50,000 Irish undocumented won't be home for Christmas this year like countless other years, and with President Trump in power many families are in despair that their children may never come home again.
In the era of Skype calls, instant messages, and ‘Facetime’ on cell phones, the loneliness and mental health issues faced by the parents of emigrants have been described as a forgotten feature of modern Irish life.
As Ireland’s airports buzz with the sounds of joyous family reunions in the days before Christmas, the impact which emigration has on those who stay behind can be almost ignored at this emotional time of year.
Yet, for many Irish families, the joy of the Christmas reunion can be replaced by acute loneliness when adult children and grandchildren return to their new lives overseas in the New Year.
Loneliness can be even more acute for the parents whose adult children have put down new roots in countries such as the US, Canada, and Australia, who decide not to go home for the holidays.
Of course the fact that many of the children are long-term undocumented in the US and cannot come home makes the sense of loss and pain even greater. It is as if they have passed from their lives, especially as the parents age and find it hard to fly.
As the Irish economy continues to recover, the impact which mass emigration has had on elderly parents in terms of depressive symptoms and feelings of loneliness can often be overlooked.
Senator Mark Daly from Kerry a member of the Irish senate has long fought for greater action by the government to bring emigrants home and help to secure visas.
“This is an emotive and important issue for many families throughout Ireland who miss loved ones, 365 days of the year, and that presence is most profoundly felt at Christmas.
“We need a more concerted effort from the Government on this issue. The possibility of having loved ones home has been made impossible by a lack of action. I hope we are not in the same position, which we were last year and again find ourselves in this year, in Christmas 2017”
Kerry-based Senator Daly has long been an advocate of immigration reform in the US, working with Irish lobby groups to further the cause of undocumented Irish living in America.
Now the impact on families left behind has become evident. Two years ago, Professor Alan Barrett co-authored Trinity College Dublin’s Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) which showed that mothers, in particular, experienced depression and loneliness after their children moved abroad.
According to the TILDA data, mothers who had seen at least one child emigrate demonstrated increased mental health symptoms, after other factors such as retirement, widowhood, and physical health were controlled for.
“I don’t think this issue is in the public eye so much, now that there is a lot of talk about how the economy is beginning to recover,” Professor Barrett told IrishCentral this week.
“It seems to have gone off the radar since. One of the things we need to ask is whether improved technology can alleviate loneliness. Perhaps the Skype call to a son or daughter in the US or Australia can actually magnify loneliness around Christmas time.
“You can talk to your children and grandchildren, and see them, yet once you end the call you are acutely aware that they are so far away. It is a big issue for many people, especially for those who have grandchildren overseas.”
He said there had been a “mass exodus” of young Irish people in the late 1980s and again after the 2008 economic crash. Many of them never expected to put down roots or to stay away from Ireland for so long.
“Our report identified a group of older people, who stayed behind, who suffered a mental health difficulty as a result of the recession,” he said.
For Seamus (78), from County Galway, the strain of looking after a wife who has been ill for a couple of years has been magnified because all three of his adult children are currently living overseas. Two are living in the US and one began studying in the UK in September.
“It’s great that two of them are coming home for Christmas, so it will be nice to have them around the house over the holidays,” he said.
He misses the way his children used to pop home for weekends when they were based in other parts of Ireland. Now he relishes the regular Skype calls, but it’s not the same as meeting his adult children in person.
One of the findings of the 2014 TILDA report was that the parents of emigrants who had lived abroad themselves were less likely to be affected by seeing their children leave Ireland.
Marie and her husband, Joe, spent many years living and working in the United States before returning to County Clare to raise their children. All of their adult children were born in the US, but they attended school in Ireland.
When the economy collapsed at home, all of them were delighted to have US passports as they found it easy to return to the land of their birth.
She feels “a great sense of loss” at this time of year, especially when she doesn’t get to see her grandchildren over the Christmas holidays.
“We emigrated ourselves and we know from talking to our neighbors and friends that emigration is still very much a part of modern Ireland,” she said.
“My daughter was home with her children during the summer and we had a great time. We can make a Skype call twice a week, but it’s not the same as seeing them in person.
“It would be nice if they could pop in for a visit on a Sunday afternoon. At the same time, I wouldn’t try to hold them back. The most important thing is that they are happy.”
Loneliness is not just a concern for people living in rural areas. For Dubliner Leo (72), who is based in Balbriggan, a “perfect storm” of the breakup of his marriage, the loss of his job, and the death of his beloved pet dog led to an acute sense of loneliness and isolation.
He stopped leaving his house or engaging with people and began to rely on take-away food. It didn’t help that one of his two sons had emigrated to London almost two decades ago.
“I have been on my own since 2000, but it was the loss of my job which really got me into difficulty,” Leo told IrishCentral. “After my voluntary redundancy in 2004, I just went into a downward spiral.
“People think that it’s the poor oul’ bachelor farmers up the side of the mountains in the West of Ireland who suffer from loneliness. When the poor old’ dog died I just gave up and stayed at home.
“I stopped meeting people and I began to smoke like a trooper. I just didn’t want to go out any more and I didn’t want anyone coming to my door. I have the Public Health Nurse to thank for turning my life around five years ago.”
In our busier lives, older people living alone can feel they are a nuisance if they need assistance. They’re not.https://t.co/USyQj4edRE— ALONE Ireland (@ALONE_IRELAND) December 2, 2016
Leo’s nurse introduced him to a charity called ALONE, who pair elderly people living alone up with volunteers who visit them every week.
His five year friendship with his befriender, Eamonn, has transformed his life. Leo looks forward to Eamonn’s Tuesday visits and they regularly organise excursions to cafes.
They chat about sport, politics, and Dublin in the old days and Leo credits the weekly visits with restoring his confidence and giving him the motivation to get out and meet people again.
“The whole idea is so simple and it just gave me my confidence back,” he said. “Even just getting the house clean and tidy for Eamonn’s visit, it’s something I look forward to now every week.”
Leo is looking forward to welcoming his London-based son home for Christmas and, thanks to ALONE, he says the acute loneliness he experienced six or seven years ago has completely disappeared.
“My wife used to organise our social life when I was married and I realised that the lads I saw in the pub never met me outside the pub,” he said.
“I would say 90% of men living alone can cope, but 10% of us cannot and need some sort of support. Only for ALONE, I don’t know where I would be today,” added Leo, one of the stars of a short video which Alone released this month to thank their team of volunteers.
The CEO of ALONE, Sean Moynihan, said that older people had a right to live with dignity. He urged the parents of emigrants to seek out the care and support they need, from the comfort of their own homes.
“Over the winter period calls for support dramatically increase and loneliness is one of the main issues that older people face. Many older people think that by asking for help and support they are bothering people,” he said.
“We want them to know that they deserve more than a little help and support and they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for it. For those who may feel that they have no-one to ask for help, ALONE offers supports and services that can link older people back in with their community and neighbors.”
Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. You can find his Facebook page here