‘Tell me about your house and I will tell you who you are’

What does ‘home’ mean to people in a globalised world?

Photograph: Steven Taylor/Digital Vision/Getty

Photograph: Steven Taylor/Digital Vision/Getty


Even the dictionary struggles to find a succinct meaning for the word “home”. Is it the urban or rural place where you live? Is it the town, city, suburb or country spot you come from originally? Is it the building you inhabit? Is it where you and your family live right now? Or does “home” conjure up your most precious belongings, which move with you from one place to another?

For people who never move from the place they were born in, the concept of home is easy. But, in a globalised world, more and more people are on the move, whether by choice or necessity, and, somewhere deep in their subconscious, they travel with a concept of home.

John Hill, a Jungian analyst, has written a profound book, At Home in the World: Sounds and Symmetries of Belonging. Hill, who grew up in Ireland and has lived in Switzerland for most of his adult life, suggests that the concept of home can be divided into three main categories: personal narratives about the way people have found or lost their home in the world; stories about actual houses, which is to say their history, architecture and significance in the lives of those who dwell in them; and archetypal narratives of home that determine the identity of cultures and nations over generations.

Hill has heard stories of all kinds of homes: “homes that are full of life, homes that are empty, homes of fear, homes of love, erotic homes, stuffy homes, homes that are chaotic, homes that are impeccable, homes expressing status, homes that are humble”.

He quotes an Italian saying, “Dimmi che casa hai e ti dirò chi sei” (Tell me about your house and I will tell you who you are).

Eat, sleep, love, laugh, cry
Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, founder of the Focus Ireland homeless charity and the Sanctuary, an interspirituality centre in Dublin, says that “the desire to have a home is the deepest desire we have – which most of us take for granted. Home is the place where you rest, eat, sleep, love, laugh, cry, read a book.”

She says that the homeless women she deals with are clear that home is much more than a roof over their heads. “They said to me, ‘We have a home, but we can’t go to it.’ They didn’t want to be called homeless but ‘out of home’.”

Sr Stan says that community is also part of home. “We flourish in each other’s company and when we feel we belong. We need to be and have allies and to care for each other, and this is all part of the meaning of home.”

Piaras Mac Éinrí, who teaches geography at University College Cork and was a founder of its Irish Centre for Migration Studies, says his first encounter with the idea of home was in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. “There was raw sewage on the streets, electricity wires strung all over the place – desolation on the surface, yet we were made feel so welcome. These people had been forced out of their homes and lived in a state of permanent transience.”

Through his work with migrants, Mac Éinrí is sharply aware that people who are forced to leave their homes find the place they go back to is no longer their home. “They discover that they’ve changed and it’s changed.”

He is also conscious that returned emigrants don’t always feel welcome. “Some people come home because they are homesick, but being home doesn’t work for them and they go away again.”

The stories in Coming Home, a book of interviews with older Irish emigrants who left many years ago and were repatriated under the Safe Home programme, are full of these mixed emotions about where your home really is. And the global recession has also meant that some people’s dream of a home became a nightmare when they were unable to pay their mortgages and were forced to leave their homes.

According to Mac Éinrí, we have to be able to inhabit the place we are. It’s the social friendships and intimate relationships that give us a sense of the meaning of home. “We are all citizens of the world now and our task, whether migrant or host, is to foster a rich and dense sense of belonging wherever we find ourselves.”

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