‘I still miss Ireland, but lately a funny thing has happened’
Watching her mother’s funeral mass online in New Zealand was a watershed moment for Anne Tiernan
Leaving permanently would never have been part of my life plan, had I made one. Like everyone else I knew, I would travel, having myriad adventures, before settling down in Ireland. Emigration was something that happened to people back in the 1980s.
It was 2004. Times were good. I owned an overvalued shoebox in Chapelizod, in Dublin, worked in commercial property lending – I know, I’m sorry – and was generally enjoying the party along with everyone else I knew. Then love happened and my future husband and I left to travel the world before arriving in his native New Zealand for what was supposed to be a year-long working holiday. There were no tortured goodbyes at the airport. It was all a bit of a lark. I’d be back soon.
Five months in I found myself most inconveniently pregnant. Already overwhelmed, we avoided the drama of a debate about which country would be best to raise our child in. I drifted artlessly into co-ownership of a baby and a house on the other side of the world, with a successful application for permanent residency cementing the deal.
Another child was born. We were a proper family – and to my great surprise a Kiwi one. But the farther from home I moved the more parochial and homesick I became, casting a misty eye back to the motherland. The opening bars of any Irish song on the radio had me sobbing.
There was, and is, so much to miss. Old friends, the sort you’ll never make again, family of course, the unique countryside, pubs, soda bread, black pudding, Guinness. I’m becoming a caricature. Crows, oddly. Not having to worry about earthquakes, volcanoes or man-eating sharks. Even the weather, a longing for cool overcast days. I can hardly believe my changeling children with their golden complexions.
There is always a feeling of being the outsider, of not quite getting all the social references and nuances that one acquires growing up in a country. Crankily, I would refuse to use colloquial terms. Lollies were still sweets, jandals flip-flops, baches still holiday homes. A fellow Irish immigrant recently complained to me about this churlish trait of expats. I agreed wholeheartedly and privately resolved to stop being such an arse.
Time and seasons are so other, so opposite here, like some parallel but subverted universe. Christmas is in summer, my birthday now in winter. Easter heralds the start of autumn, Halloween spring. My children start their school year in February. By September they are running out of steam.
So I carried on, still very much an Irish person who just happened to live in New Zealand. The requisite five-year waiting period after receiving permanent residency came and went without my applying for citizenship. I requested an application form, but it got thrown in the bottom drawer. I felt like a traitor.
Then came a watershed. The phone call in the dead of night. “It’s your mother. I’m sorry, it’s bad news.” We all know it’s a possibility. We imagine hastily arranging plane tickets, speeding across the world in time for the burial. But never in all those abstract ruminations did I imagine I wouldn’t get home.
Heavily pregnant, I went into labour on hearing the news, and our third child was born a few hours later. I was reduced to watching my mother’s funeral Mass via a webcam.
We rose at 1am for the occasion, like sports fans to watch their team play in another hemisphere. On that hot February night, in my pyjamas with newborn babe at my breast and glass of New Zealand pinot noir in hand, I watched my appropriately clad family and friends pay their respects.
Rather than sadness I felt an emotion closer to envy. I was jealous of my siblings’ tears, my father’s stoic grief. I longed for the kindly words of neighbours, the comforting touch of old friends. Even the priest, who hadn’t known her, was more emotionally involved than me. I was an outsider, a spectator.
A thoughtful family member, intuiting my emotional predicament, sent a photograph of my mother laid out in her coffin. I deleted it, unopened. There was no context here for such an image. The detachment I had felt towards my adopted country, the sense of being other, had extended to my birth country too.
So maybe I am destined to be a little on the periphery of both places. I try to keep up with the Irish newspapers but no longer understand many of the references. Social media, while bringing greater connectivity, can also be alienating. Status updates from Irish friends referring to some cultural or political event often leave me confused or excluded. On a seedy Sunday morning here I am envious of their promising foray into the Saturday night ahead. Similarly, in the midst of a short damp winter’s day I begrudge them those endless Irish summer evenings.
I even envied them the recession. Ridiculously, I imagined it like some British wartime drama series where everyone was going through a jolly rough time yet all pulling together in a spirit of camaraderie.
Sometimes now Irish customs and rites of passage that once were as irrefutable as the seasons appear alien to me. A recent rash of uploaded communion photos on Facebook left me feeling a bit bemused. All the mini brides and grooms would be so out of place in this secular country.
It is time for me now more generously to embrace New Zealand, a country that has been so welcoming to me. Maybe letting go of your native country is a process that all emigrants must go through. Otherwise you’d be driven half mad with longing.
I still miss Ireland, of course, but lately a funny thing has happened. There is a popular song here called Welcome Home, which acknowledges the sacrifices that new immigrants have made and the strangeness that they feel. “You’ll find most of us here with our hearts wide open,” it goes, and so it has been. It’s a bitter-sweet song with a kind and heartfelt message. And now when I hear the opening bars of that song I have a little cry, too.
Maybe I’ll never belong completely to one country again but instead belong a little to both. And that’s just fine.
But that citizenship form lies incomplete, still in the bottom drawer.