Generation Emigration


This essay is based on on article I was asked to write for the Generation Emigration section of the online version of The Irish Times in November 2012. 

This is the first time I've had anything I’ve written published in Ireland. 
It’s a homecoming of sorts.

The column allowed comments, and a surprising number of people took the time to write their reactions to my piece. 

While the majority of them were very favorable and flattering there was one comment submitted by a person pen-named Elle that was particularly vicious and scathing. Her anger was palpable in her words and I could visualize her hammering the keyboard keys and enraged flecks of spittle hitting the computer screen. Reading my article had obviously pushed her buttons in some way. Her comments gave me an insight into what from this distance seems to be a prevailing mindset of negativity that has engulfed Ireland in the last few years. 

My own reactions to Elle's negativity also gave me pause, and while I sat for my daily meditation I saw that my mind, my ego, had taken great exception to what she had to say. 

I wondered how best to respond to her, or even whether I should. I thought about it long and hard and decided I would show the flip-side of the first article. Sometimes we need to be plunged into darkness to better understand and appreciate light.

My response was published as a comment to the original article in The Irish Times published. This essay is an amalgamation of both articles with a few other pieces added in. 

Dedicated to Elle - a muse with views. 


“Would you ever move back to Ireland, given the chance?" 
I can’t say. It’s not in my plans. But none of it ever was.

It’s been more than 22 years. My life is elsewhere now. Maybe in the early years, but even then I was enjoying my life abroad too much.

I rarely go back now, even for a holiday.
When you have the time, you don’t have the money. When you have the money it’s because you’re busy working and don’t have the time.
When you have the time and the money – well you know how it is. It’ll probably be raining and cold more than half the time. The prices of things will be extortionate. You’ll have to do the rounds of the same old relatives and friends. They’ll look just the same as last time. Maybe the wrinkles around the eyes are a tad deeper, the hair thinning and more grey, the tummies a wee bit softer.
The same old questions. The same old answers.
They’ve changed. You’ve changed. The world has changed. The things you have in common now are only in the blood and in the past.
You’ve made your life elsewhere. You’ve made yourself new friends. You’ll never love them like the old ones and blood is still as thick. You’ll always be Irish and loved for it (except perhaps by other Irish – you know too much). You’ll still be proud of your cultural heritage and your bitter-sweet past. But that’s what it is – the past.
On my mother’s side all my uncles emigrated. Nine-out-of-ten of their sons and nephews emigrated too. Some went back. The rest span the globe. Most of the daughters and nieces left too. We were nineteen-seventies children. Bred and buttered for export.

As a foreigner you have freedom. You can be yourself. They tolerate your quirks, your eccentricities in a way they never did ‘back home’. He’s odd, but sure he’s Irish, they’re not made quite like us.
Though there were no jobs to be had in Ireland, I was a willing emigrant. Homesickness is not a steady state. It’s a dull toothache that comes and goes away.

June 1989 Aer Lingus Dublin- Heathrow. The flight attendant recognizes me and my best friend. “Youse were in Cathal Bruagha Street,” she says with a smile and so we sip Champagne on the house. A final parting round. One for the road. Airborne, the roads rises with us.

In London I immersed myself in culture. Wet autumn afternoons spent waiting in the rain for the cheap tickets at Covent Garden Opera. La Traviata and the smell of wet wool from the sweater my mother had knitted for me. The yarn chosen from Arnotts on a Christmas trip home. Do mammies still knit sweaters for their emigrant sons? And would they wear them if they did? I explored museums, never missed an exhibition at the Tate. I boated on Hyde Park’s Serpentine and ate food from Bayswater’s Arabs and Greeks.

I lived out in the suburbs. All my neighbours Hindus and Sikhs. I learned to tell the difference and to eat their spicy food. My housemates were Greek and German. They taught me their swearwords. All I knew to teach them was “póg mo thóin.” I told them a really good one was uachtar reoite, but never explained that it just meant ice-cream. My colleagues were French. I knew their swearwords already, so they taught me gutter slang. It stood me in good stead.

Five years living in downtown Brussels in a North-African neighbourhood. Pepita from Andalusia runs the shop downstairs. She always keeps me a slice of tortilla, oh heavenly omlette. She tells me her ‘esecret’ – a spoonful of Dijon mustard mixed in with the eggs. Cultural integration.

I knew more Irish in Brussels than I knew in Ireland. Most of my class from Cathal Brugha Street had left Ireland’s shores. We all lost touch. Or maybe it was just me. In a fit of patriotism I tried to learn Irish from a Belfast man. I had no more success than I’d had at school with that befuddling tongue. Brussels weekends and the live music scene. Gigs and concerts. Pub quizzes at the James Joyce. Kitty’s was cleaner and nicer, but full of Eurocrats. We were the other Irish in Brussels, for a while at least. Some still had cement on their hands as they sank their pints. Those with degrees graduated to cushy commission posts. My mere diploma kept me in the airport hotel. Weekends away - Paris, Amsterdam, Trier, the Ardennes. Christmas shopping ship to Canterbury. Would you step this way sir. A statement, not a question. Closed rooms and body searches. What is the purpose of your visit? The following years we chose the Christmas Market in Cologne. German border guards a much friendlier crowd indeed.

I lived in French-speaking Brussels where I learned to curse and count in Arabic. I worked in Flanders. A linguistic divide crossed every day. It took me years to learn French. Flemish came easy to me. Closer to English and more down to earth. Night classes and love affairs, the best way to learn. (Maybe there’s something in those Gaeltacht romances). My colleagues all astounded at my progress. But that’s nothing in Belgium. Even the train conductor reads newspapers and speaks to passengers in 4 different tongues. The Waloons think I’m Flemish and so do the Dutch. I don’t correct them. Integration and disintegration. Cold winters were hard though. I’m made for the heat. Fly south like the winter’s geese.
I hitch-hiked instead. A cold, cold winter’s week standing on the hard edge.

Belgian French and Pyrenean French read both the same. But what comes through the eyes is not what comes through the ears. It took time to tune in to new sounds and expressions. No Irish here. At least not at first.

12 years in France. I almost lost my mother tongue. I spoke with a distorted accent, just like Stephen Roche. I hiked in the mountains two days a week. I bought cheese from shepherds and strayed across the border. I learned enough Spanish to get my face slapped. I learned enough Basque to be bought a drink. I learned that you could drink and eat at the same time. Much more civilized around a good table than in a smoky pub. Winters were cold. I was made for warmer climes.

Work was hard to find. Even for the French. Odd jobs, a year or two here, a year or two there. Teaching English in the school year and seasonal summer work. Castrating corn. Early morning work. Stretching high, plucking flowers in dew-soaked knife-leaved cornfields that lacerated forearms. The sharp-end of cutting-edge genetic engineering. Telling lies part time in a call centre. I was so good at telling lies they took me on full time. It’s the soft Irish accent that gets them, they said. Lies, lies and more lies. A wedding. A divorce.

My life veered off on another path. Years spent back and forth between India and a Pyrenean mountain hut where I worked. India, where I sought to find myself, to lose myself. And succeeded on both counts. India, where I learned to speak English again. And to wobble my head. India, where I met my Malaysian wife. France or Malaysia? Not hard to choose. I’m a warm weather man. Humid tropical heat on a balmy palmy island. Winters aren’t cold here. The climate suits me well. It could be paradise. Perhaps it is.

How many different lives I’ve led. How many things I’ve seen. A palm reading Tibetan monk on a Himalayan mountain slope tells me I’m only halfway. Tells me to use the years wisely. When I cycled to school on frosty Meath mornings I never imagined any of this. Does any schoolboy?

The written word is powerful indeed. The emigrant’s letter home is an emotionally charged thing. If things aren’t going well, you gloss over it and highlight the good. Ye wouldn’t want to worry the mammy now, would ye? Everything I wrote above is true, but I could have just as easily told a tale of woe that would be true too.

I’ve missed many family milestones, births, marriages and deaths. I’ve been an absentee brother, son, nephew, cousin, grandchild, uncle. I’ve known the self-esteem sapping desperation of dole queues too. 3 years I worked the nightshift and was thankful for the job. For a year I held down three jobs. I lived most of another year in a tent. I spent a hard cold winter sleeping on a hard cold floor.  For a month I ate only rice. I know hunger well enough to know that it’s only the first three days that are hard. After that there’s a lucid clarity and a sort of apathetic peace. If lives are lost cat-like, I’ve lost some of my nine. Death is familiar enough to me that he doesn’t frighten me anymore.

When I left Ireland I wanted to leave some of my past. The alcoholic schoolmaster who used me for a punch bag. The school-bus bullies who beat me daily for being gay, which I wasn’t, though in a disturbed adolescent way wished I was, so I could at least deserve their kick and punches. The drunken manager in a Connemara hotel who tried to rape me while I slept. It took a bloodied broken nose for him to loosen his grip enough for me to escape. I got away with bruises and bite marks and hitch-hiked back to Dublin. Misguided frightened individuals, the products of a culture of fear and repression and slowly simmering rage. All forgiven, but not forgotten. I wanted to leave all that behind, but carried it for years. Long hours with psychotherapists. Longer hours of tears.

Hard times forge us in their fires. Make us stronger. If we let them, those fires will burn off the impurities and the dross. I’ve come through it scarred, but intact. I’m a better man for it too.
Wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, we go through it for a reason. Weight can press us down or we can resist it to grow stronger. Hardship chisels away the superfluous. Reveals what is essential. It’s when you’ve touched the bottom that to go on you must go up.

Every day I sit and watch my breath coming in and going out. Remind myself that I’m alive and how precious that can be. My life bears fruit, but I bare the cost. Today is more important to me than the things I’ve lost.

I let go of everything. Absolutely everything. I stopped fighting the current and followed the flow instead. I still got snagged on rocks. Good people gave me help in smiles and kind words. In hard words too. Some of the things I let go of I picked up again, but I make my choices carefully and I can still let them go. 

I’ve been to my limits and found they weren’t real. When I went far beyond those paper fences I found that I was something other than the simple image of myself that I had let my life carve. I’ve flirted with the borders of time and space and gone beyond the petty mind. When we really find the foundation we see that all is one. There is no separation in anything. 

There’s peace and joy everywhere if you want it hard enough. The irony is that it comes not in that wanting, but in letting go of the wanting. Wanting things, having things, lacking things - there’s no happiness in things. 

But mystic words are not enough. Words are powerful, but hide as much as they reveal. How can you describe what it means to swim to someone who has never been immersed in water?

Life is in the details, the stuff we never look to see. Apart from family and friends it’s the simple stuff I miss. I’d murder a decent cup of tea and a slice of fresh brown bread. 

The simple stuff is the essential stuff. A smile, a wink, a nod. Those are things the Irish haven’t lost. I hope we never will.
We’re a resilient race.
We weather storms.

You can read the original article and comments on The Irish Times website at this link:

Many thanks to Ciara for taking the time and for giving me a chance.


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