of Irish employers tend to be quite narrow-minded. Unless they see a myriad of specific qualifications for a particular role, they're unwilling to even give you an interview.

It's not all bad of course. I may moan about the lack of sunshine and the outrageous prices of living in this country, but I am still here - and far from miserable.

My family are still here. And I still have friends - some had married and started families and others ended relationships in my absence, but that was to be expected and I've been lucky enough to reconnect with them and make new friends since I've returned.

I cope like most returned immigrants: by looking at what I have in Ireland.

Read more: Great-great grandmother’s Irish hometown the perfect spot for American wedding

Every day I give thanks for what is good about this country - my family, my friends, the stunning scenery, the culture, the humour and the unique way of looking at the world that comes with being Irish.

But more than anything, it is little things I appreciate. The conversations with strangers in cafes, the bus man who let me off half my fare when I didn't have enough, the homeless guy who wolf whistled when I ran past him this morning.

And yes, Dublin is dirty and rundown in parts - but it is beautiful, historic and grandiose too. It has character and an energy unlike any other city.

With all its faults, it is still my home.

It is easier to see the negatives I've realised in what is familiar - and yet, there are negatives everywhere. It is all a state of mind.

And little by little, I am coming around to an Irish state of mind once more.

Homeward bound: how to make the transition smoothly

Car insurance

To insure your car on your return, obtain a letter from an insurance company in the country in which you resided, stating that you were insured for whatever period of time


Educate yourself about the tax laws in the country that you are leaving. Be aware that unless you reside for a whole year abroad, you may have to pay tax on your earnings in Ireland.

Driving Licence

You may need a new driving licence. Ireland accepts licences from EC countries however. What's more it has an exchange agreement with Australia, Gibraltar, Isle of Man, Japan, Jersey, South Africa, South Korea and Switzerland, which allows you to drive for a year here before getting an Irish licence.


Start looking for a job before you return. Many companies are actively recruiting from abroad at present.

Expect Change

Manage your expectations. You're not returning to the same country. Life here in Ireland will have continued without you.

Irish Independent

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