Ciara Kenny

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

Distance gives us perspective on Ireland

Emigration today is not a one way ticket, but an endless series of return journeys which enriches individuals and communities, writes Cormac MacGabhann.

Wed, Oct 10, 2012, 09:07


Emigration today is not a one way ticket, but an endless series of return journeys which enriches individuals and communities, writes Cormac MacGabhann.

Cormac MacGabhann on the Camino

I played a game of 7-a-side football with a group of Spanish friends a few weeks back. The trademark tici-taka was plain to see, even here. The ball whizzed back and forth at an alarming rate. My t-shirt quickly turned a different shade of green as I suffered in the 34º of a Madrid summer, the sweat pouring off me in buckets. Even here, on the local artificial playing surfaces of inner-city Madrid, the cultural identity is clear. No hoofing it up to the big man, no hail-mary passes, no heavy tackles. This is the burden of expectation that Xavi, Iniesta and Silva and their cohorts have bequeathed to their compatriots.

An Irish football culture does not fit snugly here. We are generally keener on “getting it into the mixer”, we enjoy our strong-but-fair challenges and hardy centre backs. Where the Spanish game is all balletic flair, ours is more reminiscent of a playground scuffle.

These are the cultural burdens we all must deal with. Like a good GAA parish, you don’t get the opportunity to pick and choose them. Spaniards, for example, work late, their day prolonged by countless coffee breaks and long lunches. This instinct for sociability is engrained in them, enjoying long evening in terrazas, sipping at their cañas or enjoying a late night espresso.

Our cultural burdens are different. There is the sunburnt Irish, the Guinness Irish, the Catholic Irish. We fit into one or other of these stereotypes snugly, safe abroad in our Irishness. We still deny ourselves suncream even though we know we shouldn’t, we still head to the Irish pub and make an early statement of intent with a confident “Guinness please” and some of us make our way straight to the closest parish church and lay our knobbly knees down on the unforgiving wooden pews.

Away from home, these cultural indicators are a safety net. They preserve us and cushion the blow of foreignness. Without them, we would be like an overboard sailor, thrashing aimlessly and dangerously about in a struggle between sinking and swimming. With them, we at least have a floating ring to cling onto for dear life.

At home, however, they are straitjackets. The recent Ray D’Arcy controversy is a case in point. By criticizing the Catholic Church the way he did, D’Arcy was not just questioning the institution and its historical role in Irish society. He was questioning a pillar of Irish society, one which has helped us define ourselves for centuries. When in doubt about our Irish identity, we could always point to our sexual stiffness, our tendency towards guilt, and our busy Sunday mornings with pride. Catholicism was not an accessory to our national identity, it was part and parcel of it.

The same can be said for our hefty drinking culture. Forgotten Friday and Saturday nights and wasted weekend afternoons is a staple of our social interactions. It is a point of pride and is an image of Irishness which we are glad to export. It is quite a line in the sand when a visiting Swedish friend, on his first visit to Dublin, requests to go to Coppers because he has heard about it through the grapevine. We are known for our debauchery and our excess, and it has come to be expected of us to provide it.

At home, we live in a tiny greenhouse, isolated and exaggerated nearly to the point where we no longer recognize what we have become. We are too close, too magnified to our own eyes to see what we are, be it good or bad.

The distance gives us perspective. We see the wood from the trees; we see the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. More than any other that has gone before it, this generation is the lucky one.

We are not lost to anybody or anything. This is a generation of opportunity, of expanded horizons, of gold-tinged circumstance. More than ever before, we hold the world in the palm of our hand: we can disembark on any shore with, always, the chance to come home. The coffin ships have been replaced by the era of cheap air travel. This is not a one way ticket, but an endless series of return journeys, each one enriching us as individuals and communities.

Today, we look to previous generations of emigrant Irishmen and women to come back and help out. In the final weeks of August, Dublin served as a clear test case for the potential success of The Gathering initiative. Several generations on, the national umbilical chord is still not cut.

The same will be true of this, the generation of choice more than obligation. Today, we look for a financial benefit, but in years to come, the advantages could be so much more. We will come back from the four corners of the Earth, culturally richer and more diverse for it.

And who knows, maybe some day, some small, unusually tanned individual playing in the green and white of the country he was born in will play short crisp passes on the turf of Landsdowne Road. He won´t lump it into the box, and he won’t pass it backwards to his goalkeeper. But the best part of it is that, maybe, we will think nothing of it.

Cormac blogs at