Home for the holidays
Christmas is coming and for most people this means the arrival of Santa. But for an increasing number of families around the country, this also means the return of loved ones who are working abroad.
Huge numbers of people have emigrated during the economic downturn, while others have compromised by commuting between their overseas job and their Irish home.
We spoke to three people who are living apart from their families and find out what they are doing abroad, why the festive season is so important to them and what they are most looking forward to when they return home for the holidays.
Captain Neil O'Grady from Wexford is serving in the Lebanon. He has been there for two months and although he will remain there until May 2013, he will be coming home for a week towards the end of the month when he will celebrate Christmas with his wife Judy and their daughter Sophie.
"I am serving in Lebanon with UNIFIL with the 107 IrishFinn Battalion and this is a new departure working in a multinational environment," he says.
"I am responsible for the troops under my command as the Reconnaissance Troop Commander.
"There is a high tempo in operations in this region, assisting the Government of Lebanon through joint patrolling with the Lebanese Armed Forces, monitoring the Blue Line and assisting the local population in maintaining a safe and secure environment.
"The form-up began in September -- this involved being away from home from Monday to Friday of every week up until deployment.
"Then I was deployed to Lebanon on November 5 so I have been away for almost two months."
Neil will be celebrating Christmas with the troops in the Lebanon, but will be home with his family a couple of days later.
"I am looking forward to celebrating Christmas with my fellow company officers and all those in my troop who are very dedicated and professional and have been an absolute pleasure to work with," he says.
"But I can't wait to see my wife Judy and my daughter Sophie -- both of whom I love and miss so much and can't wait to be reunited with."
Judy is also counting the days until Neil comes home and will be saving Christmas until he arrives.
"I really miss not having my best friend Neil around and having to explain to our daughter, Sophie where her daddy is every day," she says. "We both miss him so much, are always thinking of him and are so proud of what he is doing.
"Our Christmas begins when 'Daddy' gets home on December 28 for one week of leave. The entire week is going to be so special and we can't wait."
Fiachra MacOireachtai left his home in Kilternan County Dublin five years ago when he started college in Manchester. He has been living in London for the past two years -- since getting his music degree -- but can't wait to come home to his family for Christmas.
"I was studying Popular Music and Recording in Salford University, Manchester for three years and then moved to London where I have been for two years now," he says.
"I am writing, recording and performing my own music under the name Fjokra and have been gigging regularly around London for the past two years and loving it. I am also working as a piano teacher.
"But I have been away for five years now and I really miss the space, the scenery and, above all, the silence."
The 24-year-old will be coming home for Christmas on Sunday, December 23 and will be sharing the festivities with his sister Ailbhe and parents Ann and Ciaran at their new home in Wicklow. "I will be coming home for almost a week and am really looking forward to some simple things like spending time with the family, taking the dog for walks and indulging in a lot of nice food and wine."
His mother Ann is counting down the days to when her son and daughter Ailbhe (who is also at college) come home for Christmas and can't wait to have the whole family together again." With Fiachra and Ailbhe away from home, I miss the most obvious things, like the sound of their voices, their faces, the way they mess together on their piano and viola and so many other little things," she says.
"But my most treasured Christmas present each year is seeing them arrive home and enjoying all the special moments that follow.
"Even something as simple as seeing them in the morning and making breakfast for them is great."
So to families everywhere, whether you are together or apart this Christmas, just count your blessings and remember, home is where the heart is.