Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Persistent Immigration Homesickness (P.I.H.)

Patrick McKenna spent 34 years being homesick in Montreal, but when the option to move back to Ireland finally arose, the nostalgia for Ireland melted away and he finally developed an appreciation for Canada.

Sat, Jan 14, 2012, 15:11


Patrick McKenna spent 34 years being homesick in Montreal, but when the option to move back to Ireland finally arose, the nostalgia for Ireland melted away and he finally developed an appreciation for Canada.

Woody Allen’s “I am as two with nature” sums up how I felt as an immigrant in Canada: unable or unwilling to integrate my new home, unable or unwilling to let go of the old one. Things began to change in 2009, a mere 34 years after I left my native land.

I emigrated from Belfast to Canada on January 31 1975. Every day, since that date, during my 3 years in a small town in Ontario, 6 months in Toronto, and in Montreal, since 1978, I suffered from what I call  “Persistent Immigration Homesickness”, (I abbreviate this to “P.I.H.”).

At first I thought that there must be something wrong with me. After all, I had a job, an apartment, and eventually friends and a social life, so what on earth was my problem? Then, over time, as I listened to other immigrants, I came to see that they too suffered from homesickness.

Reading of “Have your say: would you move back to Ireland? ” discussion on Generation Emigration confirms that I am not alone. Here’s a random sample of quotes: “Homesickness is not a steady state. It’s a dull toothache that comes and goes away.” ” So many times alone, and longing for some family and friends. Yes, you make a life, at least you try but you always miss home. ” “We loved life outside of Ireland. But, Ireland remains home. ” “They were times when I cried myself asleep. I’m a man without a country or so it feels sometimes.” “Holidays are brilliant in Ireland though, it reinstates our desire to come back and settle in Ireland,” “I left for Wellington New Zealand two years ago. I still love it here, but am determined to move back at some stage. ” “I’ve been living in Sydney for 4 years now and really am terribly torn on what to do. ”

On January 31 2009, when the small software company in Montreal where I worked closed its doors, I found myself on the dole at age 59. I was, or so I thought, a perfect candidate for a one-way ticket home. It didn’t work out that way. What did happen really surprised me.

In the months leading up to my 60th birthday, I could feel my P.I.H. falling away from me. In my usual haunts, Mont Royal, the Lachine Canal cycle path, the wonderful Botanical Gardens I had the strangest feeling of truly “registering”, for the first time, the sights, sounds, colors, smells, which I had experienced many times before. At the same time, I began to fully appreciate a lot of other things: the health care system, this city’s reasonable cost of living, and its system of bike paths, to name but a few.

During the winter of 2009-2010, I didn’t feel the need to fly to the apparent security and warmth of home. In June 2010, back in Belfast for a 2-week vacation, I found myself, for the first time, seeing the “place-that-was-my-home” with my head, not with my heart. I didn’t even get in a single hike over Cavehill.

In an attempt to understand this strange but welcome new feeling I did some “P.I.H” research, which lead to some discoveries and a working hypothesis for what had undermined my enjoyment of my new life for so long.

First of all, I discovered that homesickness has a long history. In ancient cultures, exile and suffering are common themes in the lives of the heroes.  Confucius was exiled from Lu, and wandered for many years, suffering privation and hardship. Aeschylus, in Agamemnon says,  “I know how men in exile feed on dreams of hope. ” Homer ‘s Odysseus “weeps and rolls on the ground”, thinking of home. And, of course, Irish mythology speaks to homesickness. In Tír na nÓg, even with the gift of immortality, living in the “Land of Youth”, with beautiful Niamh of the Golden Hair, Oisin, silly man, is homesick, goes back to Ireland and suffers the dire personal consequences we all have read about.

Secondly, homesickness is not trivial. “Juvenile homesickness” that affects kids leaving for summer camp or college is usually relatively mild and temporary. “Expatriate homesickness” may be a bit more long lasting. While homesickness can interfere with adaptation to the new country – “it may also hinder an eventual reintegration to the homeland that has over time been idealized, to the point where the return is often disappointing” (cf. Begemann, 1988).

Thirdly, P.I.H. seems universal.  It’s not just the Irish who suffer from it. One of my indelible memories is driving with a Lithuanian friend to visit his parents on a small farm close to Egansville, and his mother saying, “I was so homesick when we first came here, I would have walked home.”

Here in Montreal, all immigrants of my acquaintance, from many different countries, have some sort of homesickness from mild nostalgia, to frequent communications with family and friends in the “old country”, acquiring passports from the home country for their kids born in Canada, ensuring that the kids speak the language of the home country, building a retirement home in the old country, counting the days to the magic moment of that final one way flight “home”.  It’s not just immigrants to Canada. Canadians migrate within Canada, from economically deprived to more prosperous provinces; they too live for the day when they can go home.

Fourthly, and this is my own theory – P.I.H is not just in the mind (home to nostalgia), a lot of it may be in the body. To begin with, for survival reasons, we must absorb and imprint (“lock in”) especially in the developmental years of life, the sensory “place data” that defines home. This place data is very varied indeed – the colors, sights, sounds, smells, quality of light, topography, and so on, of your street, town land, village, town, and the land, the sky the sea, and much more. All these data define the place that you call home; a unique fingerprint.

Following the developmental stage of the life cycle, the “place-that-is-home “data are locked into the adult, by now not so plastic, brain. As such it’s hard to unlock (unlearn). Then, along comes emigration; the adult parachutes into a new environment that possesses its own place data that may be very different from the locked-in “place-that-is-home” data. That leads to a gap between sensory readings of the new place and the locked in “place-that-is-home” data. In same cases this might be, at face value, quite agreeable – I would say, that it would be nice to swap Belfast for Bali – but when I think about it, I am not sure that I would be at ease with my new tropical surroundings for the rest of my life.

Some immigrants may be stimulated by the sensory gap but others may enter into a built-in “jet lag of the senses”. This is the “I am as two with nature”, state, that I speak of. I now think of P.I.H. as “low level, long-term, sensory deprivation” (or, sensory discombobulation) added to the well-known sadness at leaving family and friends, and the nostalgia for times gone by.

To conclude, although I have no illusions as to the limits of my “P.I.H.” theory, I do wish, on a personal basis, that I had done my research a long time ago. So many of my projects foundered, I think, because I underestimated the power of homesickness. At least now I can say that I’m now free of the message of the poetic lines:

“Our native soil draws all of us, by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget.”
– Ovid, The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters.

Note: This essay is based on my research on homesickness, and my own personal experiences and interactions with immigrants over the past 35 years. It is not intended as medical advice. I have Masters degrees in Chemistry and in Education.