There are two types of ex-pats to be found in Houston. The first is the type who moves to America, seeks out his countrymen, forms a circle of friends and recreates the life and lifestyle left behind. Then there is the other type: me.
I’m the ex-pat who went out of her way to avoid anything that reminded her of home. It wasn’t because I was trying to get away from Ireland or pretend that I wasn’t Irish; trust me, the accent gives me away every time. My thinking was that I had moved to America, and if I really wanted to experience that, then I should completely immerse. I avoided Irish bars and events; I even ignored the St. Patrick’s Day parade year after year. Not connecting with the familiar forced me to confront living in Houston head-on. Certainly, moving to the nation’s fourth-largest city gave me a chance to begin again with a blank slate.
Recently, though, I have found my attitude changing, with a desire to connect to my heritage.
I can’t be sure if it’s the length of time spent away from Ireland — I just hit year seven — or if it’s having a child that has given me an urge to embrace a little piece of home. I do know one person I can blame, though: Eddie Kelleher.
Eddie teaches at the Irish Studies Center on the University of St. Thomas campus in Montrose, which is where we met about three years ago. It’s pretty common for me to get story pitches about all things Irish in my line of work, especially around St. Patrick’s Day, and Lori Gallagher, who heads up the center, invited me to do a story for the green holiday. Eddie was one of my interviewees. On occasion after that day, our paths would cross, but mostly, because I was avoiding all things Irish, they didn’t. Then one day, Eddie contacted me out of the blue, asking me to be part of a working committee called the Irish Network.
It’s a pretty new concept across the United States, the idea being to bring Irish people, Irish-Americans and those who have a love of Ireland together for networking purposes, cultural events and craic.
(It’s pronounced “crack,” craic is an Irish word for fun, just in case you were ever confused by an Irishman mentioning good craic!)
I went along to the first meeting, at the Irish Studies Center, and met Sharon, Paul, Bernie, Chris and Kate. They were from different parts of Ireland but mostly knew each other through other Irish groups in Houston, like the Houston Gaels, a football team that started out about three years ago (Google “Gaelic sports” if you are curious what that is).
I’ll admit I was skeptical about being part of a defined “Irish group”or having anything to do with Irish people in Houston, but bit by bit, my resistance faded.
At meetings, we sit around drinking tea, eating biscuits (cookies) and talking about where you can get the best Irish bacon and sausages in the city. We share a dry and sarcastic sense of humor, a common background and an understanding of what it’s like to be Irish living in Houston. Each time we host an event, a new person comes along and adds to the growing circle. I find myself telling people I meet that if they have any Irish blood, they should join us. Most importantly, the Network has given me the best of both worlds: living away from home but having a connection to Ireland.
The problem with being an ex-pat is that when you live somewhere long enough you start calling it home. But where you came from will always be home. So you say things like, “I’m going home, home,” indicating your birth country, not where you live now.
Recently, an Irish government minister (similar to a congressman here) came through town to mark St. Patrick’s Day, and he asked the group of us Irish Networkers (now 11 committee members), would we ever consider returning home? There was initial silence, because that’s a tough question to answer at the best of times. It’s one my own mother still asks me occasionally. For some, the answer is absolutely yes; Houston is merely a stop on the journey. For others, especially those who work in the oil and gas industry, it’s hard to know where they’ll be heading next.
And for me? Well, this is home. A piece of my heart will always belong in Ireland, but I’ve started a family here, and the opportunities I’ve been afforded can’t compare with what life would’ve been like in Ireland. I’ll always be an ex-pat in this city, but the fact that I and a million other foreign-born living in Houston are able to find a place to belong here, well, it goes a long way to making this city home.
This story was originally published in the Houston Chronicle on December 2, 2015.