Generation Emigration

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Hashtag Homesick: Our House

In a programme note for Tom Murphy’s The House, which opens in the Abbey Theatre tonight, Irish author Belinda McKeon reflects on modern day emigration and homecoming, and how the play’s themes connect 1950s Ireland with the present.

Thu, Jun 7, 2012, 01:00

   

In a programme note for Tom Murphy’s The House, which opens in the Abbey Theatre tonight, Irish author Belinda McKeon reflects on modern emigration and homecoming, and how the play’s themes connect 1950s Ireland with the present day.

Belinda McKeon (photograph courtesy of belindamckeon.com).

This is how we do emigration these days. Online, of course; that goes without saying. Not that we emigrate to the internet (although, on second thoughts, maybe we do); rather, that we emigrate with a few clicks of the mouse – the destination researched, the forum joined, the visa sought, the flight booked. Then, once away, we click our way back into Ireland: status updates. Twitter streams. Text messages to the Ray D’Arcy show from a balcony in Melbourne. Comments on Broadsheet.ie and the Irish Times blogs. Hashtags for discussions linking several time zones; #vinb, #todaypk, #beingirishmeans. Some of us want to be where we’ve ended up; some of us feel we had no choice. Most of us are educated, and confident, and already sufficiently well-travelled to get on with it, to throw ourselves into the rhythm of life as its lived in these new countries we now call home; but most of us, too, are funny about calling them that, no matter how the years go by. “Home,” reflects the protagonist of Marilynne Robinson’s 2008 novel of that name, “what kinder place could there be on Earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?”

And this is how we do homecomings these days. Nervously; more nervously than feels necessary, or in line with the facts of the matter, which are that we are more connected to what’s going on in Ireland now than we were when we lived there, that we read the Irish papers more often, and listen to the Irish radio more often, and maybe even talk to our mothers more often, swiveling the laptop so that they can get a good look at the new coffee table, or the new cat, or the new grandchild, or whatever it is we have to show them through the little square eye of the webcam. As for friends, nobody needs 320 of them, especially not when 240 of them are Irish, and three years ago you wouldn’t give them the time of day if you passed them on Grafton Street, but Facebook has thrown all these connections at us like so many spindly-branched family trees. So visits home should be no big deal. And yet, Welcome to Dublin, the pilot says, and you feel it again: that weird, that embarrassing sensation of something like hope. That sense, childish but unshakeable, of a clean slate. The things you look forward to are so clichéd you barely want to admit them: a pint in the local. A pot of tea, for Christ’s sake. An encounter in the street with an old friend who’ll be glad to see you; a furious gossip with one family member about another. You think to yourself, what is this? What have I become? What am I, a character in a Tom Murphy play?

Playwright Tom Murphy at rehearsals for the Abbey Theatre’s production of The House.

When The House was first produced on the Abbey stage in 2000, it seemed, on the surface, a curious choice. It was a new play, in the first year of a new millennium, in a country high on the bang of new money, new property, a newly invented version of what it was to be Irish. It was a time which has since been brilliantly captured in Anne Enright’s novel The Forgotten Waltz; Enright describes, for instance, a young man telling his partner, in their new house, to listen to the money. To the sound of its value going up – he does the calculations under flickering eyelids – of five cents every minute. “And for some reason, we were terrified,” Enright writes. “Don’t tell me otherwise.”

Niamh McCann, Eleanor Methven, Cathy Belton and Catherine Walker in The House by Tom Murphy, directed by Annabelle Comyn at the Abbey Theatre from 7 June to 14 July. Photograph: Anthony Woods.

Is this why it was a play for that time, Tom Murphy’s drama of unease, emigration and small-town unfulfillment in 1950s’ Ireland? Because it was a play which saw that, in our hunger to grab at bricks and mortar, and the more the better, we were doing ourselves out of a home? Which saw that beneath all the bluster was something like panic – Don’t tell, pleads Christy, and the old woman’s heart breaks into pieces – something like terror? Maybe. In his programme note at the time, John McGahern provided a stark evocation of the 1950s, of how impoverishment had laid its hand on every house, on every aspect of experience, and he concluded by sweeping his gaze over the culture which held sway five decades later. ‘I think it is wonderful that nobody has to emigrate now unless they want to,’ he wrote, ‘and when I hear people bragging about the Celtic Tiger I wonder what the boasting hides.’

And now. Take a gloak at these numbers, as Murphy’s Birmingham brickie, Peter, might say. And take a gloak at the lack of them. More emigrating than at any time since the Famine; listen to those numbers, ticking in all the wrong directions. The word to use is relevance, which funnily enough had its first use as a legal term meaning to take up, to take possession of a property; the Latin root relevare referring to the act of lifting up, of alleviating. Or the word to use, maybe, is resonate, which means to echo, to sound again, to send meaning travelling across a distance like music heard from miles off.

But let’s not use either of those words; they do not capture why it is that The House is such a powerful, disconcerting piece of theatre. Let’s not lean on this idea that a play does its job only if it reminds us of ourselves; if it seems, in some way, to be about our here-and-now; if it takes up our load and lightens it for us by so doing; if it takes the keys of our broken-down house so we don’t have to feel that we are standing in it all alone. What’s magnificent about this play is that it does not seek to comfort. It does not seek to carry. It is no relic – to see it as such would be a mistake – but a bruising in the here and now. It offers one gift, and that is the gift of self-consciousness; an awareness that the dream cannot be real, that the garden cannot be manicured. Its music is not a distant one, carried from some 1950s crossroads; its music is that of the human mind, and how it jangles and jars as it snatches at some kind of harmony. Those old songs his characters roar to each other are the most savage theatre of all. You know how the line goes: You can’t go home again.

Belinda McKeon’s debut novel, Solace, was published in 2011. It was named a Kirkus Outstanding Debut of 2011, Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year 2011 and won the Sunday Independent Best Newcomer award. She lives in New York.

The House, Tom Murphy’s play about emigration and belonging is on the Abbey stage from 7 June to 14 July. Tickets from €18 – €40 (€13 – €23 concession) are on sale now, call 01 87 87 222 or book online at www.abbeytheatre.ie.

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