Comings and goings still leave us all in the same boat
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”.
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.
Christmas matters so much to us not because we have an easy relaxed sense of where we are at home but because we don’t. It is the Irish occasion for protesting too much. There is something fiercely insistent – dare I say self-dramatising – about the embrace of the returning exiles, the fierce joy in welcoming them as if they were coming, not from a year in a bank in Melbourne but from a decade chained to a radiator in Beirut. The homecoming recreates and reinforces the illusion that, contrary to Yeats, there is a centre that can hold.
There is an Irish paradox here: it is in all the disruptions of emigration that we find our greatest continuity. The airport on Christmas Eve is like Croke Park on All-Ireland final day: a centre of generational memory, of rituals re-enacted.
Our parents did this for us; we do this for our children. And in this there is as much relief as joy: the relief that they still identify us as “home”, masking the anxiety that there may come a day when they do not, when “home” has suddenly become the other place in which they have lived and loved and had children of their own.
There is another paradox too: that in all of this disruption, there is indeed a kind of unification. If there is a good side to the mass emigration of the recession years, it is that it has brought the indigenous Irish closer again to the experiences of the very large number of migrants who live among them.
One of the most unattractive aspects of Ireland in the boom years was the amnesia about how recently “we” had been “them”, the forgetting of all we had learned about the complex business of not being neither quite here nor there.
Now, at least, we share these experiences again. For every mother in Dublin airport waiting to see her son, there is a son in Manila airport waiting to see his mother. For every lad in Ballyhaunis tonight telling his mates about the girls in Australia, there is a girl in Moldova telling her mates about the fellas in Dublin.
Everywhere, there are parents and grandparents watching the young ones for reassurance that they are still at home with them. We may not be all on the same plane, but in this we are in the same boat.