Ciara Kenny

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

A return visit provides a new perspective on emigration

‘I saw for the first time that moving away offers additional freedom of speech and thought not possible at home’

Wed, Jun 5, 2013, 01:00


Patrick McKenna

On May 2nd at 10 am, I arrived in Dublin airport after a sleepless overnight flight from Montreal via Amsterdam. Although I slept through the bus ride to Newry, I still was very tired when I arrived at my destination at 12.30.

I didn’t come for the Gathering, but as things worked out, I ended up in a gathering of sorts, as all of the other guests in the B&B where I was staying were or had been emigrants. Like me, they belong to the cohort who left in the 1960s and early 1970s. As we exchanged stories of our emigration experiences, whether in the UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, I noticed that no one spoke badly of their countries of adoption. Emigration had been the thing to do. Nonetheless their, and my, coming back testified to the enduring nature of the “ties that bind”.

Most of the guests are regulars. I have stayed there on and off for 25 years, so it now seems like “home-from-home” and I feel like one of the family. This is just as well because with mum, dad and the family home gone, I can’t expect my few surviving uncles and aunts, much less my nephews and nieces or even my siblings to accommodate me. This is one of the logistical, and to some extent emotional hurdles of the “senior emigrant”. The loss of accommodation within the family circle can make one feel almost like a tourist, a stranger in one’s native place.

For the first four days the weather was horrible: dark, cold, wet. Despite drinking tea almost continually, I couldn’t seem to get warm. To my credit, I didn’t let the cold get me down. In the mornings, as I waited for the central heating to kick in at 7.30am, I sat propped up in bed, fleecy over my pyjamas, drinking tea and reading Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. It was quite cosy, really.

Then, on my fifth day, the clouds dispersed, the temperature “soared” to 18C. I was able to take a walk through the area known as the Ring of Gullion – one of Northern Ireland’s nine “Areas Of Natural Beauty” – that far exceeds my capacity as a writer to do justice. Slieve Gullion, with its neighbouring mountains and hills, its stands of trees and forests, the surrounding farmlands, the swathes of yellow whin, purple heather and orange bracken, when lit up by this bright May sun, shining from a rain-washed blue sky, gives Tuscany or Provence a run for their money. And the same could be said of many other places in Ireland – so long as the sun is shining down on them.

The string of sunny afternoons that followed allowed me to visit some places I had never seen before, such as the Newgrange neolithic site, as well as others I hadn’t been to for over 40 years: Newcastle, Drogehda, and Armagh. It was on one of these afternoon excursions that I popped into Armagh’s Cultural Centre. There I found an exhibit of the Ulster poet John Hewitt (1907-1987) that to my surprise, would provide me with a new perspective on emigration.

I knew little of John Hewitt, apart from his being the author of one of my favourite poems – “Gloss: On the difficulties of translation”. I didn’t know that he had prepared the way for a generation of Ulster poets – including the “very famous Seamus” Heaney, or that he had become an emigrant in 1957 at the relatively advanced age of 50 years. Passed over for the post of director of the Belfast museum, he emigrated to Coventry where he became the director of the Herbert Art Gallery. Expressing his gratitude to Coventry for giving him a second chance, he wrote a poem in praise of what he called his “eager city”.

Hewitt named this poem “An Irishman in Coventry”, which may have had something to do with marketing. After all, in terms of brand recognition, “Ulsterman” is less well known in Coventry, or in other parts of the “mainland” than “Irishman” (as a native of Belfast I hope can say this with no disrespect to my fellow Ulstermen and women). On the other hand, the title may have sprung from the heart, which is not unusual – necessary I would say – for a poet. Although Hewitt loved his native Ulster, he also felt a deep connection to Ireland’s history and mythology. His “Coventry” poem ends with a reference to the Children of Lir. Perhaps Hewitt, in naming himself an Irishman, was expressing an aspect of his identity that in his native place he could not.

This link between emigration and freedom that Hewitt’s story suggested, although not new, is something I had never really bought into. I always clung to the notion of emigration as primarily economic. However, Hewitt’s experience seemed to break through this mindset of mine perhaps because I have some sort of inkling of the constraints to thought and speech he could have felt in the mid 1950s. Or was it simply that I am older, a tiny bit wiser, and prepared to entertain new ideas about emigration? Whatever the reasons, I saw for the first time that beyond its material benefits, emigration offers the “bonus” of some additional freedom of speech and thought.

Although I confess I did not come for the Gathering I am glad I came all the same. My fellow emigrants in the B&B reminded me of the Irish propensity to live and work abroad while maintaining the bond to the native place. I enjoyed the warmth of the welcome in my favourite B&B nestled in the heart of the scenic beauty of the Ring of Gullion. Perhaps most importantly, I accepted that emigration might offer a freedom of thought and speech not possible at home. This concept was already at work, dislodging yet more bricks in the fast crumbling wall of my nostalgia. At the end of my three week visit, I knew I would return to Montreal with a fresher and lighter view of emigration in general, and mine in particular.

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.