James Patrick Mahon: From Irish reporter in Chattanooga, to dismay at moving home, Mahon shares the emotional journey of a modern migrant

“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

Our time is a transient one, of joys and tragedies as Yeats himself knew so well. When the Celtic Tiger let out its final whimpers in 2008 and 2009 Ireland was an emptying ship. My generation, millennials we are called, the “Bebo Generation,” “The Italia 90 Babies” were in for a shock.

Our college degrees guaranteed no future; our homes would more than likely be overseas as we, the most educated and qualified generation in history, had to leave Irish shores. We went on J-1 summer visas, often never returning. Thousands and thousands went to Boston, New York and San Francisco with dole queues waiting if we came home.

Like so many others I chose to leave, refusing to be a burden on my parents in the small town of Gort in south Galway. Armed with three degrees and five-years experience in journalism in Autumn 2012 I ended up in Knoxville, TN. I worked as a nightclub DJ, cycling to and from the venues as couldn't afford a car. I was unable to find work as a journalist or contributer despite my Masters Degree and BBC training. I hosted fancy dress shows for college students at the University of Tennessee and Virginia Tech, unsure of what I was really doing.

My contemporaries worked in bars and building sites along the east coast querying why I went south in search of a career no other Irish immigrant ever wanted. Most employers refused to accept 12-month J-1 visa-holders and 180 TV stations later, coupled with applications to 300 radio stations in 18 states, I finally got an interview after three months of applying.

It looked like I was headed for Nebraska at the time, but I did not care where I went. I just wanted to work legally and grow in my field despite the fact that most TV stations were saying in no uncertain times “No Immigrants need apply.”

The racism and discrimination I experienced due to my being “foreign” grew and grew through 2012 into 2015. It was not the southerners but HR offices of conglomerates, fearful of those of us without an eagle on our passport.

Turning Nebraska down due to having no means to get there I applied for dozens more jobs before the Scenic City, in Chattanooga, gave me a shot in January 2013. I was lucky – I got five days a week reporting live at noon, six and seven for CBS affiliate, WDEF News 12, in a talented and welcoming TV news room.

We covered an area 500 square miles across four states, reporting on tornadoes, mass shootings, gang attacks and a domestic terrorist attack, an ocean away from the calm life in the west of Ireland.

I knew nothing of the “HillBilly” William of Orange connection, the Ulster Irish who settled in the Smoky Mountains, the passing down of trad music into blue grass and as the years went by the southern U.S states proved more and more like home than I could ever have imagined.

After my first year on TV down south I was fortunate to be given a TV series called “Through Irish Eyes” to highlight this southern culture. I reported on line dancing, Memphis Style BBQ, rodeo riding and lots of other stories for three full broadcast seasons to kind and welcoming viewers.

Sadly, societal cracks were forming. The emergence of the Black Lives Matter protests, the Occupy Movement and then the rhetoric of Donald Trump coupled with more and more extreme mass shootings made America seem less stable and more divided for millions, not just an outsider like me.

James on WDEF News 12.

James on WDEF News 12.

Fighting to switch my 12-month J-1 visa to a 2-year O-1, with Limerick native and lawyer James O'Malley and Clare Attorney Lorcan Shannon based out of New York, in summer 2013, became an ordeal. A government shutdown that Autumn slowed the whole process, leaving me unemployed and in limbo for weeks.

The O-1 visa is used for those in specialist areas like sport, film or arts. It finally came through and I got my old job back and regained my old camera and microphone on TV and returned to paying taxes and my American life. The O-1 lasted 2 years through the rest of 2013, 2014 and into summer 2015.

Yet I struggled to get it renewed despite trying everything I could to help the application. With the reality of being illegal looming come September, I had a choice to make. I could either stay on with my fellow 20 to 30-year-old Irish generation illegally and move up north to New York City or Boston and switch careers. I could try for a visa in Canada or Australia where thousands more of us NUI Galway, UCD and University College Cork alums ended up or bite the bullet and come home.

When you emigrate, you mentally accept that this is it, done, gone, boom, over. You never expect to come home, those who come home have failed or been deported or blown their chance in the eyes of many, the stigma of “sure it didn't work out did it, ah well.” The fear of coming back, I had paid thousands of dollars in emigration fees trying to stay legal and do the right thing, had worked for three years living a dream most 22 to 25 years old said could never be done.

“There won't be an Irish man in local TV news in America, it doesn't happen.”

“There won't be an Irish man in local TV news in America, it doesn't happen.”

But, I came home, flying into Dublin three years on in October 2015, colder weather, less money than when I started and with no prospects. Returning to an Island with nothing to offer job wise again.

Prior to this I had left in 2011 to go to New York and then to England to work and study for 15 months. Had come back after both times to no opportunities. This time I returned with the same education and hundreds of hours of live broadcasting experience and journalism awards to sign on the dole. Enda Kenny, our leader and Taoiseach campaigned that Christmas 2015 for my generation to come home for the holidays and to stay on and give back to Ireland. Our nation had nothing to give us except 144 euro a week in welfare payments. No matter how hard I tried in Ireland the roles just didn't exist, the employers weren't hiring.

I moved back in with my parents seven years after I had gone off to college, right after high school ended in 2008. Writing a book about a journey I got to be part of that stuttered from emigration to emigration and back and back and possibly gone again. I wrote “Through Irish Eyes” then, it became my job as I had none. Signing a publishing deal with Book Hub in Athenry, County Galway who explained that my story was the voyage of so many and had not been told yet to a bigger audience.

James' book “Through Irish Eyes.”

James' book “Through Irish Eyes.”

Yes, your generation is gone, your friends overseas, your dole check waiting and no replies to hundreds of Linkedin job applications, so you write. In Ireland we do depressing well, we do funerals, wakes, films and music in a dark and yet often funny way. I battered out 45,000 words on to my laptop and through the floods and winter of 2015 it began to take shape.

My friends came home that Christmas, then legally returning to their new lives in England, China and Canada, I waited while my green card was being filed in America knowing without that O-1 work visa I had no other choice but to go for the ultimate immigration status in a new separate application. A job posting for a journalism lecturer at the University of West Scotland presented itself on a newsfeed for media careers in the UK and I went for it, got offered the role and left Ireland behind again in January 2016.

The Book Hub editors and publishers stepped in and I began a new life again. Not in Tennessee, not in New York or England but in Scotland. An eternal emigrant it seemed but like us all, you do the best you can and keep trying in other countries because the opportunities are over there, not in the emerald isle.

I don't think we should feel hard done by, yes successive Irish governments have failed over a quarter of a million of us but other nations have not and have taken us in and given us chances. In spring 2016, America resurfaced, I got the green card, the 1% chance, luck was turning and had my ticket back. I can now live in the UK and America and hopefully give back to both regions, knowing Ireland is still my true home but like thousands more may never be my workplace.

Through Irish Eyes - James Patrick Mahon from Erinn Clancy on Vimeo.

For more information on James’ new book visit www.bookhubpublishing.com.

You can follow James via Twitter, Facebook or on his website www.jamespmahon.com.