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An emigration story: 'You always have home in your heart'

Story by Olga Aughey

Tuesday, 9th January, 2018 12:37pm

An emigration story: 'You always have home in your heart'

Sarah Jane and Eric

Olga Aughey

"For now we're content, but you have this wanderlust. One foot is on land and the other is in the ocean."

In March last year, Sarah Jane Gordon moved back home to Castlepollard in Westmeath after spending seven years in America, bringing her two children, son Kyran (5) and daughter Phoenix (3) and her American husband, Eric, with her.

"You're happy but you're always wondering what's on the other side of the fence. You see a plane in the sky and you're wondering where it's going to....I always had this thing though where I wanted to come back home. I think a lot of Irish people have that, you always have home in your heart," Sarah Jane, a native of Whitehall explains. But having moved to New York to live with her aunt, Sarah Jane found that a lot had changed since she last set foot in Ireland, not with the country itself necessarily, but with her.

"I had done speech and drama all throughout my youth, I did my Associate Diploma, and out of 12,000 people I won the Leinster School of Music and Drama Excellence award. And I was going to pursue teaching in drama because I had spent a year in Canada prior to that, and had come home and thought I wanted to stay home. But I had an aunt in New York and thought why not just go. So that's what I did."

Sarah Jane was 27 when she moved, walking the pavements of New York City in search of a job, when she met Eric in an Irish pub called The Dubliner in lower Manhattan.

"We met, and started going out and a little while after we got married in City Hall in New York," says Eric.

It was a whirlwind romance.

"We got married a couple of months after meeting, it was quick but we knew it was right, and nobody was surprised by it," he says. Eric grew up in New York, "the real New York, the country part, not the city, about nine and half hours outside the city," he explains. "I stayed there till I was 14 and then I moved with my dad to Ohio, played American football, wrestling, baseball, all the sports there. I was looking to join the Marine Corps and I got a call from my godfather saying 'Please don't do it', because it was the height of Afghanistan and Iraq. He suggested the Coast Guard and that was it for me. I knew what I wanted to do."

"We had our son in New York City and a year and half after that, we got transferred to Honolulu with Eric's job in November of 2012. We had our daughter Phoenix in Honolulu," continues Sarah Jane.
But when it came time for Eric to transfer again, the family knew something needed to change.

"We had the choice of staying there another year or moving again. If I stayed in Hawaii I would have had to reassign for three more years in the Coast Guard, and we didn't want to obligate three more years being 5,000 miles away from Sarah Jane's family, and half of that from mine. So we opted for a year's extension of my contract and we moved to Philadelphia. We knew we were going to come here to Ireland but we just didn't know when," says Eric.

"I had never been to Ireland and we needed to see if I liked it first, so we came home for a holiday in 2015, and I just fell in love with it. Clonakilty sausages, like butter in your mouth, that was the deciding factor," he says.

"We spent three weeks in Ireland, we went to Wicklow, Galway, Clare," adds Sarah Jane. "I had to keep saying to him, 'This is a holiday'. I mean it was probably the best holiday I've ever been on, but reality is different. But his mind was made up. We had both made our minds up but I was a little more hesitant about him leaving and having to give up his career."

By that point Eric had given ten years of his life to the Coast Guard, and if he stayed on for another ten years, he could retire after that time.

"It was my career, but with the US military you get a lot of political nonsense to put it nicely, and it was overbearing not just for me but for the entire family. Every three years you'd have to take the small kids out of school, and say to them, 'Ok, you'll probably never see those friends again', move to another school, and three years after that the same thing, again and again."

With the decision made, Sarah Jane found a home in Castlepollard close to her family, and moved with th the two children first, and was quickly followed by Eric who had to finish out his contract.

Culture Shock

"I thought when I came over that something would just go 'click', into place, and I'd be back. But instead I was just like, 'What have I done?' It was such a culture shock," she says. "I thought it would be so much different for me because I'm from here, but I got such a culture shock probably because I hadn't lived here in seven years and I'd lived other places that are just so much different to here.

"I forgot what it was like to walk down the street and bump into people you know - it was weird, especially when you're not used to it."

"We've lived in three huge cities in America and you walk down the street and never see the same face twice," says Eric. "You see the regular people that you work with or that live in your area, but you could see a different face every day, instead of the same people day in, day out," says Eric.

"Then there's the mindset here," Sarah Jane continues. "It's sort of, 'This is the way it is and this is the way it's going to stay'. Like when I told people I was moving back they told me I wouldn't get a job, but I said of course I will. If you're willing to do it, and it's the same with anything. Most of the time it's grand but some days are hard."

Sarah Jane started working in insurance, having worked in insurance in Dublin years ago, but then a job came up as a speech and drama tutor working with the Mullingar Arts Centre outreach programme, travelling to schools across the county. For Eric, finding work was a little more difficult.

"I got work in a factory for three months, but factory work just isn't for me, and so when that contract finished, I started doing fundraising for Doctors Without Borders, going door-to-door. It's something I'm passionate about but it's by direct debit and you have to ask people for their bank account details, and the door closes. And not just because of security reasons but because of everything that's happened throughout the world with charities," says

Eric who is now working in a store, but his long term goal is to join An Garda Siochána. "Because of my background in the military and all my weapons qualifications, it's something I want to do."
So what are the main differences between here and America?

"I found in America it was more family orientated, friends gathered more, now it's kids and taxis," says Sarah Jane. "In America you got out onto the porch, you had a laugh, the kids were there. I do find it more closed-door here than in America. It's new for Eric, but for me it feels like I've changed since I left Ireland. I was a crazy little girl when I left, but I don't think people know that I've changed. I don't really mind either way what they think, but I have definitely changed."

"The education system here is better without doubt," says Eric. "In America you're packed into a classroom with 60 other kids, whereas here, in Kyran's school, there's ten or 11 other kids in his class. Here it's personal, you're not just a number. In America all they care about is the stats and if you're below average they put you in a special class and they pack you away. Here the teacher knows everybody's name."

Sarah Jane: "The kids love it. If I ask them which do they prefer, they say Ireland. If someone asks me how long are we here for, I say to them simply, 'We're here for however long we're here'. We're not trees, we're not rooted to a place, so if you don't like a place you can always move again. But I'm so grateful for everything that's been given to us since we got here.

"I could be out of a job, we could have nothing, and you really have to be grateful for that and thankful for that. Ireland is grand, it really is. But it's great travelling and we want to bring the kids and show them different aspects of the world. We had a chance to do that when we flew from Hawaii to LA, instead of flying on to Philadelphia, we drove to Philadelphia, from the West Coast to the East Coast.

"We drove through Yellowstone, Grand Tito, Zion, Salt Lake City, Colorado in a Honda Civic, from the West Coast to the East Coast. It was a lot of fun. Now if we drive from Castlepollard to Mullingar we're all like....argh. And we did that in a smaller car!"

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