When do you stop being an emigrant?
Turning 40, and with half a lifetime spent outside Ireland, made a Galway woman reflect
Clar Ni Chonghaile
I turned 40 last December. Apparently, 40 is the new 20 but however you dress it up, it’s quite the milestone, a time for reflection on life, work, who you are and how many Kir Royals your ageing body can take without crumpling at the knees.
For me, this most tricky of transitions has also been a time to reflect on where I am and maybe, what I am.
I left home in Spiddal, Co Galway when I was 19 to join Reuters news agency in London as a graduate trainee. I have been a journalist since and have lived in London, Paris, Madrid, Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, and Dakar in Senegal.
Now I live in Nairobi, Kenya with my English husband and two daughters, aged six and nine. When I turned 40, I had three birthday celebrations on two continents, starting with a night at a swanky, rooftop bar in Nairobi and ending with rich fruitcake in Bothuna, Spiddal.
I’ve now spent more time outside Ireland than in the place I still think of as home. So my question is: How long can you be an emigrant? When do you become something else?
This head-mangling query becomes even more complicated when you have children: Are our girls Irish in anything other than blood? What does Ireland really mean to them?
Our eldest daughter was born in Senegal, the youngest in London. They have spent most of their young lives in Africa. They can sing the Kenyan national anthem in Kiswahili, they wouldn’t dream of drinking water from a tap, they know Nairobi’s kamikaze minibuses are to be avoided at all costs and they are almost blasé about seeing zebras and giraffes.
But my youngest says “noine” instead of nine like a Dublin tough, they’ve thrown up on the Fishguard ferry and they know what camogie is. They stretch their tongues around their cousins’ names: Padraig, Liam, Eoin and, the trickiest by far, Caoimhe. They have almost mastered my surname.
We are a composite family and increasingly, I feel my own identity is fractured but not necessarily in a bad way. It is like a prism, solid on the outside but winking with myriad, shifting colours inside.
I don’t think I’m an emigrant any more, and maybe I never was; at least not the way we understand the word again now, with its connotations of compulsion. I didn’t emigrate because I had to, but because in that bizarre way life has of switching tracks when you are not paying attention, I got an offer from Reuters on a last-minute application, sent off as I swotted for the final exams of my arts degree.
But I am a child of the traditional economic emigration that many feel has blighted Irish history, from the Famine to this new “declawed tiger” wave. I was born in London where my father was working on the building sites. We moved back to Galway when I was three. I never thought I would stay away this long. I might have drowned the plane with my tears if I had.
I’m still deep-as-the-bog Irish, I still use my maiden name, partly out of pride, partly because the alternative is Clar Clarke, and partly because it stumps people and I’m still childish enough to enjoy that. But where my nationality used to be how I defined myself to the world, there is now much more.
For me, leaving Ireland has been an enriching experience, and I dare to think that goes for my family too. My mother came to visit us in Senegal when our eldest was born. The whole family donned Galway shirts the day after our wedding in Paris, and went off to find a pub showing the hurling semi-final. My daughters send pictures of the animals we see on safari to their Irish cousins.
I’m not saying this makes up for the fact that I cannot have a cup of tea with my mother whenever I like, or that I don’t understand the gossip when we go home. But there is a richness that comes from mixing cultures, experiences and knowledge. People, including me, say we Irish can be introverted. Perhaps emigration is a way to fight against that “have you seen the new wan just moved in down the road” tendency.
When I go back to Ireland, I feel slightly out of place. I don’t always know what to say to people in the pub, my Gaeilge morphs into French when I least expect it and I don’t get all the jokes. I know more about Kenyan politics than Irish politics. I don’t recognise most of the celebrities in the VIP magazine my sister sends me. I don’t really know the Ireland they represent either, all smooth hair, wrinkle-free faces and signature shoes.
I still think My Lovely Horse is one of the best songs ever, I can recite “Knock, knock, open wide” from Bosco, and think gombeen is one of the best words, in any language. And when I walked along the seaside path behind my bunscoil last December, I found a cousin’s name carved into a new wall and gleefully pointed it out to my daughters. There by the side of the wind-whipped sea, carrying all the baggage of my 40 years, with my “foreign” girls giggling beside me, I still felt solidly at home.
This article appears in the Life pages of The Irish Times today.