It’s 50 years since I left Ireland for good. I have always felt a continuing connection but have come to realise it’s to the Ireland of the 1950s and 1960s. There have been huge socioeconomic and cultural changes since I left, but more striking are the changes in the landscape of my hometown, Dublin. James Joyce boasted that the city could be re-created from his writings, and perhaps that may yet come to pass in some type of virtual reality. But the Dublin he knew, which was little changed in the 1950s and 1960s, now seems to have largely vanished.
On my last visit, a few years ago, I took a stroll from the city centre to my old neighbourhood in the Liberties. I was struck by the pervasiveness of new buildings and the disappearance of old landmarks. I have lived in a suburb of Detroit in the United States for more than 40 years. There have been physical changes here, too, but to a much lesser degree.
I have always enjoyed my visits home, but each has been accompanied by a slight sense of disappointment. I realised that, for a long time, I had an unconscious fantasy that going back to Dublin would also mean going back to the Ireland I knew when I left. The American novelist Thomas Wolfe expressed it well in one of his most famous titles: You Can’t Go Home Again.
When I’ve looked at Dublin-memories pages on Facebook I’ve have been struck by the numerous responses of “happy days” and “good times” to photographs from the 1950s and 1960s. Objectively, they were not happy days. There was emigration, unemployment, poverty and covered-up abuse. We know that, but many of us carry a sense of nostalgia for our childhood days regardless of those problems. They were indeed simpler times, and that may now seem enviable.
I left Ireland to pursue further training in psychiatry, and I have had a satisfying medical career here in the US. I have mostly worked as a psychotherapist and also did hospital work and taught at several medical schools. My last position was as director of psychiatry services at a large, busy emergency department. I enjoyed this and likely would still be working there had not Covid arrived. My two children are also doctors who work in front-line positions. I felt that it would be prudent to step down, so I decided on early retirement (at the age of 74).
I miss my career but have found ample compensation in the joys of grandparenting.
I receive alumni updates from UCD medical school and am impressed with the huge range of educational and research activities now on offer there. When I left Ireland, psychiatric treatment was mostly in the form of medication, and training in psychotherapy was limited. I was interested in Freudian psychoanalysis and pursued that in my training. It was still a large presence in psychiatry in the US, where most departments were headed by psychoanalysts. Freudian psychoanalysis has now become largely marginalised in psychiatry and is rarely mentioned in the mainstream literature. Ironically, most psychiatrists here in the US also just prescribe medication, while there seems to be an active training programme in psychoanalysis at UCD medical school.
Sigmund Freud is supposed to have said that the only race who are unable to benefit from psychoanalysis are the Irish. I suspect that this was a quote from Anthony Burgess, and it now seems disproved.
At reunion when we were in midlife, one wag commented that there were ‘eight dead, one at death’s door and one on death row’
I did pursue psychoanalytic training here in the US but eventually disengaged, lacking what my own psychoanalyst referred to as the “willing suspension of disbelief” that seemed necessary to remain in the fold. I became what another colleague of mine who had a similar outcome described as a “lapsed analyst”, adding to that other great lapse that so many Irish people of my generation experienced.
My wife, Mary, is American. We lived in Dublin for the first two years of our marriage. She would have been content to stay. I was the main instigator of our travel to the United States, for training and for what seemed to me to be a more egalitarian society. Social class seemed to still loom as an issue in Ireland back then. With luck that is less the case today.
I have been pleased with my personal and professional life here, but I don’t think that the decision to emigrate would be as easily made today. Ireland has become a more attractive place to live and the US somewhat less so. Political polarisation has become ugly in the United States. The almost daily reports of mass shootings, and the ubiquity of gun ownership, have become concerns.
I might have entertained a fantasy of one day returning to Ireland, but with my children and grandchildren now entrenched in their lives here that now seems improbable. As the years go by, the family and friends from that other Ireland now exist mainly as ghosts in the real one.
I attend a medical-school reunion every five years, and we tend to keep track of those who have passed away. At reunion when we were in midlife, one wag commented that there were “eight dead, one at death’s door and one on death row”. (A classmate in the US had reportedly been convicted of murdering his book-keeper over some fraud scheme.) The numbers of retirees has continued to grow, and all the survivors are now retired.
We entered medical school when all that was required was a pass in the Leaving Certificate. Half the class left after the first year, but many who had barely got in went on to become fine doctors. I understand that only the highest academic achievers can gain admission to medical school in Ireland now, which I think is a shame. Teaching medical students over many years, I have not felt that the most brilliant ones made the best doctors. A capacity for the academic requirements is important, but other qualities, such as compassion, sensitivity and maturity, matter just as much.
I realise now that I took for granted the privileges that made my own path much easier: being male, white and English-speaking – and also being Irish, which I have always felt carries a certain cachet here in the US.
I am impressed with how diverse Ireland has become. Another colleague of mine, an Indian psychiatrist, spent some of his early career working in a regional hospital in Ireland. When he got off the train in the midlands he was impressed that everybody addressed him as Doctor and wondered how they knew. It turned out that the only darker-skinned people they had encountered were doctors from the hospital, so they assumed he was one too. That would be unlikely to happen today.
I recall seeing streams of people carrying suitcases up the North Wall to catch the night boat to Liverpool, but now apparently, the traffic is two-way and the outward flow no longer as sad.
Every time I return I am struck again at how beautiful the Irish landscape is and shake my head at how much I took it for granted when I lived there. That beauty is enduring, but Dublin will surely continue to change while the personal city of my memories stays as it was. I am reminded of the last lines of the poem Dublin Made Me, by Donagh MacDonagh. “But the Dublin of old statutes, this arrogant city / Stirs proudly and secretly in my blood.”
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