I returned during the pandemic but I have a new home abroad – and it’s where I belong
All through Covid, Jennifer McShane was surrounded by those who moved home; waved goodbye to city life for a fresh, quieter start, generally by the sea. Two years into a pandemic, she breathes a sigh of relief that she stuck to her path and made her home in a new country.
I was tortured with indecision; do I stay or do I go? I had just moved to London after a fractured shoulder and less than two weeks later, Covid hit. There was nothing for it; I would have to return home. Uncertainty and fear hung heavy in the air – any Irish friends I had did the same. I was glued to the Irish Abroad section of the Irish Times. There was a mix of opposing views but the general consensus was that Covid had changed the outlook of the dilemma many Irish emigrants face – where is “home?”
It’s a question I asked myself a lot as Lockdowns progressed. Home was everything I had known for the past three decades, so why still had I this gut-punch sensation that I wasn’t really living in the country I called home? In my early thirties, with mild Cerebral Palsy, I did – and still do – everything a bit slower than most.
I didn’t feel I had steeled myself up to move abroad in my twenties; I was still too afraid to fail. I know I couldn’t have done it then. I needed to grow up and be unafraid. So when my 30th birthday came and every friend and family member around me was getting married or engaged, I felt hollow and sad – and unfulfilled. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just meet someone and get married and settle and get the voices that said ‘you don’t belong here’ out of my head?
You don’t belong here
The trajectory in Ireland I feel goes something along the lines of: Travel in your twenties and settle down in your thirties. A way of life almost totally geared towards couples thanks to the sky-high rents and laughable, ever-rising house prices. If you want a different path, Ireland sadly hasn’t much to offer if, for example, you are unattached and looking for something more.
“I don’t mean to sound funny, Jen,” a wise friend mused when I told her. “But more of what exactly?”
I couldn’t quite answer her then. I think now it was more than what was expected of a woman in her thirties with a partial disability. That you would stay home, safe in your surroundings, and do what everyone else your age did. That has never interested me. Maybe I daydream too often, and watch too many movies (yes to both) but I felt to get a true sense of purpose, I would have to leave the cosy confines of my childhood home behind.
“No one achieves anything great being happy and cosy,” said Alex Honnold during his incredible Free Solo documentary. His words stayed with me.
And so I persisted. I saved 10k (not easy on a media salary!) and put my life on hold for two years to move abroad for a fresh start on my own – I didn’t date for fear that I’d disappoint a future partner because no one was stopping my dream, not easy as you leave your twenties behind – and chose the vibrant city of London to do it in.
Then Covid hit and I was crushed. I felt everything I’d worked for suspended in time.
Friends packed up rooms, smug headlines screamed how people had promptly decided a mass exodus from London (and also Dublin) was in order and how their lives were happier and better for it with sunshine and back gardens and coastal walks by the sea. There were many causes in London, at least: lower international migration thanks to both Brexit and the pandemic, and the increased possibility of home working meant you could work pretty much anywhere.
But I love a hectic, noisy city, drumming with the possibility of more. And that is London. Work hard (and boy, will it ever be hard) and you can do anything.
All around, people said it was crazy to stay in a smog-filled, packed-to-the-gills city with a sky-high cost of living when you could be at home with family and ‘saving a bit on rent’. But I was tired of looking at numbers. And saving became less important as Covid stalled life as we knew it. What good is it really, if we can’t live our lives?
I snuck back in as everyone made an exit, or so it seemed. I cried on the phone to my dad, though. I’d used every cent I had to get here and there were so many stops and starts: stitches in my face after a fall a week in, the fractured shoulder, job disappointments, a re-homed kitten which devastated me, and then, a year ago to top it all off, bed bugs. I was so stressed the weight fell off me and I lost a lot of my hair. The voice inside my head (and my dad, to be fair) said ‘Don’t give in. If you go home now, that’s it, there’s no going back.’ The same voice also told me that, in my early thirties, this was my chance to do it – the stakes wouldn’t be the same in 10 years.
So I stayed. I returned to London properly in May 2021 and got a fantastic job, made friends, settled into a (bedbug-free) flat, attended film festivals, West End shows, galleries, gigs, city parks and trees larger than I’ve ever seen, and fancy places way past my budget – I did more in the last 9 months than I felt I had in years at home. I put myself out there and made a choice to really live – to go for things instead of waiting for them to happen. It has been both the hardest and most joy-filled thing I’ve ever done and there are days I am euphoric and lonely in equal measure but that is living.
I’ll always love Ireland, but I breathe a sigh of relief – this is my home now. Whether I stay here for years or move on (the US is still a dream of mine), I did it. I tried. I didn’t take the safe route and made my escape back to the city.