The silent grief of voluntary migration

A Personal Narrative on Emigration by Méabh O’Leary

Méabh is what is termed a ‘love migrant’ in a ‘mixed marriage’. She said ‘I do’ in ‘home’ sickness and in health to Bruce and to Australia. Managing a dual identity and the issues that arise over the lifecycle of migration led Méabh to be involved with ‘Griefline’ which is a confidential national telephone service responding to caller grief and all forms of loss across the lifespan. Callers often experience migratory grief, something that is not always identified or talked about openly. Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 7.52.17 pm.png

She is also a member of a Migrant Forum in Melbourne which gives its members, from 22 countries around the world, a voice and the opportunity to share the effect of their migration experiences on first, second and third generations at their monthly meetings. Through exploring societal norms and common migrant issues positive changes can be made in the community. The Migrant Forum discusses issues of identity and the individual migration experiences of the members and their families and communities in a gentle, respectful and confidential space. Issues of where do I belong, what is my culture and the reality of parenting and aging in a foreign land without the scaffolding of your own tribe and supported networks are some of the worries and fears migrants face, whilst recognising the opportunities, successes and newfound connections they share in their adopted home.

Méabh attends weekly Irish language classes in Melbourne and broadcasts from time to time on the Irish Hour at 3ZZZ Melbourne Ethnic Community Radio Station. She is a member of the Irish History Circle in Melbourne as well as The 1916 Relatives Association in Ireland. Méabh is currently writing two books on her maternal Grandparents’ revolutionary lives. They were both garrisoned in the GPO in 1916. She is a passionate and committed campaigner in the long-standing campaign to Save Moore Street in Dublin – the unique 1916 battlefield and centuries old street market that is under threat of demolition. Méabh was a speaker at BrigidFest in 2016 in Melbourne. She presented ‘Migratory Grief – The Silent Grief of Voluntary Migration’ at the Inaugural First Global Irish Diaspora Conference in Dublin in August 2017 as an Independent Scholar. We at Tinteán felt that her story was one that should be shared as widely as possible. She answered Tinteán’s questions about her work and experiences.


‘What made you put your thoughts on migration into a form for sharing at a conference?’

I felt that if I was to accept that I will remain in Australia till my dying day, I needed to reconcile my internal turmoil. I have a very strong Irish identity, and I wanted to be able to express it openly without feeling disloyal to my adopted country. I had suppressed it for nearly twenty years, as I believed it caused division and confusion particularly for my husband and children who believed I wanted to be in Ireland and not here in Australia with them which was not the case. I knew part of what I was feeling was nostalgia for times past. When I built up the courage to express my yearning openly I often felt friends (many Irish) and my own family could not relate at all to it and either dismissed me or tried to talk me out of feeling that way. I felt like a failed migrant that I had not truly assimilated after all these years even though I had integrated by all accounts.

I wanted to put a name to this feeling of displacement and connect with other people who experienced what I now consider are normal feelings that arise out of leaving a part of you behind, at least for those of us who feel this way. Not all migrants feel this way. I have missed out on many significant events in Ireland, and my friends and family in Ireland have missed out on family celebrations and tribulations here too. I have a beloved elderly mother and chronically ill sister in Ireland whom I think about daily. I celebrate and feel grateful for the great life I have created from arriving here single and solo with two suitcases and a few hundred pounds all those years ago. I have at times felt a little bit of an outsider in my own home here in Australia. The Irish cultural and historical background references and the nuances and familiarity of my own culture and language and people are what is missing. Sharing my story has brought resolution and integrating back into the Irish Community here.

Bonds that in the past sustained me and that I thought unbreakable have been broken with people back home. I made a choice not to always instigate communication after many years. I was always trying to remain relevant and present in people’s lives, yet they had moved on, and because I was not physically there, relationships faded away. Social media often compounded this feeling of not being a part of things and missing out. I felt it was I who was making all the effort to fit in around everyone else’s life with regard to visiting and keeping up with their lives: interest in my life in Australia was not really reciprocated. It takes the two parties in the relationship to understand the challenges of migration and its effect on long distance relationships if communication is not reciprocated and a person is physically absent.

I feel it is very important for those left behind to know that as well as opportunities and sunshine we migrants face many challenges creating a new life for ourselves that others would never had to have considered and that can take its emotional toll on us. Fear of expressing this makes it worse and can show up physical and mental health problems when we suppress it. When life deals us a curve ball or two that is when we really miss our home and family and friends. Life is life wherever you are with all its beauty and challenges. We have to get through things often on our own without that scaffolding of a familiar culture and family connections and trusted support networks which ultimately give us great resilience and strength of character but can be a battle. We often protect those at home and they protect us from the true story. They too are dealing with our loss as well as they can. A part of me had to accept that I was ‘out of sight and out of mind’ and go through that grief and decide not to become permanently angry and bitter about my situation or even take it personally. I have so much richness and diversity in my adopted home and I want to celebrate that. It was about finding the right balance. Finding my way back to the Irish language and community has fed my soul and spirit on a very deep level. It has been a lifeline that I am very grateful for and especially to all the people who keep our Irish culture and language alive so far away from home, many in a volunteer capacity and often at great personal sacrifice. Deirim raibh míle maith agaibh.

What do you hope will happen as a result of your story appearing in Tinteán?

I hope people will enjoy it and relate to it and maybe reflect on their own stories or those of their parents and grandparents who may have been migrants. It might help them understand them better. Maybe it might inspire children of migrants to ask them what it was like for them or encourage them to journal their own story. I hope it strikes a chord and shows that there is another side to voluntary migration for some. If any readers have a migrant story they would like to share they might like to write it down for their children and grandchildren to leave their legacy. If anyone would like to tell me their story I could perhaps invite them on to the Irish Radio Hour in the future. I hope people affected can resolve that push-pull feeling and nurture their Irishness whilst making a life and contribution in Australia and at the same time developing the Irish legacy here for the generations ahead who may want to tap into their rich Irish roots. I’d like people to remember all those emigrants who have gone before us worldwide and those who have suffered immense hardships. Those inspiring stories have paved the way for us in Australia where we as a nation are generally very well received and respected. I would also like to believe that the Irish Government recognises the emotional cost of migration. It is important for us to link in with Ireland and contribute back and not just financially when we return as tourists and consumers, and that barriers are removed should we or our children choose to return or spend time there. Important too that there are opportunities to be involved and connect from afar with work and study should we so choose and continued assistance to celebrate our Irishness abroad which we rely on. And there should be a definite plan to promote the Irish Language overseas and to make Australians aware that the Irish have our own native living language.

Méabh O’Leary is Dublin-born and bred. After graduating from the College of Marketing and Design in 1982 (BSc, Marketing Management, Trinity College) Méabh worked in London, Boston and Seville before arriving in Australia on a working holiday visa. She returned to Australia to take up permanent residency and met her Australian husband with whom she now resides in Melbourne along with their three daughters.

2 thoughts on “The silent grief of voluntary migration

  1. This is my story without the sunshine. I’m an Aussie who has lived in Ireland for 20 years. Everything Méabh has written resonates with me.

    • I am glad my migrant story resonated with you from an ‘opposite’ perspective. Thank you for reading it and commenting. Méabh

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