Tough economic times have seen thousands leave Northern Ireland to try and make a new life far away, but their exodus can mean heartache for those left behind. Karen Ireland reveals how she coped (just!) with the help of technology
It’s funny how history has a way of repeating itself. Growing up, one of my mum’s best friends lived on the north coast and we spent many years holidaying up there and paying day visits to what seemed at the time like a very faraway place with a never-ending car journey.
Fast forward about 15 years and I end up living up there and going to university in Coleraine, where on my first day I meet a new friend who was to become my closest friend and whose house in Portstewart I would begin to bring my three boys to every summer.
Aine Fegan and I became instant pals, very quickly starting sharing everything with each other and had numerous adventures during our three years at university.
We lived in the same house for two of those years, along with two other close friends, Rachel and Nicola. We were a formidable foursome.
Along with sharing a bedroom, Aine and I shared everything from clothes to the heartaches, joy, trials and tribulations which come with university life.
We even survived one summer working as waitresses in Butlins in Somerset and another working and travelling in Boston.
Upon graduating, Aine never left Portstewart, having met Seamy, the man she was to marry. After their wedding they settled in the seaside town, much to my envy.
Meanwhile, I married the proverbial boy next door and ended up moving back and settling down in my home town, the much less exciting Dromore. My husband Tom and I travelled up to “the Port” many weekends to spend time with Aine and her future husband Seamus Toman.
Of course, it goes without saying that when I got married 17 years ago, Aine was by my side as chief bridesmaid. Similarly, when she married a couple of years later I fulfilled the same role for her.
Pregnancies came and between us we managed to produce eight boys. Yes, not a pink babygro in sight.
So, we shared a lot and when my life was plunged into a sustained period of deep sorrow when first my mum, then my dad fell ill and died just a year apart, Aine proved a constant support.
During both those difficult periods I knew without any doubt that at some stage she would appear by my side to offer comfort and support.
That was the thing with our friendship — even though we lived some distance apart we always knew that if anything happened we could get to each other quickly and we would spend hours on the phone catching up in between visits.
This all changed however on July 4 this year when Aine and her husband and five sons left to start a new life in Australia.
I can still vividly recall the moment when she first told me a year ago that they were hoping to make the move.
I cried and cried and felt like I had been kicked in the stomach with a football.
After losing my parents, it seemed like I was facing another huge loss in my life. To be honest, I really couldn’t accept it.
I tried to put it out of my head until June this year when Aine told me that she had her departure date — they were leaving in five short weeks.
Obviously the weeks that followed for them were filled with packing up their home, leaving their jobs as teachers and saying goodbye to friends and family.
My time, however, was filled with reminiscing about all those years we had shared together, the good times and bad, and how I had taken for granted that Aine would always be up on the north coast and that we could have days out up there with all the boys playing together while we caught up on life over endless cups of tea.
How on earth was I going to say goodbye to my best friend of 20 years? How would I come to terms with the fact that she was no longer just up the road but now on the other side of the world.
Ironically — and typically — when the time came we had both done the same thing: written each other a letter to read when we’d left each other and bought each other a keepsake present.
In the end we said goodbye on the street. We had taken the kids for an ice-cream and instinctively we both decided it was better to make our farewell a quick one rather than a drawn out taking our leave.
Besides, Aine was already an emotional wreck after saying goodbye to her parents.
So, she drove off in her people carrier packed with her boys and half my heart to head off on the adventure of her life and this time I wasn’t going to be sharing it. I stood in the street with the tears tripping me, feeling so lost and lonely. I literally felt like part of my heart had been ripped out. I joke now that a huge chunk of it is living in Oz.
But a few weeks later my husband Tom surprised me by Face Timing Aine in the middle of the night our time and early morning for her. For those 20 minutes Aine and Seamy where back in our home and we were able to see around their new house and look at their boys in their new setting.
It was amazing and I marvelled at how modern technology meant that they could be back beside us in an instant.
I still miss Aine every day. During the summer when we went for our annual week on the north coast I really struggled to fill the time that we would normally have spent with Aine and her boys.
However, e-mail, Skype and, of course FaceTime, have helped and though the catch-ups are further apart we still fill in each other on everything and I feel privileged to be able to share in and see Aine’s new life take shape.
And I have realised something else — she will always be my best friend, no matter where in the world she is. Our bond is strong enough to survive physical separation.
Now, I just need to start saving for the air fares to take my boys on a trip ... very far away.
... and what’s it like to spend first Christmas away from home?
Better pay and her own place make Laura McGarrity glad she emigrated to New Zealand
This will be my first Christmas spent as far away from Northern Ireland as you can probably get. After the last few weeks at home, I’m sure there are a few of you thinking: “I can’t blame you.’’
It’s been nearly four months since I left our wee province, swapping NI for NZ, and I haven’t once looked back.
Seeing that the weather here in New Zealand can be as changeable as back home, we’re not planning a ‘barbie on the beach’ for our Christmas lunch.
Saying that, last weekend was my first time getting sunburnt in December.
I loved living in Belfast, being near my family and my friends, but my boyfriend and I decided to make the move down under in August. This was for one real reason: the chance of a better job. A familiar story, nowadays.
We love it here, the country is beautiful, the people are genuine and friendly and of course the wine is pretty decent. Most importantly we got what we came out here for; we now have better paying jobs.
That’s all well and good, but over the last few weeks, seeing pictures of Christmas parties back home and snow around the UK, it just feels strange to be having Christmas in the height of summer. Getting decent Christmas tree, as you can imagine, is impossible for this reason, hence why ours looks a little mal-nourished. NI summers are notorious for being disappointing, but one thing I think we do well is winter. The cold doesn’t stop us from having a great time at Christmas. The Kiwis think it’s mad when Chris, my boyfriend, talks about how his brothers usually go surfing on Christmas Eve. We’re made of tougher stuff.
This will be the first Christmas Chris and I will spend as a couple.
While we’ll miss our families, a major selling point of NZ, for us, is that we can actually afford to live in our own house. We are in our early-mid twenties and finally can be financially independent from our parents.
I'm never going to complain about a post-Christmas dinner walk on the beach, but I’ve scheduled a few Christmas Skype sessions home for the big day. And while Skype is great, it just doesn’t seem right not being able to see my niece on her first Christmas or having my annual Christmas dinner with my friends or even just eating loads of M&S party food.
There is always the option of a Christmas trip home next year, or they can all come to out here to me.