Not long ago, a friend said – in passing, as though it was so obvious that it didn’t bear any examination – that nobody would willingly choose to live their life again from the beginning if they couldn’t bring with them the benefit of hindsight. I would, I said instantly. I’d go back and do it all over again, no problem. In fact, I’d prefer not to have any hindsight: the idea of starting over and trying to live an unimpeachable life strikes me as a particular kind of torture. No, I’d go from day one, a blank baby, just for the hell of it.
The concept of regret is difficult for me – not because I believe myself to have lived particularly well, but because to revise any decision could mean not meeting all the people I love, or not going to all the places that mean the most to me. Rather than specific regrets, I tend to harbour a large, free-floating dread that I will one day feel remorse about the way I live more generally – the biggest and most troubling element of this pre-regret being my decision to leave Ireland.
It’s easy to justify my move, objectively. In a sense, I had given myself no choice but to leave and fast, having burned down a relationship and a job and fallen for somebody whose mild but authentic disdain for certain aspects of Irish culture had begun to rub off on me. I had given Dublin a shot for seven years after leaving school and nothing good had come of it. Why not cut my losses?
In New York, where I’ve been for the past few months, I turn hungrily on the street when I hear another Irish person on the phone
In a larger, less concrete, sense, though, I feel that the absence at my centre is partly to do with placelessness. The longer I stay away, the less I feel completely truthful when I tell people I’m Irish, although I’m certainly nothing else. But when I return to Ireland, I don’t experience any estrangement; I’m right at home again and without anything to prove. In New York, where I’ve been for the past few months, I turn hungrily on the street when I hear another Irish person on the phone. I stare beseechingly at Irish bar staff: ask me where I’m from, I think.
‘I can’t believe we’re living here’: Historic Wexford cottage that was at risk of falling into decline is restored
Of course, there are also things about which anyone who moves away from home might feel a wistful regret. I’ve met my nephew only a handful of times, for instance and will miss his pivotal early years, bar brief holiday interludes, during which I have to introduce myself anew. I am the only member of my close family not to live in Ireland and with each year that passes, I hear my accent dwindle into a neutral transatlantic drawl. I find myself wondering what I sound like to people back home and how I would sound had I never left.
I could handle the downsides of leaving if I didn’t also harbour the suspicion that these sacrifices will reveal themselves, ultimately, to have been in service of absolutely nothing. Many people leave their home country with specific, meaningful goals. They work hard and establish enough of a new foundation to feel the loss is justified. But how can I justify my losses?
Yes, there has been much laughter, a couple of novels, but also the harrowing morning panic that nothing I do has any weight; the suspicion that I have failed to become a real human being and now it’s too late. I won’t know for certain until the end of my life, but, for now, I fear that the things I left behind will never be offset on the balance sheet of life – that I will be left thinking only of what I chose to eschew, not what I chased after. – Guardian