Jennifer O’Connell: It’s not really a break-up, Ireland. It’s more of a break

It’s much harder to put down roots when you always have one eye on home. For that reason, I’ve decided this will be my last column for The Irish Times

‘There are ways in which I feel less Irish too: for one thing, I get excited about the prospect of rain.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

‘There are ways in which I feel less Irish too: for one thing, I get excited about the prospect of rain.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

 

It’s been almost two years since we left Ireland for nine months in Australia. Those nine months stretched into a year, and then, just as we were due to return to Ireland, a job opportunity came along for my husband on the west coast of the United States. Suddenly our grown-up gap year was stretching into another year, and another continent. There we were, again, surrounded by masking tape and packing boxes. There we were, again, saying goodbye.

We flew from Sydney to San Francisco, exactly one year to the day after we had arrived. Now almost another year has passed.

Along the way, we have acquired three sets of many things: mobile phone numbers, carrot peelers, beach towels, bank accounts, barbecues. And children. We had a baby, whom we called Julia after her maternal grandmother, and the line in the Beatles song that goes “seashell eyes, windy smile”. Some day I’ll tell her how I used to walk along the shore at Balmoral beach in Australia and feel the sea air on my belly as she squirmed inside it, and hoped she was forming some kind of prenatal sensory memories of the country of her birth.

I’ve learned to say “runners”, “swimming togs” and “ice lollies” in three languages, all of them English. I’ve snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef, cycled under the Golden Gate Bridge, watched an opera in the Sydney Opera House and driven in a rickety RV down the Big Sur coastline. I’ve discovered that the things I thought I would never learn to live with – sharks, funnel-web spiders, black widows, earthquakes – don’t seem nearly as frightening as other things. Things like the unexpected phone call in the middle of the night. I’ve sat and held my husband’s hand as he took that call, and held it all the way to the airport when we flew briefly home to Dublin to say a last goodbye to his wonderful mother.

 

Promises

I’ve forged lifelong friendships on both continents; real friendships, the kind that involve shared jokes, emergency calls to pick up children, and Friday night pizza dates by the local swimming pool. I’ve lingered outside school playgrounds in two cities, peering through the railings, and failing not to cry. I’ve wondered at the relative ease with which my children navigated two new sets of playground rules, discovered new friendships and new passions: netball and surfing in Australia, coding and baseball and selling girl scout cookies in California. I’ve promised them that, as fun and as testing and as rewarding as it has all been, I won’t make them do this a third time.

I’ve also realised two things. The first is that it’s time to put down roots. I can’t land my children in another school playground in another new city with no idea whether they should be calling it the yard or the blacktop or something else entirely. (Knowing the lexicon, we’ve discovered, matters a lot when you’re a small stranger in a strange land.)

The second is that it’s much harder to put down roots when you always have one eye on home. For that reason, I’ve decided this will be my last column for The Irish Times.

By the time you read this, I will have taken up a communications job in the tech industry. Being here and not having a job in the industry feels a bit like arriving in San Francisco in the gold rush and deciding that you would rather fish in the river than pan for gold. I’ll still be writing for myself, and for others, but writing a weekly column requires a particular connection, and as time goes by, that connection becomes more difficult to maintain, like you’re on a bad phone line across the ocean, shouting a greeting and getting only static in return.

Yet in many ways, I feel more Irish than ever before. I cling resolutely to the linguistic tics that lend Hiberno-English its bonkers beauty: the “ye’s” and the “bolds” and the “giving outs” and the “long fingers” and the “awful gobshiting eejits”. I make sure my children know the important things about Ireland, such as the marriage equality referendum and the struggle for independence and crisp blaas. I’ve found that I drift, instinctively, towards things that anchor me to my Irishness: other Irish people, the ocean, sarcasm, words.

But there are ways in which I feel less Irish too: for one thing, I get excited about the prospect of rain. I’ve stopped swearing. I look through my Twitter feed and I have no idea what many of the things that people are getting exercised about mean. I’ve stopped looking at my weather app to see what it’s doing in Dublin. Eventually, it felt a bit like being in a new relationship with photos of my old boyfriend festooned all over the house. It was time to move on.

It is time to move on.

It’s not really a break-up, Ireland, it’s more of a break. I’ll be home for a holiday soon. Clearly, I still call it “home”. In the meantime, I’ll be stalking Twitter, trying to figure out what the hashtags mean. But if I am to give myself fully to the present, to my new life, to my new job, I can’t do it with one eye constantly trained on a spot 5,078 miles away, on the small, damp, big-hearted, mixed-up, joyful, beloved country that keeps trying to pull me back. So bye now. Bye. Bye. Bye. See ya. All the best. I’ll let you go so. Grand. Bye now. I’ll talk to you soon.

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