Ciara Kenny

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Is homesickness just nostalgia for our youth rather than a place?

Distance makes it easy to romanticise the place we come from and our past there, writes Patrick McKenna

Patrick McKenna: 'Memories are airbrushed and photoshopped into a shining beauty they never ever possessed in real life.'

Tue, Jun 3, 2014, 11:00


Patrick McKenna

In the 9th century, an Irish monk, a Leinster man, sits in a monastery, at Lake Constance. He is writing a book. The anonymous monk has already penned his perfect little poem about Pangur Ban, his cat.

In his book is a quote from Horace, “Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare current”, meaning “They change their sky but not their soul who cross the ocean”. Horace’s words resonated with our emigrant monk. He was homesick.

Before I emigrated, I was blissfully unaware of what I call “immigration homesickness”. How could I have been? I’d never emigrated before. Once arrived, though, it didn’t take me long to make its acquaintance. On my owney-oo, in small town (pop. 5,000) rural Ontario, at the end of January it hit me like a ton of bricks. After two weeks, I almost blew my first paycheck on a one-way ticket home to Belfast.

Rather than cave in and go home, I applied the usual remedies of “getting involved and staying active” which made no difference whatsoever to the situation. After a few years, despite my best efforts at amelioration, immigration homesickness had become a persistent problem that wouldn’t go away.

I knew that in emigrating I had lost something precious – but what was it? I loved mum, dad and my siblings, but the separation from them didn’t break my heart, or theirs (I am one of nine). Nor did I pine for friends, favorite foods or the “craic”. What on earth, I wondered, had I lost upon emigration, that was causing my problem?

It was a recent, accidental, viewing of Local Hero (1983) that pointed me towards what I had lost when I left. I had seen the film many times before, and this time, as always, as the credits rolled, there I was, dreaming of a one-way ticket home. This time though, I wouldn’t just let the emotions have their way with me. I wanted to understand them. Instead of taking the DVD back to the library I watched it again.

On the second viewing I realised the scenes of the northern midsummer dusks were the source of the movie’s emotional impact. The shots of the ocean, a long golden beach in the pale blue midsummer twilight brought me straight back to my pre-emigration life. Then, when I thought this through, it occurred to me that missing the midsummer dusks, just for themselves, probably didn’t cause my homesickness. They are only dusks, after all. More likely I missed the memories of my youth that I associate with them.

Life’s magic (and not so magic) moments – of childhood, the teen years and young adulthood – are so often anchored in memory by the senses, often in a unique combination, a sensory fingerprint. That familiar song, the scent of the sea, the aroma of a favourite food, the “feel” of the air, a certain quality of light, can conjure up a time and a place in your past life and associated emotions. There’s just one problem with this recall process. “Memory lane” often makes things look better than they ever were in reality.

If I had never emigrated, this memorative trickery would have its comeuppance easily enough. At home I could visit Cushendall or Waterfoot, Castlegregory, or Falcarragh as much as I wanted. Their hold on the adult me would be no more than their aesthetic appeal. At home I probably would from time to time bump into some of my teen crushes, and think “Oh dear, what did I see in her?” – As she would, without a doubt, think of me.

As an emigrant though, deprived of the reality check afforded by proximity, there is a risk that the memories of a favorite place, a teenage love, the mid-summer twilight, (sometimes all three simultaneously) and much more, will assume magical proportions. “Memory Lane” flows into “Imagination Boulevard” where memories are airbrushed and photoshopped into a shining beauty they never ever possessed in real life.

To defeat the tricks of the memory and imagination is not easy. A trip home? – You’re only there for a short time, you’re in a Club Med state of mind, you don’t have to face the daily commute and the office, and everyone is on their best behaviour. The trip may even reinforce the fantasy. Skype may help, although I have read, on this blog, of teary “post-Skype depression”.

What works for me is Google Earth, which reveals the true mousiness of my supposedly magical places. Visualising a “day-in-my-life-at-home”, in 15 minutes intervals, rain included, can be a great reality check.

New perspectives help. For example, the Elizabethan polymath Robert Burton, who in his Anatomy of Melancholy (circa 1618) puts homesickness into “Passions and Perturbations of the Mind” as “banishment” suggests:

“Banishment is no grievance at all; Omne solum forti patria (every soil is a fatherland to the brave), …and “et patria est ubicunque bene est” (that’s a man’s country where he is well at ease)….”

Perhaps “every soil is a fatherland to the brave” is a fitting leitmotif for those of us who would feel at home, wherever emigration, and destiny, takes us? You don’t have to change your soul when you change your sky, but you don’t have to feel homesick either.

Patrick McKenna is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read his previous articles about feeling lonely at Christmas time, becoming ‘at home’ in Montreal, letting go of his ‘Irish’ identity, getting ‘that call’ when abroad, living with homesickness for 34 years, and more.