Ciara Kenny

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‘Making a new home does not take away the home you had’

It’s springtime again in San Francisco and I can not summon, even on the toughest days, the homesickness that defined me for my first summer away, writes Sarah Griffin, with portrait photographs by David Monahan

Sarah Griffin: 'I like the gap that has grown now between me and Dublin: it is full of stories and growth and age.' Photograph: David Monahan

Tue, Mar 5, 2013, 01:00


Sarah Griffin

(Sarah Griffin was photographed by David Monahan last year as part of his ‘Leaving Dublin’ project, which has captured soon-to-be emigrants at locations around the capital as they prepare to leave.)

The last time I met David Monahan was three nights before I emigrated: here, we sat in the Metro Cafe off Grafton Street, nine months later. I was at home for two weeks to have Christmas with my family: breaking the first year away down the middle with the familiarity of Dublin in winter. He called to see if I was around for a catch-up. In the myriad of pints and family gatherings, I knew I had to talk to him again – I remembered how I had almost gone and poured all my anxieties about leaving home out to him in his car after the photoshoot, on my way to my going away party.

Here is my story, I am terrified because I am not terrified, I am ready to go, I think, I think, I hope – I’m pretty sure that was how it went, all the way from the Bayside graveyard to Harcourt Street. He’d met so many people on the same path as I was: sort of like the ferryman folks met on their way down the River Styx, you meet David before you emigrate. Thing is, he doesn’t take the pennies from your eyes, but instead snaps your image on film: with that exchange, you are one of the people who slipped away to see the world, leaving Ireland on the other side.

Having spoken to emigrants who have been gone out of Ireland for most of their adult lives, I’m aware of the chasm that begins to develop between who you are and the country you belong to. When you leave, something happens. Nine months is nothing in the scope of things, but it is long enough for something to begin, something to change. If a baby can turn from a cluster of tiny anonymous cells into a screaming creature with arms and legs in nine months, a person can shift their national identity and start to peel themselves away from the country they knew to be home. And the crack was there, between me and home. Not a gaping chasm or an unbridgable gap: just a slim fault line where something had moved, something grew in the other direction. Nothing a tightly wound bandage couldn’t help if I really wanted to move things back to the way they used to be: nothing that couldn’t be healed.

There were things I’d just not thought about, as that crack began to crawl down through me. Not on purpose, but they just didn’t register in my head for all the day to day of being an intern, making ends meet, eating avocados, aching calves from steep hills. I forgot the tininess of Dublin. Spirally and grey and shining. The oldness, the chaos of Penney’s, the wild mania of late-night drunken storytelling in cheap, cold apartments. The freeze of rain on your nose as you wait outside the gaff on Ormond Quay to get in to the Christmas party you’ve been waiting for since August. Not having to explain words, being able to talk as fast as you want and not being asked to slow down. Your family’s faces, undistorted by broken pixels on a poor Skype connection. Dawn rising over the housing estate you were brought up in, seen with jetlagged confused eyes is still as precious as the first time you saw it crack, after creeping into the house after a party twenty minutes across Edenmore. These things just sort of disappear, but when they come back they arrive with a clatter of warmth and safety: these things that are so easy to forget are so, completely home. The fracture nine months leaves is so small that it’s effortless to touch these things again, slip back into a visit home like a warm blanket.

Sarah photographed by David Monahan the night before she left Dublin for San Francisco last year.

Returning to San Francisco, all these feelings and all sentimentality accounted for, should have been impossible. I expected a wrenching gut and stinging eyes when I stepped out onto Dolores Street again, weird winter sun hanging over the hills, the cat sitting in the window of the apartment eyeing us furiously for leaving him with a stranger for a fortnight. But the crushing loss never came. The first week of January quickly slipped into February and here, hello March, it’s springtime again and I can not summon, even on the toughest days, the homesickness that defined me for my first summer away.

I like the gap that has grown now between me and Dublin: it is full of stories and growth and age. Americans don’t alienate me the way they used to, I’ve stopped pushing them away and insisting I’m different because I’m foreign. I’m getting used to the food, the corn-syrupy sodas and tofu and portions the size of your head. I can mimic a throaty Californian drawl in the flicker of an eyelid if I need to. I still sometimes have to ask questions about cultural blindspots I have, but now I have friends who will explain them to me – learning who Mr Rogers and PeeWee Herman were from people who grew up with them is far more interesting than reading the Wikipedia entries (I also get to tell them who Bosco was, who Socky and Dustin and Ted were). I no longer feel like my Irishness is being taken from me by being here: I feel like I’m giving a little of my culture and taking a little of theirs. Growing.

And like those weird clicking feelings you get in your kneecaps when your twelve year old body decides to grow a foot in two weeks, the first few months here were just discomfort. They were just a shift, and the intertia that comes with turning into something new. But once the aching subsides, there is new height, and new perspective. When you’re twelve it might be as simple as seeing over the counter in the chipper for the first time: but when you emigrate, it’s seeing a new culture without the foggy lens of nostalgia clouding the whole wide world in front of you.

Making a new home does not take away the home you had: it will always be there and full of the things you love. It’s wonderful out here. And even if the day ever comes when I need to bandage up the break I made and draw myself back to Dublin, I will always know that I summoned my nerve and left home. My face is amongst that lineup of diaspora that David keeps, and adds to with the Leaving Dublin Projections: so even if the stories wither with time and Dublin takes me into it’s loving, concrete arms again, I have the photographs to prove it.

Certainly. If you are a homebird, then that will be your joy and I wish I had that in me. If you are an adventurer, then set sail. The world is as big as you want to make it.

Sarah Griffin writes essays and poems and can be found on Twitter @griffski. She is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read other articles written on her departure from Dublin, on ‘The ache of homesickness’, on Christmas in Ireland, and dialogue about the emigrant experience with fellow Irish writer in San Francisco Ethel Rohan

David Monahan is currently engaging in the second stage of the ‘Leaving Dublin’ photography project, catching up with his subjects wherever they now live around the world. For updates, check out his blog.