There and back again: an Irish tale

Irish emigration tale
Paramedic Gerard Ward gazes over the Abu Dhabi skyline

Filmmaker Cathal Kenna speaks to Adam Shaw about a new documentary about emigration – and returning

Life is full of huge decisions – encompassing everything from choosing a career to deciding on whether to have children or not. When it comes to big moments, fewer are more defining than opting to move to another country. Electing to return is equally as big, especially if you’ve been gone for 60 years.

So it is appropriate that a subject of this magnitude has been given a cinematic platform. It is also appropriate that it covers the Irish – the Kings and Queens of emigration – and takes a worldwide approach befitting the true scale of the diaspora.

Coming Home is a documentary by Dubliner and self-confessed homebird Cathal Kenna. It looks at the departing droves of Irish in the 1950s and 60s right through to those who have left in more recent times, with special focus on five cases in the UK, America, Australia and the Middle East.

Cathal’s inspiration was born out of from watching many of those close to him abandon their homeland in 2008 in the hope of finding greener pastures. And as an ‘outsider’, that is, someone who can view emigration from the position of having remained, the film achieves a sense of balance and well-roundedness.

Irish emigration tale
Gerard Ward and Roise Ni Ghrainne

“I have a tonne of ideas for films and this particular idea was at the forefront of my mind circa 2008- 2009,” he explained. “The main reason was a lot of my family and friends were emigrating at the time and we hadn’t had a period of mass emigration since the 1980s.


“I was seeing it firsthand through their experiences and it did have an impact on me personally. It was a big change for them in their own lives and it was also a big change for those of us who stayed in Ireland.

“You felt like a lot of people you knew just went all of a sudden and things are a little bit different when that happens.”

Cathal wasn’t alone in watching those around him leave, nor was his experience a particularly original phenomenon. What he did find in making the film was that the majority of people, though not all of them, left out of necessity.

Irish emigration tale
Tom O’Brien (r) and his wife, Evelyn (l), are leaving their family in Milton Keynes

“A lot of people spoke about growing up in Ireland during the 50s and 60s when there was huge poverty in the country at the time,” he said. “There was a scarcity of resources and opportunities and needing work was definitely the key driver for most of them leaving.”

An exception of sorts came in the Middle East. Here Cathal found that while a lot of people were moving for financial reasons, it was a case of the opportunities offered being too good to turn down rather than an essential measure. His case study, a paramedic who left Ireland for Abu Dhabi in 2013, headed for the desert because he saw it as a risk worth taking – an increasingly popular sentiment.

“There’re thousands of Irish teachers out in the Middle East, while the guy I was filming was a paramedic and you get a lot of them out there as well,” Cathal explained. “People get headhunted from around the world and the result is a really young, vibrant, international community including thousands of British and Irish citizens.”

However, Gerard Ward, the man who left Dublin for the UAE, admitted that he will re-swap his emirate for his Emerald Isle in the future as he will always consider it to be his home. And this attitude is the entire premise for the documentary; looking at why people choose to return home and their experiences along the way.


Family, homesickness and the concept of “coming full circle” were all cited as reasons for returning, but Cathal found that one overriding feature had the ability to pull people back.

“A lot of them referred to the craic – this sense of humour, camaraderie and fun that would seem to be quite unique to Ireland,” he said. “You can travel to other parts of the world but that uniqueness that we have here, it doesn’t seem to travel as well abroad and you don’t tend to find it as much overseas as well.

Irish emigration tale
Jimmy Hayes and Mary Lloyd are returning from the UK

“You could describe it as a cultural familiarity that people really miss. It manifests itself in a bond with people and you feel generally comfortable in your surroundings.” And while several will have returned to the craic, some were greeted with added surp

rises, though not all of them were positive. At one end of the scale, a man returned home and, in a fairytale turn of events, was reunited with his childhood sweetheart from Cork. At the other, a girl came back to Ireland with a great set-up in place but struggled to settle.

She now feels in “limbo” and is seriously considering returning to the country she’d moved back from. These instances typified Cathal’s findings during filming, the concept that people’s circumstances upon returning were extremely varied.


One thing which proved a consistent feature, however, was that the Ireland of today is not the same as the Ireland of 1950, 1980…or even 2008.

“The first thing that jumped out at me was the need to set realistic expectations before you head back because it can be a bit of a shock or a jolt to the system to those who moved back,” Cathal explained. “Even for those who were coming back regularly on holiday, they found that coming back to live was completely different to coming back to visit.

Irish emigration tale
Vera Finnegan is retired in Australia having moved there 50 years ago

“A lot of people also, when they’re preparing to move back, there’s a possibility that they’re expecting to come back to Ireland the way it used to be as opposed to how it’s moved on. That is also a big consideration people need to take into account.”

Coming Home is intended for everyone; after all, it covers emotions that several people have experienced and those which most people can appreciate. And although Cathal acknowledged that his film would of be particular interest to members of the Irish diaspora, this hardly leaves him with a shrinking audience. He noted how he had recently read that there are upwards of 400,000 Irish-born people living in the UK, along with 125,000 in the States and close to 100,000 in Australia.

While the documentary’s creator is unlikely to join the swathes who have departed Irish shores, his project has allowed him to explore his own attitudes towards emigration as well as opening his eyes as to what it’s like to be in an emigrant’s shoes.

Come the autumn, when the film is released, he hopes that many others will get to enjoy this same feeling.

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