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Looking for life on the road

My grandfather was an illegal immigrant.

In common with many of his fellow Irishmen, he left his homeland in 1918 in search of a better life, travelling first to Canada where he worked as a lumberjack for seven years.

But the lure of the USA was too much, and like thousands of others, he snuck across the border into the promised land, where he lived until 1935 when he was deported from iconic Ellis Island for being “an illegal alien”.

Even today, there are an estimated 50,000 Irish people living illegally in the USA, and according to the Pew Research Centre there are 11.1 million unauthorised immigrants in the USA, half of them from Mexico.

Immigration is the big topic of our time. Donald Trump, cartoon pretender to the White House, threatens to build a “big, beautiful wall” along the border between Mexico and the USA.

Safe in our European homes, we watch aghast as hundreds of thousands of Syrians desperately try to escape the carnage in their once beautiful country. We sympathise with their plight, but…

And many of the people who voted for the UK to leave the European Union did so because of their fear of Eastern European “migrants” who have made their home, and their future, in Britain.

Henry O’Hare, my maternal grandfather, never made it home to Clonvaraghan, the tiny townland in County Down where he grew up.

He stopped off in Wigtownshire on his way home to Ireland, and within months had married my grandmother, a young woman he met while picking potatoes.

He never truly settled in Scotland, spending the rest of his short life travelling the UK, working as a labourer, drinking when he was not breaking his back. He only made it “home” to his wife and four daughters in between jobs.

He died, alone, in a bed and breakfast at the age of 60. He was working on Hunterston A nuclear power station when his heart gave out.

On my 60th birthday, on 25th August this year, I visited Clonvaraghan for the first time.

I didn’t try to meet up with any of my relatives who are still in Castlewellan. That family reunion is for another time, if ever.

On this, my first visit, I simply wanted to stand where my grandfather had stood as a child, in the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne, dreaming of a bigger, better world.

Over the next twelve months, my husband and I are going on a journey across Europe.

We’re lucky. We were born with British passports. We can still travel freely across the European Union. We have credit cards and a pension pot. We have a roof over our head, and a home back in the UK.

We are not migrants. But like my grandfather before me, we are going in search of adventure, of something bigger than ourselves. We are looking for life.

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