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Home truths

Not everyone has Harry and Meghan’s ability to up sticks and move to the other side of the world, but emigration is still a way of life here. Leona O’Neill talks to six Northern Ireland people about why some stay and why some come back

Sarah Costello in Florida
Sarah Costello in Florida
Paul Nixon Egypt
Ronan Park and wife Lisa in Australia
Karen McCole in Australia

As the Duke and Duchess of Sussex set their sights on moving out of the country, these Northern Ireland people - some of whom went and stayed, others who went and came back - spell out the realities of emigrating.

East Belfast architect Ronan Park (38) moved to Australia, with his wife Lisa, 10 years ago. They moved home after missing the family bond as their own brood expanded.

"We left Northern Ireland in 2010," says Ronan. "We left because of our careers and the global crash in 2008. We were quite young at the time - we were in our twenties - and we were reasonably flexible. For us, it really wasn't that hard just to go.

"We intended to go away for six months, or a year, just to see how it went. We ended up staying seven years. We went to Sydney and worked as architects. We worked our way up there in a big company, one of the biggest and oldest practices in the country.

"We loved it. I think a big part of it is the climate and the outdoor lifestyle that you can have over there. It's lovely and warm, there is a lot of sunshine. That is nice and creates a different type of lifestyle - walking, sitting around in the sun, eating outside, going to the beach. You do get hooked."

Ronan says, for them, they felt the lifestyle couldn't go on forever and they eventually felt the draw from home.

"When you get married and have kids, things change in your life," he says. "Our daughter was born there and, whenever you have a child, your whole perspective changes.

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"As time went on, we started thinking did we really want her not knowing her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousin and for them not to know her. We would do FaceTime and it got harder and harder to be away.

"Sydney is an expensive city to live in also and with childcare it got harder still."

Ronan and his family (right) moved back home in 2016. He says he feels it was the best move for them.

"We don't regret moving back. I think sometimes, whenever the weather is grim and grey, you do think back to those times with the sun and the really positive outlook Australians have and that easygoing lifestyle. But we have no regrets.

"We have had two more children and it's just so lovely to see how happy the grandparents are seeing them."

Katie McBurney (34, centre right) is from Mayobridge in Co Down. She lives in Maroubra Beach in Sydney, Australia with her husband Darren. She says it is the "land of opportunities".

"We came to Australia together in October 2011 for one year and we are still here eight years later," she says. "My then-boyfriend, now husband, Darren, worked in construction and, due to the recession in Ireland, he had to spend his time working in England while I was still at home.

"We knew this wasn't the life for us. We didn't want to live in separate countries and have a long-distance relationship. He had been to Australia on holidays before and knew this was the place for us to start a new life.

"I come from the country and moving to a city is totally different. But, oddly, we adjusted quickly.

"Sydney is small and there is a large community of Irish people, in particular from our local areas and we have each others' back. These friends become your family.

"Life here is hard work, contrary to what others believe, and it can be lonely, but it is fun and the land of opportunities for those who want to work hard. It is not the place if you don't want to do that.

"It is expensive and, if you aren't willing to graft, it would be a challenge to live here. Australia is a commitment, but once you commit and you give it your all, you can achieve your dreams."

She adds: "We have had great success living in Australia; you become fiercely independent and there is so much to do. The outdoors and adventure life is easy here, mostly due to the weather, and both my husband and I love the outdoors.

"But I do miss home every day. I miss my parents, mummy's cooking, my gorgeous nieces and nephews, siblings, my entire family and friends. When I visit Ireland now, I appreciate it so much more. Thank God for FaceTime and WhatsApp."

Londonderry man Paul Nixon (48, above) lived in Egypt for eight years before moving home. He says he is ready to leave again.

"I left Derry in 2004 and pretty much stayed away from then," he says. "I ended up in Egypt for seven-and-a-half years, working in travel and tourism. It was Egypt's boom time, but then the markets crashed and a holiday became a luxury item.

"I did interior design, marketing, then ran a hotel and worked for an oil company. Then the revolution happened (in 2013) and I had to leave and come home because of the political unrest.

"Coming home was a huge culture shock for me. But, in 2013, my city was really standing on its own with City of Culture, so it was a good year to come home.

“I am now ready to go again. I can’t settle here. I have been away too long. I agree with Prince Harry and Meghan, because, whenever you are going to set up in a new country, you have a blank canvas; you are writing your own book.

“In a place like Northern Ireland, the opportunities are not here. You can make your opportunities if you go away. Here is quite parochial.

“I see why people would want to move and make that step where no one knows them. The best education you can have is to throw yourself into situations in another country.”

West Belfast woman Sarah Costello (34) has been living in Orlando, Florida with her partner Scott for the last 12 years. She runs an Irish dancing school and also tours America as a professional Irish dancer herself.

“I moved here in 2008 after accepting a job as an Irish dancer and musician at Walt Disney World,” she says. “It is very different. Florida doesn’t have seasons, so it’s always warm. It’s not good for my Irish skin, but the sun always puts me in a good mood.

“It was very lonely at first, as I didn’t know a single person in Florida when I arrived. Through the Irish Dance School I have built a community around me of Irish emigrants and those with Irish heritage and they have become my family away from home.

“America has proven to be the land of opportunity for me and I have worked harder than I ever knew I could to succeed in this country.”

But Sarah says it isn’t all plain sailing.

“There is no public transport here, which I hate. I don’t like the food. The bread and milk last for weeks, they don’t go stale. I can’t walk to the pub; you have to drive everywhere,” she admits.

“Orlando is so spread out. I can’t just turn up at a friend’s house with a bottle of wine. Americans tend to make appointments for everything; they are always so busy.

“Driving an automatic car on the other side of the road was also strange. No one understands me. Every time I say two they think I’m saying three. I try my hardest to talk slowly and even sometimes have to resort to putting on a fake American accent just to get what I’m trying to say across clearly. I also miss Blue WKD.”

But she says that there is a much better lifestyle available in the States.

“There are opportunities to make money and, of course, the weather. I can go to the Disney parks also, so that’s fun. My family and friends get to visit a really nice destination. Ireland will always be home, though.

“I miss home every second. I miss the smell. I miss my family, friends, not being able to teach my niece to Irish dance.

“I miss my parents and my six siblings. I miss the craic and nights out. I miss the fresh food. I miss an Irish fry, crisps and decent chocolate.”

Project manager Gary McDermott (37) left Derry in 2009 for a better life in Melbourne. He says Australia “loves the Irish” and he has been welcomed with open arms.

“I think the economy in Europe was the main reason I left,” he says. “I had done my certification of mortgage advisory back then, but recession hit. I saved and left.

“I was originally only going to Australia, not thinking I would last a year. I came out to Australia with a friend, but it wasn’t for him and he flew home after we spent four months in Brisbane. I flew to Melbourne and stayed.

“Life out here is fantastic. The economy is great, the lifestyle is great, the beaches are a short drive away. We’re spoilt for amazing golf courses here too and it’s very multi-cultural. People just love the Irish. They have a great sense of humour over here and life is very relaxed.”

Gary (left) adds: “Saying that, I miss my family every single day. That’s, without a doubt, a guilt I carry every day — not getting to see them and see my niece and nephew grow up.

“We have had some family health issues over the years, which has resulted in many trips back home, but WhatsApp helps a lot.

“I always try to come home once a year, especially at Christmas, as best I can.”

Karen McCole (33) lives in Derry with her son Culann. She lived in New Zealand before moving home several years ago. She’s now ready to go back again.

“I’m moving back to New Zealand,” she says. “I went to Australia as a backpacker in 2010 and then went to New Zealand to live in 2013. The people there are amazing, just like us here in Ireland, so welcoming and always up for a laugh and adventure.

“Life over there is great. There is a better climate and better lifestyle. It is really family-orientated, everything is about the kids.

“Most people are growing their own vegetables and are just living a healthier life. For me, it was more of a culture shock coming home, I had changed my way of thinking on so many things.”

She says she did miss home while away. She came home after having her son, but feels the need to go again now.

“When I was away, I missed the people and, at certain times, I would miss home — if there was a big event on, or a special family celebration,” she admits.

“The one thing I did miss is the community spirit of the people of Derry. I don’t think there’s anywhere else that rallies together like Derry people and it’s a special thing.

“I came home when I had a child to be with family and because I wanted him to grow up in our culture. For me, that’s speaking Irish and playing national sport and traditional instruments.

“I’m leaving again, because after a few years of being here, I’ve just realised that it really is a better way of life over there and I want to give my son the opportunity to live it.

“Ireland will always be home, but the people of New Zealand have treated me like one of their own since I got there and I’m happy to call it my second home.”

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