Comings and goings still leave us all in the same boat

Tue, Dec 24, 2013, 01:02

All last weekend and all today, this island breathes in and out. It inhales its own young, the refugees from the great recession flooding back for Christmas. But it also, more quietly, exhales migrants: nurses going back to the Philippines, security men going back to Romania, carpenters going back to Poland.

The acts of journeying and arrival are broadly the same, but they may also be quite different. The typical Irish Christmas journey is the child coming home to the parent.

It would be a simplification to say that the typical journey of those who have come to live here in the last 15 years is the parent going home to the child. But it is not entirely untrue.

There are differences – and behind them there is a further, more profound similarity: none of us, Irish-born or immigrant can use the word “home” without a second thought about where exactly it might be. Because the crash delivered such a shock to the system, it is easy to fall into the assumption that everything changed in 2008 – not least the flow of people. “They” stopped coming here and “we” started going “there”.

Deeper continuity
This narrative of inward immigration replacing a long history of outward emigration now seems entirely bound up with the boom years – years we have mentally put behind us. It is part of a time we wish to excise from memory. But the people who came and stayed are not just hangovers, anomalies, human ghost estates. And although the big story suggests a complete reversal – immigration giving way again to emigration – there is in fact a deeper continuity.

Those who are indigenous to this place and those who have come here recently share something quite big: they all have to use the word “home” in a complicated, somewhat uneasy way.

Beyond its religious significance and beneath its commercial imperatives, Christmas is about the idea of home. Tomorrow’s gathering is a ritual in which we imagine and define what home is.

This is why, for example, the decision about where to be for Christmas is much more than a matter of location. It is a statement about your primary place of belonging.

When you first decide not to go “home” to your parents for Christmas dinner but spend it with your new partner or spouse, you are changing the photograph on your passport and becoming, subtly but significantly, a different person. And when the emigrant decides not to come “home” for Christmas, that shift is even bigger: a decisive alteration of identity has happened.

The idea of home is seldom fixed or simple, in other words. But the sheer scale both of emigration, historically and since the crash, and of immigration in the boom years, makes the Irish sense of home even more slippery.

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