Ciara Kenny

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

‘I’m home, but not at home yet’

Migrants who return often discover a place very different to that of their idealised memories, writes Bobby Gilmore of the Migrant Rights Centre

Fr Gilmore of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Wed, May 7, 2014, 11:36


In response to Clare Waldron’s article about returning to live in Ireland after three decades abroad, published in Weekend Review last Saturday, president of the Migrant Rights Centre Bobby Gilmore sent us this piece about his own experience of returning home to a changed country.

Things inside things endure
Longer than things exposed;
And should not be surprised to find
We survive because we’re enclosed.
(Brendan Kennelly, ‘A Time for Voices’)

Crossing O’Connell Bridge in May 2004, five years after returning to Ireland, I was greeted by a friend I hadn’t seen since 1990. He said, “You’re home.” We shook hands and I replied, “Yes, I’m home, but I’m not at home yet.”

Leaning against the bridge, he said, “What do you mean?” I replied, “After being back for five years I feel that it would be easier for me to have gone elsewhere. This is neither the country I left 35 years ago and it does not match the idealised picture I had in my mind over the years abroad.”

My friend thought for an instant and replied, “Maybe it shouldn’t be the country you left.” I answered, “Well, if it isn’t, then I am in a new country and I have to go through the stages of settlement that I experienced over the years in foreign countries, ,and it seems that I am going through those stages because I am not at home yet.”

Then my friend added, “Maybe, you never come home.” I replied, “That’s something I haven’t thought about.” We went on to talk about other things before parting, but his comment about “not coming home” stayed with me.

We all have different experiences of what home is. It means something different to each one and is always someone else’s story until it becomes one’s own story. When I was young, my mother when she talked about home meant her parents’ home. Yet, for my father home was where he was. He seemed sure about that. For my mother, home seemed to be her story, another story, but a place I wished to be. But then a time came when she didn’t talk about home that way and she felt at home where we lived.

I often wonder what was the turning point that made home to be under her feet rather than in some distant place. Was home a place where she knew herself best, where she was treated well, where she spent her adolescence, was comfortable in because she had an identity there? Or was she after marriage still in the process of trying to carve out a new space for herself where she would feel integrated and have an identity in but was as yet not a tamed space? Probably, in defining her new home she was re-defining herself.

But whenever it happened that she felt at home, home then became our house, a living, safe and tangible space for me. Then it would be taken for granted until on leaving it later to go to school I would experience home as loss. That loss would continue reinventing itself through life as one moved from one place to another, leaving the familiar confronting the unknown as a stranger until the strange became familiar by feeling at home there. It seems now that the loss was a temporary break of relationships that initially was external and personal in nature in that one would not be seeing the place or people one loved. As time went on this break would become internal, as one seemed to shed the importance of loss of external place as if it were unwanted baggage. Then, the people left behind and one’s relationship with them occupies pride of space in the internal landscapes and could easily be made present spiritually, mentally and emotionally.

Gradually, over time one is able to feel at home where one is. Then in a change of place, whatever alterations need to be made are concerned with negotiating the external landscapes of the networks of life in the new situation. However, on return my predicament lay in coping with the dichotomy between the mental tourist brochure of the Ireland I carried around with me for 35 years away, and the Ireland I was now confronted with on return. Really, I was a returned immigrant or traveller expecting to fit in to a scene that had some of the old familiar signs and symbols but little else. The friends that I carried around in my internal murals, like myself, had aged, some had passed on and those who replaced them were as much strangers to me as I was to them.

It soon became evident that adjustment to return itself was not just a challenge in coping with a different Ireland, but trying to manage a tension between what was familiar but had become unfamiliar. It seemed Ireland had become detached, anonymously urban, lacking quaintness, with a busyness that smacked of the aggression and unrefined modernity of self-made, newly acquired prosperity. I often wonder would adjustment be any different if I went to Sydney, Birmingham, Nashville, Berlin or Milan. Even now, every time I see a foreigner on the street I still think I should recognise them from some of the places I had lived in. Irish people on the streets seem to be the strangers, out of place to me. And to them I too am a stranger. Gradually, it has dawned on me that home never was a fixed centre but a constantly negotiated relationship between the world we call our own and the world we see as new.

These lines by a Chinese poet reflect my jolt between Ireland past and present:

I left home young and not till old do I come back,
My accent is unchanged, my hair no longer black.
The children don’t know me, whom I meet on the way,
“Where do you come from sir?” they smile and say.
(He Zhizhang)

PS. I’m not at home yet.

Bobby Gilmore is a founding member and President of the Migrant Rights Centre in Dublin. Read his previous articles for Generation Emigration about the meaning of home, valuing emigrants, and more.