To Expat or Not to ExPat: Irish at Heart

Irish at Heart: To Expat or Not to Expat?
By Natalie Keller

As someone who has lived abroad before, the question crosses my mind from time to time: should I move permanently to another country? In the shadow of this summer’s horrific gun violence and attack on women’s rights, the dilemma haunts me more and more. For millions of us, the American dream is beginning to feel more like a nightmare.

I sometimes joke that I’ve had two chances at a green card marriage, having dated a British and Canadian citizen before, that might have been my one-way ticket out of the States. Now the joke has turned solemn. For those of us privileged enough to consider the dilemma: at what point do you decide that the laws of your home country no longer align with your personal values, and that it’s in the best interest of your life, liberty, and safety to leave?

I consider the United Kingdom my second home, and there was a stretch of time that I envisioned myself putting down roots there long-term. Though I did not end up attending, I was once enrolled in a master’s program in England, and at a later point, I pondered going to graduate school in Scotland.

The Irish flag flies over Bunratty Castle in County Clare, Ireland
The Irish flag flies over Bunratty Castle in County Clare, Ireland.

But so many factors pull me back to America, time and time again: my huge, loving family, my network of friends, our country’s beautifully diverse geography, the security of my job, the comfort and familiarity of my homeland. Leaving is not a decision to be taken lightly.

Even during my short-term time abroad, homesickness was an ever-present ache. No matter how well I acclimated to different cultures and countries, there was always a little corner of my heart that felt out of place, like I didn’t fully belong — a puzzle piece that almost fit, but not quite. It’s a sentiment I’ve also heard echoed by my aunt, a French-born woman and expat who settled permanently in the States after marrying my uncle.

These experiences give me newfound appreciation for the struggles of immigrants such as my great-grandparents, who fled Hungary during World War II, or Ukrainians currently seeking refuge in neighboring countries, leaving behind the world they know and love in search of peace and security. I would never pretend my plight is as dire as theirs, but as America falls further and further into disrepair, I have a certain level of empathy for those who flee their home country in search of fundamental human rights.

Immigrants or Expats?
Let’s not ignore the implications of the word “expat.” As a white Westerner moving to the United Kingdom, I would be called an “expat” rather than an immigrant — why? Mawuna Remarque Koutonin writes in The Guardian, “You should expect that any person going to work outside of his or her country for a period of time would be an expat, regardless of [their] skin colour or country. But… expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad.

Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants… Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races.’” With this critique in mind, I will be using the words “expat” and “immigrant” interchangeably, because in a just world, they would mean the same thing.

The Central Statistics Office of Ireland reports that in 2016, over 10,000 non-Irish nationals from the United States resided in Ireland. This number represents a significant percentage of the country’s population, so I delved into the motivations behind these American immigrants relocating to the Emerald Isle.

The American flag billows over New York City
The American flag billows over New York City

Ireland’s Appeal
There are many reasons why people move abroad: in pursuit of better healthcare, job opportunities, or to reside with romantic partners. Ireland in particular attracts immigrants on the basis of its safety, affordable education, and work-life balance.

In 2020, ECA International named Dublin one of the top ten most livable cities in the world for expats, and in 2019, the United Nations ranked Ireland as one of the top countries for quality of life, outranking America when comparing life expectancy, standard of living, and access to knowledge. Moreover, with firearms outlawed for most citizens, Ireland is an incredibly safe country.

In the entire year of 2015, there were only twenty-eight deaths from gun-related violence in Ireland. Compare that to the average of 124 people who died from gun violence every day in the US in 2020 according to the Center for Gun Violence Solutions. When considering the threat firearms pose to everyday life, Ireland offers a tempting draw.

Cheaper education is also an incentive for many to study or move to Ireland. James Reilly writes on Linkedin that “the most glaring difference between higher education in Ireland versus the U.S. is cost. In the 2019-20 academic year, college in Ireland cost €12,171, or $13,900 … In the U.S., the average net price for the 2020-21 academic year at public colleges was $19,490, a full 40% higher.”

While American citizens will pay more than Irish citizens to attend college in Ireland, the fees nonetheless pale in comparison to American colleges, which are also known to overburden students with debt. To put that into perspective, America’s federal loan balance (of which student loans make up 91.2%) is over $1.6 trillion. That number surpasses the GDP of Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland, combined.

For those who value a work-life balance, vacation time is another consideration. By law, full-time workers in Ireland are entitled to twenty days of annual leave, and most employers grant extra vacation days to long-term employees. By contrast, America has no national requirement for paid holidays, vacation days, or paid sick days.

The Decision to Stay
These reasons make sense for many American immigrants seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness outside the United States. And yet, patriotism for my home country still beats in my chest. George Takei wrote beautifully, “The greatest love you can show your country is to make it live up to its promises and ideals. After my family and 120,000 other Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps, I chose to hold America accountable. I did so not because I hated it, but because I believed in it.”

I still believe in America, though at times I feel like Captain Von Trapp singing “Edelweiss” in The Sound of Music as tyrants overtake his homeland. For many, immigrating elsewhere is the right choice — sometimes the only choice. But right now, for me, I will stay and fight for the country I call home: America, this land of duality, of broken promises yet resilient hope.

Sources consulted:
Student Loan Debt Statistics from On Higher Education: Should the U.S. Be More Like Ireland?
Ireland Gun Homicide statistics from

The Guardian: Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?

*Natalie Keller is a former resident of Galway, Ireland and works in the world of libraries. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in various online platforms, including Mirror Dance, Asymmetry Fiction, and The Peace Chronicle. She loves to hear from readers at [email protected].

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