Are we exiles or emigrants?
A new life abroad can be something we dread, or a second chance we mightn’t otherwise get, writes Philip Lynch
It’s strange that exile is hardly ever mentioned in any discussion about us emigrating Irish. And yet, it’s a more apt description for those of us that cannot or will not ever live in Ireland again. We may blithely talk about a generation of emigration but hidden beneath that term lies umpteen tales of separation and permanently ruptured families.
I was never one to wear my Irishness on my sleeve. And ardent nationalism I always regarded with scepticism. Even today, you won’t catch me gadding around in a GAA geansaí. Nor am I a paid up member of the Barry’s tea or Tayto crisps cheer squad. I can’t remember the last time I ate black pudding or knocked back a Guinness.
But for all that, Irishness still flows through my blood. I’ve learnt to keep it out of sight – below the surface like some sort of security blanket. And yet, the news of Seamus Heaney’s abrupt passing last August saddened me, as did the catastrophic implosion of the Irish economy. In short, I still care about Ireland and I always will. But I can no longer call it my home.
Visits to Ireland reinforce my sense of exile, yet I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing. For me, Ireland is simply now increasingly unfamiliar landscape – and I don’t just mean all those bypasses that have appeared, or the mushrooming of so many ghost estates, or the unrelenting tit-for-tat gangland killings played out predominately on the streets of Dublin. It’s a far more subtle thing.
Time doesn’t stand still for those of us who go. Practically all my friends in Ireland and most of my relatives have fallen by the wayside. And now, inevitably, my parents’ generation are going to their graves, and more and more auld ones’ houses are lying dormant. Nostalgia for my early years in Australia is now almost on a par with my childhood memories of Ireland.
The death of, first my mother, and then my father in 2010 was a decisive turning point in crystalizing my exile status. Up until then I assumed that when I’d next visit, my mother would be waiting on the threshold (she wasn’t one for airports) as she always did, with her understated greeting. There’d be her diligent preparations; her gorgeous geraniums looking a treat in terracotta pots on the window sills. She’d have the house all spick and span. There’d be new towels in the bathroom and that unmistakable aroma of her soda bread in the kitchen. But that all ended with her demise.
During my awkward early years away, and when I was still single, my mother would gently inquire about my life in Australia. Those were her attempts to glean what she could about my life in exile. From time to time, especially during the boom, she’d write, making mention of the previously unheard of improved opportunities for nurses in Ireland. It was her non-too subtle hint that I could or should seriously consider returning to work at home. But when I’d decided to bite the bullet and return with my wife and young daughter, the year before she died, she wrote back urging me not to as things were, as she put it, “a dread altogether”. How galling it must’ve been for her to pen those blunt sentences.
Going back on those visits, those first 24 hours, despite the jetlag were always exhilarating. It was our emotional window of opportunity before we’d revert back to type. And the last 24 hours, as the deadline of departure loomed, was always the most poignant. No doubt thousands of others who have departed know what I’m talking about. That furtive packing of the suitcase or backpack. And of course, the downplaying of any emotions at the time of going, and the earnest promise of, “not to leave it so long next time”.
Obviously it’s not all doom and gloom for us exiles. Far from it. If it were, so many of us wouldn’t stay away. It’s not as if we have a predilection for masochism. Exile is simply different. Establishing a new life abroad can be a wonderful opportunity – our second chance we mightn’t otherwise get. We can bring a fresh perspective to our new beginning. We can start again with a clean slate. Of course we know not to take anything for granted. And even if it means going that extra yard, we’re generally up for the challenge. It’s often a case of having come this far, we’re not about to let any opportunity slip by. Too much looking back doesn’t do anyone any favours; especially for we exiles.
But we shouldn’t sugar-coat the phenomenon of emigration. It can come with a price. For so many, leaving Ireland is often an irrevocable necessary step, a one-way journey. Although few of us realise it at the time, return tickets aren’t really part of the equation. After the novelty of our first few years away fade, we’re left to face up to the task of getting on with our lives. It’s with this realisation we suddenly know we’ve truly arrived – in, some may even say, our brave new exile world.
Exiles or emigrants? Perhaps only those of us who’ve gone get to decide.