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The Irish emigration effect: 'We're missing our grandchildren so much, we're moving to Australia to be with them'

Emigration has many effects, but for grandparents who rarely get to see their grandkids it can be devastating

By John Meagher

Janet Bennis remembers the moment as though it were yesterday. She arrived home from work last January and started crying.

She was thinking about her four children and four granddaughters who live 12,000 miles away in Brisbane, Australia, and how being so far away from them has made her life a misery. The separation gnaws at her husband, Eugene, all the time too and it was he who suggested that they pack in their lives in Ireland and emigrate to Australia in order to be with them.

"It was consuming me, especially in the weeks leading up to Christmas each year," Janet says. "We have a good life in Limerick and I work in a job I love, but I was finding it increasingly hard to cope with not just having my children so far away, but my grandchildren too.

"We were missing out on all the little things that make life special like hearing them say their first words or seeing them take their first steps.

"And, as a mother, I wanted to be there for [eldest daughter] Jennifer when she was pregnant but I wasn't because she was in Australia and I was here. I never got to feel Saoirse or Teegan kick while in the womb. So, everything just came to a head and we realised that the only thing that would make us happy was to sell our house and move to Australia. We'll see our grandchildren grow up that way."

Emigration is tough on all family members, and it is especially tough on parents. But what's not often talked about as much is the impact it has on grandparents whose grandchildren have emigrated or whose children go on to have children in a distant country. Christmas - that time that celebrates children more than any other part of the year - can be especially difficult for grandparents.

"It's the toughest time of the year by far," says Janet. "This will be our 12th Christmas where we haven't been together and that's really tough. It's got even worse since the grandchildren were born because you want to see their reaction to the presents and so on. It's a magical time of the year, but it is very hard for those left behind."

Eamon Timmins of the Age Action Ireland charity says emigration can have a profound effect on grandparents. "We hear about it a lot," he says. "Obviously, people think about the parents but it can be really hard on the grandparents too because they want to be a part of their grandchildren's growing up and if the grandchildren live outside Ireland, years can go by before they see them.

"Christmas can really heighten that loss as well, not least because so much of the imagery surrounding the period is about all the generations spending Christmas together."

Madeline Quann, from Skerries, Dublin, may have 11 grandchildren but the fact that two of them live in the US is a cause of pain for her. "The youngest, Aoife, was born this year and I haven't met her yet," she says. "And, to be honest, I don't know when I'm going to be able to meet her because it's so expensive for Gareth [her son] and his family to fly home to Ireland and I have MS so it's not easy for me to travel. As a grandmother, you want to be able to hold your grandchildren and watch them grow and there will be tears on Christmas Eve when I think about it."

Christmas 2013 was a much happier time for the Quann family when they won the 'Bring Them Home' competition sponsored by Supermac's. They were invited on The Late Late Show where they thought they were in the running to win a trip to see Gareth and family in America, but it turned out that it was Gareth, his wife Jackie and daughter Sadhbh who had been flown home to spend Christmas in Ireland.

"It was one of the happiest moments of my life," Madeline says. "It was my first time to meet Sadhbh and we made the most of every moment that Christmas because I didn't know when I would get to see her again."

Psychotherapist Trish Murphy says she often sees grandparents who are struggling to cope with their grandchildren living abroad.

"Sometimes grandparents find that they have to put on a brave face when they are feeling really upset inside," she says. "It can be particularly hard on those who see their peers being able to spend time with their grandparents when they are unable to."

Emigration also hampers the opportunity to make amends for mistakes they made with their own children. "Often grandparents get the opportunity to treat their grandkids better than they treated their own children and that chance is gone if they're living abroad," she says.

Eamon Timmins says technological advances such as Skype have allowed grandparents to stay in regular contact with their grandchildren. "We say to them to get up to speed with technology because it can really make a difference in helping them to feel part of their children's and grandchildren's lives," he says. "It's great too that it costs them nothing because it wasn't so long ago when a phone call to somewhere like Australia was prohibitively expensive."

But Skype can be a mixed blessing according to Trish Murphy. "It does provide a real connection in that you can feel that you're there with your loved ones, but it can heighten the sense of distance too, because although it's almost as if you can reach out and touch, you can't."

It's something Janet Bennis can relate to only too well. "Part of me hates Skype," she says. "You're so near - and yet so very far away. Eugene finds it much better. He lost his job six years ago so getting to Skype, his grandchildren can be the highlight of the day. I'll come home from work and he'll tell me how they were and what they said and it means a lot to him. But for me, it teases you because you want to be able to kiss and cuddle your grandchildren."

The Bennis's were fortunate that, unlike so many others, their house was not in negative equity and they were able to sell it for a modest profit. But that money will go to paying for their Australian visas which have yet to be granted to them. "There's a lot of red tape," Janet says, "and an awful lot to do before we leave Ireland, but we're ready for it. We will work at anything once we get to Australia and, of course, we'll be able to do as much babysitting as is needed.

"It will be sad to leave my own family here, but we're young enough [Janet is 53, Eugene 58] to be able to make a move like this and we didn't want to look back in years from now and regret not doing it."

Madeline Quann, meanwhile, is "resigned" to the fact that two of her grandchildren will always be living on the other side of the Atlantic. "I wish Gareth, [American wife] Jackie and the girls were here in Ireland but he loves America and Boston is home for him now. He's happy there and so are the children and that gives me comfort, but there are so many times where I wish they were around."

Madeline's mother - Gareth's granny - died after he had moved to the US so they had seen very little of each other in the latter stages of her life. "Her father had served in the British army so she had spent much of her early life in India," Madeline says. "She had wanted him to see the world. I do too but it doesn't make being apart from him or my granddaughters any easier."

Source: Indo Review

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