IT takes courage to leave home and say goodbye to family, community, friends.
Equally though it takes bravery to return home after decades away.
Where will I live? What about a job? What if my friends don’t remember me the way I remember them?
These are the questions Grace Gerry faced when she decided to return to Donegal from Canada where she spent 23 years.
In a bid to share her experiences and offer guidance to those thinking about making the same transition, Grace, who lives in Laghey, recently set up the Facebook page ‘Canadians in Donegal’.
“I lived in Canada for 23 years so I have a shared interest in both there and Donegal. It’s nice to share stories and experiences and that’s really why I set up the page, because I felt I could use my experience to help others who have come from Canada,” said Grace.
Helen Gorman as she was when she left Donegal moved to England in her twenties in search of new opportunities. While in England she met her future husband, Canadian David Gerry, and together they moved to Vancouver Island.
There Grace was employed as a social worker before setting up her own counselling service, Graceful Solutions. And while having her own business was a dream come true, Donegal was rarely far from her thoughts.
“I came home every year and I was always sad when I left. But then the longer I was away in Canada the more I thought ‘I can’t go home, I have a marriage, foster children, I have a home here’.”
The key deciding factor in her coming back to Ireland was her mum.
“Mum was getting older, she passed away there at Christmas. But I kept telling myself that if I’m going to do this, if I am going to come home then I should do it while she’s alive. A phonecall about a death is a call no immigrant wants to get and it is what prompted me in the end up.”
But again, all the questions – What if I hate it? How will I cope with the Irish weather? What if my partner isn’t happy?
“It does take courage,” said Grace.
“It takes courage to go away in the first place but it takes courage to return too. You might think to yourself ‘how hard can it be’ but there are definitely challenges in coming back.”
Being a self employed counsellor meant Grace could bring her work back to Donegal with her. For husband David it was less straightforward as he had to come to terms with the climate, the geography and the lingo.
“David had a lot to get used to. For example when we in Ireland say ‘come here’ we don’t literally mean come here. Or when we say ‘say you later’, we don’t actually mean we will see you later’.
“It wasn’t easy but how he got around it was he joined local gardening clubs. David loves gardening so he joined a couple of groups and started making his own connections.”
It was not all plain sailing for Grace either. Even though she was born, brought up and educated in Donegal, she did struggle in the early days of her return.
“I felt like I didn’t quite fit in. I grew up here but when you are away a long time, it’s not the same and that is why I have sympathy for people from other countries. In some ways you fit but not in the same way as someone who has never left does.”
Three years on from her big decision and Grace admits that she is still settling back into the relatively slower pace of life in rural Donegal. As to whether her stay is permanent remains to be seen.
“I do get irritated when people ask me if I’m back for good because it is such a big and complex question. Settling in is a process and there are phases to it. For example in the beginning you are focused on finding somewhere to live, getting a car, opening a bank account, finding a job. It’s not a straightforward question and I think that is why I get a bit annoyed when people ask me.
“For me, I’m still settling in. I’ve a job now with the HSE which I love and which I’m very grateful for. But things are still unfolding and I don’t know yet. I do feel drawn to being here but I also miss Canada. I had a good life there and I still have a life there. I miss my friends and I miss the warmer weather. It’s still unfolding, that is how I would describe my situation.”
With some advice for those considering making the move, Grace Gerry says everyone’s experience is different. But a good place to start is the internet and Facebook pages like ‘Irish Expats Returning to Ireland’.
“Be prepared for things to be different than you expect. When you come to live here, treat it like a new country because things are done differently,” she said.
Also, take as much help as possible from family and when the time is right, get involved in the community.
“I was surprised how much volunteering helped me settle in,” said the Laghey native.
And finally, be prepared to put in the effort.
“Make a fair bit of effort and keep making that effort. And don’t take it personally if your friends don’t have as much time to spend with you as you would like. There will be times when you feel lonely, that is the reality of it.”
And while Grace has a home in two places, being away has given her a renewed appreciation for her home country.
“When I was younger I couldn’t wait to get away. But now that I’ve done a lot of travelling, I appreciate Ireland and Donegal more. If I hadn’t gone, I doubt if I would have that appreciation. It is great to be home.”