Sunday 10 December 2017

Is staying put the new emigrating?

Like many Irish people, Carol Tobin has been urged to move to London for work since the recession began. Is the grass really greener across the water?

For me, there is the underlying fear of going over there and not 'making it'.
For me, there is the underlying fear of going over there and not 'making it'.
London's financial district is seen behind the Thames Barrier late afternoon December 1, 2013. REUTERS/Russell Boyce

Carol Tobin

Irish folk have a long standing tradition of emigrating to London. Most people go there for their career and the better opportunities a bigger city has to offer.

Some go there to be anonymous; they don't like the small town feel to Ireland and want to get lost in London's vastness.

Some are seeking fame and fortune, hoping to garner the respect that goes with having 'made it' over there, whatever 'it' is. Many go to get away from their families. Some go to prove a point. Some Irish are there on the run from their past and their present. We are attracted to the city because of its proximity and its opportunities – so near and yet so far. There are also more things (and more people) to do over there.

I never made the move to London even though it was part of my career plan for about five years. Anytime I plucked up the courage to move over, life got in the way. Or more likely, self-destruction got in the way. Part of me wonders if subconsciously I ruined my chances to depart because deep down I knew I didn't have the strength to survive life across the Irish Sea. I struggle at the best of times so maybe it was a matter of which country would be better to struggle in. Ireland is more forgiving in that respect.

"Go to London" is something I've heard so many times, as if it's as easy as finding sex on Tinder. I felt an incredible external pressure that to do well in media, showbiz or entertainment, going to London was the expected thing. In the eyes of many, being a small fish in a big pond is more exciting than the alternative.

For me, there is the underlying fear of going over there and not 'making it'.

For me, there is the underlying fear of going over there and not 'making it'. Having a big going away do in a fancy frock where I drunkenly rant on about my grand plans. Then standing on the departing ferry giving two fingers to the country as it fades into the distance only to return to the island with my dishevelled tail between my legs. It would be like begging an ex to take you back, even though you were the one that did the dumping.

As an anxious creature, public transport is responsible for half of my panic attacks. Anytime I imagined myself living over there I would see an emaciated terrified Carol soaked from rain and panic sweats scurrying up the steps of Tube stations and breathing into a brown paper bag. As you get older your fears solidify, so the longer I left it the scarier it became.

Not everyone who makes the leap enjoys it there. It can be a tough and unforgiving city, and many remark on the loneliness experienced there even though you're surrounded by so many beings. The thing with London is that it might be geographically close, but it may as well be a million miles away compared to Dublin in terms of vibe and of way of life.

But so many ex-pats love the city. There are people who are always destined for life in the Bigger Smoke. But others find it's a harsh, cruel place and end up missing Ireland desperately. I spoke to a few people who went to London but returned because they missed the Emerald Isle. Maybe I wanted to hear stories about the hardships over there just to ease any regrets that may form down the road in advance – a sort of prescient pat on the back for making the right decision.

Photographer and cobbler Emily O'Callaghan spent a year in London. "Dublin was like a warm hug. It immediately felt right when I came back." Even though she went to live with her brother and had a network of Irish friends already over there she still found it a lonely place to live.

"Meeting up with anyone over there was a huge debacle and you have to book your time in with friends."

She found the city impersonal. "When I'm in Ireland I would look at everyone's face walking down the street and smile, in London it's too dangerous to do that." When she found her feet, she moved into a house with two other girls who weren't from London. "Every night they would be on Skype crying to their parents about life in London. The rents are so high that most people are working to get by and don't have much quality of life." Emily didn't see the point in living like this. "I can understand those sacrifices if at the end of the day, you can look at yourself and say that you're better off here than in Dublin."

The moment she knew she had to return to Dublin was when she was in Angel tube station on a Friday evening and saw a man surrounded by paramedics with his head split open after falling down an escalator and landing on the concrete.

"I noticed that everyone passing him by just gave a glance and continued with their conversations and their laughing, so unaffected. If that man passed away, the last thing he would have heard was people laughing."

Actress Marie Claire Nolan didn't like the loneliness of London either and moved back in December after a four year stint.

"Even though I have great friends in London it was hard to meet up with them because of London's vastness and the hours I was working." During her last year there, when Marie Claire came back to Ireland for long weekends, she found it harder to return "home".

"I missed my family and friends in Dublin. I had a great job and was earning good money, but because London is so huge, there is a loneliness and coldness to it that you don't have in Dublin." It took her a few months to settle back in, but she doesn't regret moving back.

Writer and director Dave Tynan is back living in Dublin after spending three years in London. While he is not sure if he will be returning to the UK in the future, he is happy being back in Ireland. "I don't miss London at the moment. I'm enjoying being back." Dave is currently working on two funded short films here. He found that when he was living in London, all of his writing was based back in Ireland.

"I'm still trying to get my head around Dublin." Money and an hour and a half commute were factors in his return. He found London financially hard especially for the self-employed.

"I didn't know what broke was until I was in London. It was a new level of broke."

He feels that London can give you a massive kick. "London is full of people who don't care about you and it's all about how you respond to that or not. There are things about London that are unreasonable, and everyone accepts that." What's his favourite thing about Dublin? "It's the incidental chats you have throughout the day."

Laragh Strahan went to London for the anonymity after a break-up and after two years, ended up missing the intimacy of Dublin. "I love that you are constantly banging into people you know here." Her jobs in London helped her gain more experience for her thriving business Lolly and Cooks which she set up back in Dublin in the midst of the recession.

"London was great training for that. While you're never stuck for things to do there and I love going back to visit friends, I adore the smallness of Dublin."

It's comforting to hear that Ireland is adored, that people still want to remain here despite everything. The grass isn't always greener, and you don't have to hop the Irish Sea to further your career. After all, isn't it all about who you know? Being a medium-sized fish in a tiny pond and only having two degrees of separation sound like better odds to me.

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent

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