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Mary Feely: Quitting Ireland was the making of me

If you're one of the thousands of Irish people who plan to sidestep our horrendous recession by emigrating, you could well be filled with doubts and trepidation.

About 5,000 Irish people could be leaving the country each month by the end of next year to find work, predicts the Economic and Social Research Institute in its latest report.

It's frightening to tear yourself away from your own culture and embrace a new one -- one that challenges all the unspoken assumptions you grew up with. But once you weather the initial loneliness and sense of alienation, chances are you'll emerge with a new appreciation of all kinds of things.

You'll learn how large the world is, and what a small part of it is filled by Ireland. Yes, there are plenty of people out there who think England and Ireland are more or less the same place.

You'll realise that our own sad history can be trumped by that of people from other places. Once you've worked with someone who exists only because her Jewish father was sent to Leningrad from Ukraine by his family, who were all later murdered by German soldiers, you'll never feel sorry for yourself again.

Hard as it is to believe right now, you'll develop a new appreciation of the Irish way of doing things. Strange, but true.

In some Irish families, moving on has been our way of coping with problems at home for generations now.

I come from one of those families. One of my grandfathers moved to New York, where he ran a bar until he moved back to rural Ireland to get married. In time, his daughter -- my mother -- was forced to move to America to find work as a nurse. There she met and married my dad, also an Irish emigrant. They moved back to Ireland to raise their young family. But come the 1980s, and I headed to Chicago, looking for work.

At a family wedding held in Dublin 20 years ago, I looked around at all the many cousins of the bride and groom. I suddenly realised that only one of us was living in Ireland. The rest were scattered in Japan, Saudi Arabia, England and America.

Most of us eventually made our way back to Ireland, as I think most emigrants, in their heart of heart, still hope to do. I, for one, came back to Ireland with a new respect for the country I'd left in disgust at the age of 21.


I'd come to realise what a thorough education the Sisters of Mercy had given me here. I was shocked that some of my American colleagues had university degrees yet had never been forced to learn the basics of maths or science -- and certainly not a word of a foreign language. I'd learned that politicians are embarrassing all over the world, not just in Ireland. And I'd started to see that a certain kindness prevails in Irish life.

I was amazed by a radio interviewer who treated a mum on welfare with great respect as she explained how she managed on her limited budget.

On America radio, she would have been reviled as a parasite.

Keep your sense of humour in your new home. My American colleagues loved to mock my Irishisms, such as the time when I rashly told them I'd "thrown the head" over something.

Keep in touch with your old home -- it's so much easier now, thanks to the internet.

And remember, you may someday look back and say emigrating was the making of you.

I know I do.