Emigration: a long distance relationship
‘Ireland is no longer home unless you’re going back there’: Will Keena on beginning to feel settled in Sydney
I made it, in a sense, if you’ll permit me to judge things on time served. Eighteen months after arriving in Australia I feel something akin to comfort. No more anxiety attacks, no more reaching and wondering what’s going to happen next. Some degree of certainty has returned to proceedings.
I have become that which I fought (in the end) to be. But it wasn’t always looking this way. There were months of will they, won’t they. There were anti-depressants and strained friendships, outstays of welcomes, too much drinking and excess in all its forms. Regrettable things all. I couldn’t shake the sense that coming here was not going to be easy for me. If I’m honest I didn’t feel I really deserved it.
I wasn’t prepared mentally or financially for another stint abroad so soon after a previous run at it in Canada. Barely back on GMT and I was plotting the next jaunt. Seems to be a generational thing, we’re not so much imbued with a sense of adventure or Empire as our English friends, more a fervent one-upmanship instead. Him out on the mines, her living it up in Manhattan, the success stories of the minted Irish (and sure aren’t we more intelligent and harder working and have more initiative then the likes of them?). Stories of the Diaspora and their new dollars are enough to make us ravenous.
I was failing as a man at home, certainly as the kind of man I was trying to convince people I was. A kind of wannabe GQ aberration, albeit one limited in travel to suburban trains, living back at his mother’s house due to sporadic freelance employment. Debonair, original, creative. Come on. Those projections of street style blogs, those pocket squares and turned up jeans revealing colourful socks weren’t enough. As a friend of mine once stated, “your clothes aren’t hair”, and those prophetic words haunted me every time I looked in the mirror.
All of it was a complete fallacy, just props for the method actor to utilise. The Henry Miller book and the cigarette outside Metro Café on South William Street, reading a paragraph, checking for texts, looking at stylish women walking past with rehearsed cool (I know, I know), repositioning sunglasses and wiling away the day while the rest humped through a 9-5, a 6-4, from Best tie to High Viz they questioned my authenticity but I always hid behind my narcissism.
Me: I’m a writer, you can’t compare it to a normal job.
You: Writer? Thought writers sold books though?
I was so insufferable that I helped my mother’s partner out harvesting Christmas trees for a few days in the Wicklow Mountains and couldn’t wait to write a short story about it, giddily punching up the manly prose like I’d been on a crab boat in the Bearing Sea.
I had no real purpose other than maintaining the façade; it was property, somewhere to live, something to work on and polish. This uncertain trajectory resulted in a bad break up and worse drinking, pretty black thoughts and a despaired cursing of luck. Time to leave again and not a minute too soon, but didn’t Hemingway have it right in The Sun Also Rises, when he said: “you can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another”?
(I know what you’re thinking – of course he chose Hemingway. Question is, have I selected it as an appropriate literary quote that fits the narrative tone here or because I’m a predictable hipster clown looking for the relevant box ticked?)
Confidence was bottoming out, Ireland as the mother didn’t endow its young with the requisite chin up and clear-eyed purpose. We all rolled out of the plane onto the tarmac in various ports of call on the east and west coasts of Australia. Squinting and exhaling, feeling good but tired and apprehensive. There was a lot of us just turned 30, a lot of kids in tow. The chest tightened, there was determination but also the coins in the mouth taste of a choice removed.
The start was hard, the middle nearly killed me but in the end I found myself here, after moving from Melbourne to Sydney, in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Watching the colossal orange and purple sky frame the shark-filled harbour below, pressed against the high-rise glass of a modern office with my name above a desk. I like my job, I have people who seek and value my advice and I’m respected. They sponsored me, they kept me and they don’t want to lose me. (Even negotiating salary increases, which goes against every don’t push your bleeding luck Irish instinct I possess, seems like just another thing). I don’t know how it happened, doesn’t seem like that long ago I was borrowing more money from my mother and insisting to everyone what a great time I was having, while I sat alone in a freezing rented room, wearing a hoody to an otherwise empty bed. Thinking about what a great short story my unhappiness would make.
I still write (and thank you for reading) but not at an all or nothing cost. If my novel doesn’t get published then I haven’t failed as a human. It’s not a destiny, I wasn’t born to share my fiction with the buying public, it’s just something I got reasonably good at, and, if we’re talking books in the shop, not good enough just yet.
I’m not making a case for not pursuing your dreams but when you’ve burnt a lot of bridges there’s a lot to be said for some positive structure, and not holding out indefinitely for the cool job. Whatever that is. The ever present spectre of the cool job must be one of the worst things to happen to modern young people (me included), the feeling you should be interviewing musicians or having coffee with models on a Tuesday morning in town but not really understanding the utter ridiculousness of that conceit (because wouldn’t we rather be musicians and models then cosying up them?). These cool jobs, for the most part anyway, don’t pay too well and you’ll turn 32 and be too old for the girls you think your cool job deserves.
It’s the harsh truth and you’ll have to convince yourself of it in an empty room. It’s only when I finally admitted everything to myself that things started to go my way, and now I live in the furthest point on earth from where I was born, far away from those who know me best.
It’s a mess of contradictions, this new emigration. The balance between what you hope for and what you think you’re owed. You leave and know you can’t return, not realistically, not once you’ve gotten used to a yearly bonus (remember those?) and crossing Sydney Harbour Bridge twice a day. But still you spend a huge amount of time on social media calling friends on the same pretensions, the same Sunday nights in Wrights, the same endless pictures of “nom nom” meals. With the passing years your opinion starts to matter a little less to those back there. You’re not in on the jokes, you’re not at the wedding party where you know who, did you know what, with you know who and new partners and babies and haunts have been introduced, not explicitly designed to replace you but their very essence removes you a little further from the action.
(Aside: A friend recently told me a horror story from his youth of older lads coming back from years in America with the outdated slang they left with, and his abject fear of that happening to him. He told me he can still hear them say “That’s rapid, that is. You’ve got it well sussed”).
No one admits this in the emigrant community of course. Onwards we like and comment and tweet and self-aggrandise abroad like nothing has changed, but without physical presence your impact is limited, and also you’ll never fully commit to this – this, your new home. Ireland is no longer home unless you’re going back there, severe as that may sound. A change has happened, it’s you and them now with all the complications that come with maintaining a long distance relationship.
(You start to believe it’s actually your voice on the Anglo tapes, laughing and glad you’re not one of the masses left to bear the brunt. Abortion bills and government ills, sick to the back teeth of it all. We loathe the same old answers but we never ask any new questions, we internalise our anger and it’ll wind up killing us young.)
The craic is being had without you, proud members of the fighting 457 and 417 brigade, and I’m sorry to inform you it’s probably not much different without you. As humans we adapt to our environments, and the environment in Ireland is adapting in your absence. Not to say you’re not missed, not to say you’re not loved, on the contrary, but eventually you’ll have to make a choice. To go back and be front and centre once more or to slowly admit to yourself that this now (your own personal this) must be the place.
The choice is what matters.
I’m not as cool as I once wanted to be – my jeans now thankfully cover my ankles – but I’ve finally caught up to my destination, the two are alighted for once. Assisted breathing is no longer required. I’m embracing the moment, with my inherently goofy self in the frame, and it’s not so bad. This is the life I found myself with and I’ve no complaints.
It’s gift, it’s savage, it’s lethal.
This piece was written as a follow-up to Will’s first article for Generation Emigration, which he wrote soon after arriving in Australia in March last year. He also contributed a short piece about Melbourne as part of the coverage of The Irish Times emigration poll in 2012, and an account of his Christmas far from home in December.