Ciara Kenny

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

‘I no longer feel lost in Montreal’

Irish emigrants feel a special attachment to Ireland, but it is possible to let go, writes Patrick McKenna

Tue, May 7, 2013, 07:00


Patrick McKenna

It seems obvious, to me at least, from reading the Generation Emigration blog for the past 18 months, from my own personal emigrant experience of 35+years, from Irish songs, and literature, that the Irish emigrant feels a special bond with Ireland, especially with their little corner of it.

This place attachment is no less strong for those that stay: the Irish Times Best Place to Live in Ireland competition drew 563 responses from what is a relatively low number of cities, towns, and villages, approximately 2,000, by my reckoning.

And place attachment is not limited to classic beauty spots such as Westport, the winner of the Irish Times competition. City dwellers feel a strong connection to their urban place.

Commenting on Reflecting a city’s true nature (John Waters Aug 14, 2012) Mary Monks Hatch manages to go beyond place attachment, to identity and belonging: “You can’t explain Dublin to a non-Dub. You belong or you don’t. If you belong, you feel the city in your bones, in your breath, in your heartbeat. You don’t learn about your city, you absorb it, and it absorbs you.

Mary’s words “in your bones, in your breath, in your heartbeat” reminded me that attachment to Ireland runs deeper than “the craic”, Tayto crisps, and Barry’s tea. Place attachment, just as much as emotion, learning, and memory, is rooted in biology.

In 2011, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, professors of neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway, won the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine for their work demonstrating that the brain creates its own maps. Their work on the brain of the rat most likely applies to human brains also. Moser & Moser’s work suggests that we may have an “on board”, “biological GPS” to help us navigate from place to place and, of course, back home.

The existence of “biological maps” and “a biological GPS” shouldn’t surprise you. After all, the “biological clock” is well known. Out of kilter with local time it provokes jet lag. A “biological GPS”, might read local surroundings and compare them with its maps. A match between surroundings and maps means you’re on familiar ground. If maps and surroundings are very different, your “biological GPS”, might start messaging you, subliminally, that: “You’re lost”.

According to Webster’s dictionary, “A lost person is unable to identify or orient his current location with respect to known locations, and has no effective means or method for reorienting himself.” Sound scary? It is. Perhaps you remember the feeling of being lost, as a child? As a parent you may fear turning around to discover that your child, or aged parent with Alzheimer’s, isn’t there, anymore. The fear of being lost runs deep. It even has a name: “mazeophobia”.

Biological maps have to be uploaded from somewhere. Important, emotion-laden, maps such as “home and the way back” should be R.O.M. (“Read Only Memory”). You wouldn’t want these “core” maps to change on a whim. If they did, you’d be at home everywhere, and nowhere. Trivial, emotionally neutral, maps, to and from work, and to the stores, do update easily.

How would all this be managed, biologically speaking? Well, Hippocrates’s: “People, from the moment of birth, absorb topographic influences,” seems to apply to my biological map-making in Ireland.

My childhood was split between the working class, treeless, New Lodge District, and a leafy suburb close to Glengormly. From my bedroom window in the suburbs, I could see Belfast Lough’s blue waters, with the Castlereagh hills on the far shore. In my early teens, during the summer, I spent many afternoons hiking to the summit of Cavehill where I would sit and study the distant hills of Scotland.

From my mid teens, to when I left for Canada at age 25, as often as I could, I travelled around Ireland, staying anywhere from a weekend to more than a month in Coleraine, Ballycastle, Portrush, Waterfoot, Whitepark Bay, Cushendall, Portaferry, Downpatrick, Newry, Newcastle, Rossnowlagh, Sligo, Galway, Kilorglin, Feakle, Inch (Co Kerry), and on the other side of the bay, Castlegregory. Cork, Kinsale, Dublin.

Most of my maps are sited between rolling hills or mountains and the sea. So it’s hardly surprising, when I landed in rural Ontario, that I felt lost. The ocean was a two-hour flight or 18-hour drive away. The land around my small town was flat, and featureless. Between the horizon and me, no landmarks. I was living on a huge pancake.

After three years, in 1979, I moved to Montreal. I chose – or did it choose me – one of Montreal’s older districts; slightly run down but comfortable, like an old pair of sneakers. The narrow streets are lined with old maple trees, and 19th century homes with the wrought iron metal staircase winding up to the balcony. From my first day, I felt at home.

Looking back, I wondered why I was « bien dans ma peau» in Montreal? Is it that the city is an island? Do the narrow streets and brick houses remind me of the New Lodge District of my childhood? Is the Saint Lawrence River a substitute for Belfast Lough; Mont Royal for Cavehill? And when I look southeast from my balcony, to Monts Saint Bruno, Hilaire and Gabriel do I see the Castlereagh Hills?

Despite my comfort level, I still missed home, a great deal, in fact. I went back frequently and for three weeks, I wouldn’t feel lost. Then it was back to the routine. It took until 2009 for my attachment to Ireland to disappear completely. It happened very quickly, in three months. I went from liking my little corner of Montreal to loving it. I am still trying to understand the rapidity of the change and if ever I find an explanation, Generation Emigration readers will be the first to know. For the moment though, I enjoy the feeling of being at home, and no longer lost.

Patrick McKenna is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. His previous articles include Once, I was Irish; now I am just ‘me’, When you get ‘that’ call, Living with Persistent Immigration Homesickness for 34 years, and 10 things to consider when moving abroad.