Maybe now I can start thinking about coming home
When I filled out my UCAS form in 2008, Manchester was the only place I was really interested in. I couldn’t say exactly why, but the vibrancy and variety of the city marketed through University of Manchester’s slick brochure content was enough to hook me in. I was bored of Derry and Donegal and wanted to spread my wings and learn about myself. 10 years later, I have doubt that my instincts were correct.
I wasn’t overly enamoured with Derry, Donegal or Northern Ireland before I left. There seemed to be a perpetual feeling of well-meaning but ultimately limited scope for living fully. Manchester represented freedom and opportunity, and an escape from the dreary Stormont-driven discourses that seeped into everyday life. I loved the look of the city, with its blend of traditional red brick buildings and modern infrastructure. The well-documented ‘we do things differently here’ character of the city was clear from the start.
Manchester has become a home away from home now, as it has been for many members of the Irish diaspora and will continue to be.
I graduated in 2013, a year later than the wide-eyed 2008 UCAS applicant had planned, and with a different degree. I had put little thought into choosing Law as an undergraduate degree and this came back to haunt me as I wasn’t able to focus or plan and my primary motivation was to avoid the embarrassment of failure
Eventually, I bit the bullet: withdrew from Law and changed to History. No regrets. The wealth of academic opportunity that came with that degree is difficult to understate; I studied great modules on Sino-Japanese relations, Protest in Cold War Europe and The Vikings and had extraordinary tutors whose brilliance still leaves me baffled. Yet by the time I handed in my last essay I was thoroughly homesick. That module was on Ireland and the Famine, and the last quote of my undergraduate degree was attributed to Shane Macgowan.
I graduated with a 2:1, a big smile and a ton of self-doubt. My first plan was to go home for a bit, work in a bar or something and save up for future study. By this stage my appreciation for Derry and Donegal was heartfelt and raw. The hills and beaches of countryside, the familial nostalgia of my parents’ roots in Moville and Culdaff now came with a renewed relevance. I thought that maybe I could buck the trend. Maybe I could achieve that elusive diasporic goal of coming home. Coming home and thriving, to be happy. Sadly, Derry’s crippling lack of employment opportunities meant this was never going to be a realistic option.
A return to Manchester was my best bet. I was living with a brilliant girlfriend and her phenomenally kind family, worked bar jobs, got fired from call centres, ended a relationship, had a brief internship with a festival, had my dole money withdrawn mistakenly before Christmas, and began a course of antidepressants. My priorities had changed substantially since graduating: my critical analysis skills from History would not get me a job. It was time to be practical. I went from the dole to working in the burgeoning tech scene.
The start-up I worked for specialised in ticketing software. My employers hoped to develop me into a charming Irish Business Development executive. I spent about a year bluffing my way through discussions about software that went over my head. But slowly I was developing an expertise, and a month before my 2 year anniversary at the start-up I handed in my notice. Working in an extraordinarily niche market dominated by ‘it’s not what you know’ event industry professionals was tough, and I felt a strong pull back to Higher Education, but this time to work as a young professional who can use their skills to help students.
10 years after submitting my UCAS application, I work for the Open University as a Senior Advisor. I give advice and guidance to students who need help planning their studies or have gotten into difficulty. I’ve also begun a Master in Education with a focus on leadership and management. Studying a new subject at postgraduate level while working full time is very tough, but if I manage to complete this academic journey then a range of opportunities become available: various roles at various universities, councils and companies suddenly become attainable on merit.
Maybe I’ll be able to buy a house or start a family in Manchester. Maybe I’ll move to Japan or Singapore. Maybe I can start to think about coming home.