Ciara Kenny

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We mustn’t forget that when you emigrate, you leave home

The internet, social networking and cheap travel has made the world a smaller place, but emigrants cannot hang between two countries forever, writes Bobby Gilmore of the Migrant Rights Centre. The question all emigrants have to answer sooner or later is, where is home?

Thu, May 10, 2012, 11:14


The internet, social networking and cheap travel has made the world a smaller place, but emigrants cannot hang between two countries forever, writes Bobby Gilmore of the Migrant Rights Centre. The question all emigrants have to answer sooner or later is, where is home?

It is natural for persons who have adventured to leave home and to seek their fortunes in a foreign and distant country, to give highly coloured accounts of a success, which in reality, has been the obtaining  a laborious employment; and it is equally natural for those who send you money to wish rather that you would suppose it a reckless gift from the lavishness of wealth rather than a charitable donation from the sympathy of poverty…We therefore conclude by saying, that you must never forget that when you emigrate, you leave home. (Irish Society of New York, Sydney’s Emigrant’s Journal, London, 1849)

In his famous short story Going Into Exile, Liam O’Flaherty describes the American wake for Mary and Michael the evening before they were to depart for the United States from their home in Connemara. He weaves the various relationships of Mary and Michael to their parents and to the local village that they were emigrating from. As dawn broke and the partygoer said their goodbyes, the father and mother called the children together around their humble hearth. The father assigned the daily chores, but excluded Mary and Michael. At that moment the pair began to idealise the humble home they were leaving, and think about where they were going. At that moment, feeling excluded from family chores, their emigration began. Emigration is a break in primary relationships.

It is the same for all. In the modern world, emigration is not so much an external journey as an internal one. Modern communication whisks people from one end of the world to the other. There is little time on the external journey to identify what is happening in one’s internal landscape. In the old days of sea travel, emigrants were together for days before reaching their destinations. They had each other to tell their stories to, and share their grief. Now, that is not the case. The person in the next seat on the plane may just fall asleep in his or her own thoughts. Arrival points throw people onto borders and the unknown. And it is only at a later stage that the whole experience of departure and arrival, home and away, can be internally processed.

Nearby emigration, such as Irish emigration to Britain following the Second World War, created a mistaken notion that return was always a possibility. Emigrants were told on leaving, officially and unofficially, that their emigration would be a temporary experience and that they would be “home in a short while when the economy improved”. This kind of misinformation gave the impression that since one’s emigration was of a temporary nature there was no need to adjust, integrate, settle or invest in accommodation. All that was needed was a job and a temporary residence. It was extremely difficult for those working with Irish emigrants to convince them that their emigration may be permanent, and even if it wasn’t, it would be a good investment to purchase a house which in the event of return would be an appreciable asset. When advised to invest in property, Irish emigrants responded saying, “ah sure, I’m going home”. Ralph McTell’s, It’s a Long, Long Way from Clare to Here, adequately highlighted that condition.

Can that happen again in the present emigration experience? It seems that it is. First, as in the past, emigrants are being fed with similar misinformation about the temporary nature of their migration. Second, many assume that return is an imminent possibility. Third, there is an illusion created that they are near “home” by the facility of social networking, the internet and modern travel. It is understandable that people are hesitant to put down roots, adjust and integrate into the political, social, economic and cultural networks of life where they find themselves. The internet is not “home”, and social networking, despite all its advantages, cannot substitute face-to-face communication. Helpful as these things are they cannot be substitutes for being “at home where I am”.

It is difficult to puncture an emigrant’s desire of return by saying, “you are not going to be at home anymore”. But it needs to be said, for the benefit of those who think they can hang between two cultures, between home and away. Everyone’s desire is to be at home. It makes one feel safe, valued and integral. The old Latin proverb Your home is where they treat you well still holds true.

Misinformation needs to be confronted with objective information. Governments and other societal institutions who are slow to give objective information about emigration are implying national failure. Like the emigrant, nobody is comfortable admitting failure. Emigration is not an act of God.

A bird stuck between two branches gets bitten on both wings.
A person stuck between two cultures lives and dies alone.
(Dinaw Mengestu, Children of the Revolution)

Bobby Gilmore is a founding member and President of the Migrant Rights Centre in Dublin.