Grace Gerry pictured with her sister on a recent trek in Donegal
Grace Gerry pictured with her sister on a recent trek in Donegal

When I left Ireland for London in my twenties, I thought I would be back in a year. Little did I know it would be thirty years before I returned. I spent ten years in London and another twenty in Canada before I came back to Donegal three years ago.

If you’re curious what it’s been like to move back home, here is what I can tell you so far.

Coming back home has been great, and it’s been hard. I had created another life in Canada, so it wasn’t easy to uproot myself, my work, my home, and my Canadian husband. It has taken me three years to find my feet, and even now the transition isn’t over. Thirty years is a long time to be away.

Why did I come home? The obvious reason was my mother. She was getting older and it made sense to come home while she was still around. No emigrant wants to get that dreaded overseas phone call with bad news from home.

But on a deeper level, Donegal has been calling my name for a long time. I follow Irish, English and European news more closely than Canadian, and read the Irish newspapers online every evening. Even my recent DNA test results confirm I am 100% native to south Donegal, my childhood home. A GP here claims local women have a powerful bond with Donegal. He told me one day, “Show me someone with a foreign accent living in Donegal, and I’ll show you someone married to a Donegal woman!”

I am one of those Donegal women! My Canadian husband and I moved back to Donegal early 2017 with a plan to stay for 18 months. We enjoyed our time in Ireland but returned to Canada to reclaim our house after our tenants left.

Then I returned to Donegal to take up a job this time on my own. We experimented with living separately, my husband in Canada and me in Ireland. Right now we’re still living apart, and were spending as much time as possible together with trips back and forth, until Covid.

Coming back to live in Ireland is very different to spending a few weeks’ holiday, with all the joy and intensity that brings. It has been wonderful, but it has also brought some unexpected challenges:

1) Moving is a lot of work: We rented out our house in Canada while we were away, and there was a lot of extra work to prepare for this. We had to pack and clean it, find good tenants and hire a property manager. Then there was the paperwork: visas, health insurance, and car storage, for example. We searched for the right person to care for our large fruit and vegetable garden, and arranged with our neighbour to foster our beloved and spoilt cat. But finally it was all done. We packed our bags and flew into Belfast to begin our new adventure.

2) Arriving and settling into Ireland is also a lot of work: We spent our first few weeks in Donegal on start-up activities. We opened bank accounts, arranged car insurance, and searched around for the best phone and internet plans. It took us five months to find a suitable house to rent, a lot longer than we expected. Luckily, we could stay with my mother for those first months, which solved the problem of having nowhere to live.

3) Having a non-national husband adds complexity to moving back home: My husband is Canadian, had never lived in Ireland, and he much preferred the sunny weather of western Canada to Donegal’s rain. David didn’t know where local towns and places were, nor how systems worked in Ireland, so I became both his driver and his coach while he found his feet. He also didn’t understand local figures of speech, e.g. ‘batter on’ meant ‘carry on’. 

4) I didn’t fit in either: Even though I grew up in Donegal, I needed help to assimilate back into Irish life and I was surprised by that. My sister told me several times, ‘you’d never say or do that here’. I didn’t notice this when home for a holiday but coming home to live is a different thing. Living in another country had changed me more than I realised. I was more confident, less critical of myself and others and not so worried about what others thought. I was also prouder to be Irish.

5) It is hard for friends at home to understand what it’s like to move back: I had changed and so had my friends. We seemed to have less in common than we used to and I didn’t see them as much as I hoped. They were busy with their own lives, and sometimes I felt quite lonely. I remember feeling a bit lost about 6 months after I came back to Ireland, because I was losing touch with my Canadian friends before I had found my feet in Ireland. Luckily this passed, and since then I have made new friends. But the people who understood most about what it’s like to return tends to be other emigrants. They know what it’s like to belong in two places and not quite fit into either.

There are many wonderful things about being back:

1) You have the luxury of time: When you’re only home for two weeks’ holiday, there’s so little time and so much to do. But when you come back to live, suddenly you have the luxury of time. You can attend all those family events you used to miss out on, the parties, the weddings, the Christenings and the funerals. You are there for the craic instead of only hearing about it.

2) You appreciate the richness of community in Ireland that others take for granted: For example, when our car broke down in Donegal last year, no less than twelve people stopped to offer help. That would certainly not happen in England or Canada. I have tried to build community in Canada with some success. But it is nothing compared to the community here on our doorstep.

3) Ireland has changed for the better: When I left in the 80s I felt claustrophobic and couldn’t wait to get away. I felt there wasn’t room to breathe or be myself in Ireland. But Ireland is very different now and there is a lot more freedom.

4) Donegal is full of beautiful places: The National Geographic Traveller magazine calls Donegal, “the coolest place on the planet!” When I’m driving around Donegal county, the scenery is so beautiful that I often take a photo to post on Facebook to show Donegal off to my Canadian friends.

5) I love hearing the Donegal accent every day and being around people who speak like me: I was so used to hearing English or Canadian accents, that it’s still a novelty to hear the Donegal accent I missed when I was away. I also enjoy to hear the familiar Donegal names—Doherty, Gallagher, Brennan, Ward, Mc Fadden, and Mc Groary. And I keep bumping into people I know all the time, an experience I never had in Canada.

Tips if you are thinking of coming back:

1) Do lots of research before you arrive: Find out all you can about work, accommodation and visas, and try to set up as much as you can before you arrive. There is a great Facebook group called Irish Expats Returning to Ireland that offers advice on everything from driving licenses to shipping. Bring a no claims letter from your Canadian insurer when it’s time to arrange car insurance in Ireland.

2) It will differ from what you expect so be adaptable: Even though you are going home, treat it like going to a new country because in many ways it is. You will have lots of energy when you first arrive, so try new things and let go of old ways. Allow yourself to change and be open to making new friends. I found I was interested in activities like walking groups and cultural events that I might not have bothered about in the past.

3) Bring enough money to last for a few months. There is no such thing as too much money when you are making a huge move like this. And accept any help from family and friends. I found it helpful to have somewhere to stay at first and have the use of a relative’s car.

4) Get a job or volunteer: I had to volunteer for a few months with Health Service Executive (HSE) to fulfill the criteria for my social work registration and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. Having somewhere to go and a team to belong to was very grounding. It helped me acclimatize to being back and gave me a sense of identity and value.

5) Reach out and keep taking initiative: Don’t take it personally if your friends don’t see you as much as you expect. They may have made more effort when you were only home for a few weeks. But now you are back full time their lives are busy and there is no rush to see you. You may feel lonely sometimes and miss what you left, but it doesn’t mean you’ve made a terrible mistake. It’s all part of the process and that feeling will pass. You can always leave again, but give it time first. It may take longer than you think to really feel that Ireland is home again.  

Coming back is different for everyone. I’d love to hear your experiences. Are you glad you came back? Do you have regrets? Do you think you will stay?

Grace Gerry, Donegal, Ireland