During the long days of late spring and early summer, Jacqui Mooney stands at the back door of her pub and looks out across the quiet Irish countryside. The bright yellow gorse fills the ditches next to the road, and wildflowers grow along the borders of the pastureland. The only sounds in the clear air are the whistle of birds and the low growl of a tractor passing slowly back and forth across a field. There is something timeless and quintessentially Irish about the old pub and its pastoral setting, Mooney's solemn figure standing at the back door.
But inside the cozy sitting room at the back of the Kilbricken Inn, her walls and bookshelves are decorated with evidence of another life, from what feels like another lifetime -- photographs from the eight years Mooney, now 35, lived in Washington, D.C.
There's a picture of an Irish friend who's still in America. Mooney doesn't think he'll ever return to Ireland. There's another of a friend who lived with Mooney in a big shared house in Bethesda. She has a husband and children now and sends news of her life in D.C. by e-mail.
Remembering those years, Mooney gets emotional. Her friends from that time were like family to her. It's hard to accept that their lives have all taken such different paths, that she can't go back to the Bethesda house and find them making dinner, getting ready for a Friday night party.
Like so many Irish men and women who have left Ireland for New York, or Washington, or Boston, Mooney emigrated thinking she'd make a new home in America. During the gloomy, economically depressed days of the 1980s and early '90s, there weren't many options for young people. You left and you didn't look back.
For these emigrants, the concept of home took on new and intricately shaded meaning. There was always the complicated notion of mother Ireland, a romantic homeland you either escaped from or longed for -- frequently both. The exiled Irish learned to create home where they found it, with friends, through marriage and new, American families. Because there wasn't much choice, Irish emigrants like Jacqui Mooney made the best of where they were.
But then the tide in Ireland started to shift, and Jacqui Mooney, like thousands of other recent emigrants, decided to return, to a country that had been so suddenly and profoundly changed by prosperity that it was hardly recognizable to her.
Now she looks out across the countryside and sometimes wonders what home means, if the answer to that question will ever seem as simple as it did the day she left for America, when she was an adventuresome 20-year-old looking for nothing more than a job, some fun, a chance to make it in a new world.
"When Dublin's millennium was celebrated in 1988," wrote author Eamon Delaney in a recent issue of the new glossy monthly the Dubliner, "one wag remarked that it was like 'putting lipstick on a corpse,' so derelict and undernourished was the city."
Emigration was so much a part of the cultural fabric that a collective ritual of Irish life through the '80s and early '90s was the annual spate of Christmas interviews with emigrants returning from abroad for the holidays. The state broadcasting network, RTE, would set up cameras at all the major airports, recording the flood of Irish expats arriving for the holidays. The Irish economy was boosted by paychecks sent from America or Britain, families were scattered across the globe, and the national culture seemed to thrive on a bewitching combination of melancholy and good humor mixed with the creative juices of young citizens with a lot of time on their hands.
But by the mid-1990s the economy was starting to change. The harbingers of prosperity appeared like spring buds on leafing trees -- a proliferation of cranes and construction sites downtown; a growing number of ads for jobs at new high-tech companies in the Dublin suburbs; cappuccino bars; men in European suits talking earnestly into cell phones as they hurried down Grafton Street. In 1994, Ireland's gross domestic product grew 5.8 percent and the economic miracle was titled the "Celtic Tiger," in a nod to the emergent "Asian Tiger" economies.
The next year, GDP was up 9.5 percent and continued growing at about 8 percent through 2000. As news of the Celtic Tiger spread to Irish emigrants, unwilling exiles were suddenly faced with the possibility that a lifetime of expatriation wasn't inevitable. And emigrants began to return in droves. In 1997, for the first time in 200 years, the country had net immigration -- welcoming more people than it bade farewell. While some were Americans or Europeans wanting to make a home in Ireland or refugees and asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia or Africa, most were returning Irish emigrants. In 1999, the number of repatriated Irish rose to a record high of 25,900. Most had left in their teens or twenties, started families and careers in America and were now coming home.
The prosperous country they returned to was very different from the one they left behind, however. As foreign as the streets of Dublin seemed, with their new shops and restaurants, Irish society had changed, too. It had become more heterogeneous, more permissive, more confident. The changes are mostly good ones, returning emigrants agree, but disorienting just the same.
However, many of those who returned in the new prosperity, recently hired and saddled with large mortgages, are wondering if they'll be able to stay, now that the economy has slowed to a standstill. Against this backdrop of uncertainty, returned emigrants are grappling with the ways in which emigration changed the arcs of their lives, and the truth that trying to go home again, to double back and rewrite the narrative of a life, can be as hard as leaving in the first place.
Jacqui Mooney grew up in Portarlington, County Laois, a small town in the flat midlands. She had a traditional Irish upbringing -- her father owned a pub in nearby Abbeyleix, and she remembers that in her childhood home there was always something on the stove, always lots of people around, eating and talking. When she left for America in 1987, she wanted to see a different world, wanted to travel and meet people who had different backgrounds from her own.
Her first stop was Alexandria, where she lived with a friend of the family while she got used to America, to the endless shopping malls and supermarkets and restaurants. She felt giddy with the newness of everything. Then she got a job as a nanny with a family in Fairfax, but she was miserable being so far away from the city and moved to Bethesda, where she got another nanny job. It was in Bethesda that she really started to feel at home. The family she worked for became like her own family, and she began to make friends in the area. "I worked hard and I partied hard," she says, laughing. "I wanted to see everything."
When the family moved to Texas for a year, Mooney went with them, traveling all over the country. After returning from Texas, she moved into the big shared house in Bethesda with a group of other young Irish immigrants. She worked as a home health care aide, and enjoyed the camaraderie.
"We were so close," she says of the friends she lived with in Bethesda. "The two guys that lived in the house, they used to make dinner for us. Every Friday would come and we'd be going out to Ocean City or the beach. There's something about that closeness you'll never get back."
She didn't have a green card, and because she couldn't go back to Ireland to visit for fear she wouldn't be allowed back into the United States, she threw herself into her new life, assuming that, like so many Irish immigrants before her, she probably wouldn't go back.
But after seven years she finally got the coveted green card and immediately found herself pining for home. "It was like as long as I had to be there, it was great," she says. "But then I got the green card and I was miserable in the States."
Meanwhile, she was hearing about the booming Irish economy. On her first visit home, she ran into an old friend, Eddie Donohue, and they soon struck up a romance. He proved a draw back to Ireland, too.
So, in 1994, she returned, and found that life there was not as she had left it. "So much had gone on," she says. "There was no problem getting work in Dublin. Anything you wanted to do you could do. Wages were higher."
In Dublin, people didn't smile at her in the street, didn't seem to have the time to stop and chat anymore. One day, walking down Grafton Street, she saw a young woman bump into an older couple, knocking their bags to the ground, not even stopping to apologize.
"They don't take the time out anymore," she says, her warm brown eyes narrowing in disapproval.
If the welcome in Ireland's capital was a bit colder, her own expectations had set her up for further disappointment. "I was a little bit of a dreamer that it would be happy families, that there would be parties and all," she says now. It wasn't and there weren't. Her parents were having marital problems. Exiled, she'd pictured her homecoming as a glorious event. Now her friends and family had moved on in their lives, were busy with jobs and families.
Donohue wasn't sure he liked everything about the new Ireland either. One day she said to him, Let's move to Washington. He told her that was all right with him, they'd start making arrangements.
But then she found the Kilbricken Inn.
She got out of the car one rainy April day and saw the old pub, set down right at the intersection of two country lanes, and she knew it was what she'd been looking for. She liked the look of the place, its worn interior, the old Guinness sign in the window, the dark wood timbers crisscrossing the whitewashed exterior.
"From the day I came out here, I said, 'This is the place,' " she says. "This is the place I've been most happy since I've been home."
She and Donohue moved in and immediately set up housekeeping behind the pub. What they found was something more like what Mooney remembered of her childhood, neighbors who drop off baked goods in the morning, people she knows filling the pub almost every night, time and space to enjoy the good things in life, conversation with friends, a long chat on the road with a neighbor.
But even out here, there are signs of change -- big American-style vacation houses going up along the roads, more shops in local market towns like Portlaoise. "Even the farmers that come in, they've got their mobile phones."
Sitting in Dublin's rush-hour traffic each morning, Michael Poole watches the gridlocked commuters, the exasperated faces and creeping cars, and feels as though he's back in Washington, sitting in traffic on Rock Creek Parkway. All along the motorways reaching out like tentacles from Ireland's capital city are just-finished gas stations and mini-marts, the landscaping not completed. Ever-sprouting condominiums and planned neighborhoods match up with the new high-tech office parks. Everywhere he looks, he sees the shiny new cars, the BMWs and Volkswagens and Fords, purchased with the fruits of all that driving, all that laboring.
Dublin's Grafton Street is a busy pedestrian Main Street lined with shops and fast-food restaurants. Brand-new boutiques and high-end shoe stores fill narrow, winding side streets, their awnings bright as candy. In the slanting, early-morning light, young women dressed in Gucci and Chanel raise clattering metal shutters, open shop doors, and sweep the doorways as professionals stop at the new espresso bars for a pre-work caffeine fix.
At first glance there are familiar landmarks, the wood and gold-lettered exterior of Bewley's, promising hot tea and scones at a little wood table near the fire. There's the old White Horse Inn on Dublin's quays, where Poole's father, a lifelong barman, used to serve Brendan Behan in the glow of the streetlights by the docks. But modern art adorns the walls of Bewley's. And the White Horse is now a trendy modern bar, all pale wood and chrome, the windows reflecting the new Dublin docks. On Friday or Saturday nights, the city's young and beautiful stand at the bar, drinking cocktails or imported beers, only a few dark pints of Guinness around.
When Poole finished the Irish equivalent of high school in 1984, Ireland was -- for all intents and purposes -- a Third World country. He was raised on the poorer north side of the city, living in public housing. For Poole, it was a good place to grow up, always someone to play with, lots of surrogate parents around. His family was close, and he stayed involved in the Catholic Church through his adolescence.
When he left school, he wasn't given career counseling or advice about higher education possibilities. Instead, like many young Irish people his age, he was given directions to the nearest social welfare office and instructions for claiming his dole. Many, if not most, of his contemporaries emigrated for work. Welcome-home gatherings in the pub at Christmastime were mainstay traditions, as were the stories about living the good life across the ocean. After he started working at a desktop publishing firm in Dublin, he felt guilty when he talked about his job: So many of his friends hadn't found one. "There was almost a stigma attached to having a job," he says. "You felt bad about it." Income taxes were so high that he sometimes wondered if he wouldn't be better off on the dole. So he left.
Armed with a Morrison visa -- named for Irish American Congressman Bruce Morrison, who championed the American visa lottery for young Irish citizens -- he started out in Connecticut, where for the first time in his life he had an apartment of his own. He felt isolated in rural New England, though, and after a couple of years, he and an Irish friend moved to Washington. His first job was behind the bar at Ireland's Four Courts, an Arlington pub that is among a handful of D.C.-area gathering spots for young Irish immigrants. He liked the work. When he was offered the bar manager's job, his father couldn't believe it. In Ireland, his father had started out putting labels on beer bottles in the basement where the pub bottled its own beer and finally worked up to bar manager over the course of many years.
While some of the other bartenders at Ireland's Four Courts liked the job because it gave them an opportunity to meet women, Poole was quieter, shyer, and mostly kept to himself. Then a young woman from Georgia named Candy came in one night and seemed to want to talk to him. They started dating. Poole eventually left the bar and got a job with a desktop publishing company in D.C. He loved visiting Candy's family in Georgia, loved his life in America, and felt pretty settled. But there had always been a part of him that thought he'd get back to Ireland one day. When he heard about the improving economy, it began to seem possible.
In 1999, he and Candy got married in Virginia, then moved to Ireland, where they had a bigger ceremony and a reception for family and friends in Dublin. There was a lot to get used to. He was spending a lot of time in the car. Real estate prices had quadrupled in some Dublin neighborhoods, and in order to find a house they could afford, the Pooles had to go 39 miles outside the city to the little town of Kells. With traffic, their commute into Dublin takes 11/2 to two hours each way.
For Candy, now 31, the transition was tough. "When we met, I knew it was a possibility that he'd want to go back to Ireland," she says now, her Georgia drawl as thick as it was the day she arrived in Dublin. "But it was kind of like, 'Oh, that's in the future.' " The prospect was exciting to her -- she'd lived in Germany and liked the idea of living in Europe again.
Though she knew Ireland had changed while Michael was away, there were still some big adjustments. For the first 10 months they were in Ireland, the Pooles lived with Michael's parents. Candy didn't have a job at first and spent her days window-shopping on Grafton Street or watching American television shows like "Friends" and "ER." But then she found a job with an Irish government agency and began to settle into Irish life.
Michael Poole's business was good -- the desktop publishing company he works for was so busy that it had to move to bigger premises within seven months of his arrival. And it was nice to see friends and relatives working, getting ahead. But Candy had heard so much about Ireland from Michael that it was impossible for her not to notice that it was not exactly the way he remembered it.
"One of the reasons we wanted to move was because we were thinking about having kids. We thought it would be better family values here," she says. But she didn't see a noticeable difference between Ireland and America.
After their son, Ian, was born nine months ago, they began to talk more seriously about going back to America, to the small Georgia town where Candy grew up.
Michael Poole can't quite put into words this feeling he has, this sense that he was changed by his years in Washington and that he wants his son to experience some of the same things he discovered: an American attitude that anything is possible. "Kids in the U.S. have more confidence," he says. "That's not a bad thing." And that, in turn, has gotten him thinking about his own education. He got a good academic grounding in Ireland's state-funded schools, but not much in the way of self-esteem, he reflects.
Just after Ian's birth, Poole went down to the American Embassy to get him a U.S. passport to go with his Irish one. He wanted him to have both, just in case.
On the night before the boat or the plane whisked their sons and daughters away to a new life, Irish families often held what was called an American wake, to acknowledge the permanency of emigration, and the truth that the emigrant might never again set foot on Irish soil.
For the returned emigrants who are challenging the notion of emigration as a permanent condition, there is a heady sense of possibility, of being able to get back something their forebears lost forever. There is the weighing of choices, the increasing awareness of how many paths a life can take.
Over the last few months, Jacqui Mooney has started to worry about whether she and Donohue will be able to keep the pub. Business hasn't been very good. House prices are dropping, unemployment is up, people aren't going out the way they used to. She isn't sure where they will go if they sell. Her mother lives in Spain now. They could go there. And there's always the possibility of going back to Washington. She's been thinking about Washington a lot lately.
She hadn't been back for a visit until a few years ago. But when she did return, she found that she couldn't get back that remembered feeling. Even her friends who had stayed in Washington seemed different. They had children, spouses, new lives. "It wasn't the same," she says. "I grew up."
Now there's a part of her that thinks she'd like never to decide. "In an ideal world, you'd want to spend six months in America and six months here," she says. "There's no better place than America, but Ireland is home."
Like Mooney, Michael Poole dreams of a life spent half in Ireland and half in America. But he finds himself torn about which is really home. "Living in America, Ireland was home," he says. "But now, I don't know. I couldn't say easily which one is home. I could see settling into America."
He thinks for a moment. "But I'll always be Irish. I don't think you can take that out."
Sarah Taylor is a freelance writer who divides her time between Washington and Vermont