'The only thing the US has in common with Ireland is language'
No matter how much you hope to just slot back in, moving home is complicated
Lisa Tierney-Keogh: 'It really cannot be overstated how hard the loneliness is when you are away from home.' Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
There is a dog in my new neighbourhood in Dublin that never stops barking. Occasionally, another dog will join in, a sort of call and response of canine communication. I listen to them in bed in the morning, vacillating between irritation and amusement. When I lived in New York, I would have given anything to hear only two dogs having the chats, given anything to hear only two noises competing for airspace.
The starkest difference between my old life and my new life is the silence. The quiet. I have swapped noise for peace and honking cars for squawking seagulls. I no longer live under three flight paths and multiple helicopters. I have gone from hearing sirens every few minutes to every few weeks. It’s kind of blowing my mind.
Noise has a profound effect on the mind. I spent a large portion of my life in New York trying to find places that were quiet, but they were few and far between. It’s been a year since I’ve moved home to Dublin and I sometimes find myself standing in the back garden, or on the driveway of our rented house, staring at the sky with my mouth open, in awe of the lack of loud noises. I can’t quite believe I’m home.
It’s been a year. And by that, I mean, it’s been a whopper of a year. Repatriation is like being on multiple rollercoasters at the same time with no idea where the safety belts are. In my meticulous, spreadsheet-laden planning, I could not have foreseen what it is to bring yourself home and slot yourself into a place. I was prepared for the logistical issues I’d read about from other emigrants: schools, housing, car insurance, PPS numbers. All the bureaucratic details were exactly as I expected them to be. And having spent several years dealing with hellacious, greedy American health insurance companies, it felt, to me, like skipping through a field of daisies.
I have concluded after many years in the US that the only thing it has in common with Ireland is the English language
The first six months are a blur. Christmas, which feels like it happened five minutes ago, snuck up on me quickly. January and deep winter followed soon after, and before I could draw breath it was spring, and then summer. It has flown by. As if time sped up a little to make it a bit easier on us. As if some mythical God of Repatriation cast a spell to get us through this first year intact and semi-upright.
I have concluded after many years in the US that the only thing it has in common with Ireland is the English language. Culturally, we are worlds apart. Socially, we are on different planets. So it goes that if my emigration and integration into life in America was difficult, the reverse would also be true. And a little more complicated.
There is a false hope that lingers in the mind of a returning emigrant that slotting back in at home will come naturally. I have not found this to be the case. I am now “the one who left”. There are many of us. Some of us will return, some of us won’t. And some of us will come home and leave again. That is a difficulty I can’t even begin to fathom.
In the time I’ve been gone, family dynamics have changed. Babies have been born, children have grown, loved ones have passed away. Marriages, separations, reparations, things have shifted and moved on a chess board and they don’t look the same as when I left. Why would they? People live their lives and it is me returning back, looking to see where I fit into all of this. I’m standing on the outside, watching my family, my friends, and all the new and old order of things, trying to figure out where my place is. Maybe I’ve always felt like this or maybe all returning emigrants feel it, but finding your new place in your old place is a very tricky manoeuvre.
Good things come from being a New Yorker. You learn how to assert yourself, how to stand up for yourself. A crowded Dart is not an issue for me after 10 years of dealing with the New York City subway. East Wall via Brooklyn can handle herself on public transport. A decade of eat or be eaten has taught me how to comport myself in confrontational situations – an almost daily occurrence in New York.
But, here’s the thing: these skills don’t always sit so well in Dublin, in Ireland. If I were to fully transpose my ability to hold a subway door open for an elderly person while an angry asshole shouts at me for holding the door while the several heavy bags of groceries I’m carrying are cutting into my hands, I’m not sure where I would put it. I don’t know where to put my skill for driving in New York because it sure doesn’t sit well in Dublin. I don’t know what to do with the embedded anxiety and subsequent coping tools that come from living in close quarters with nine million other people. They simply aren’t suitable for my new old home.
New Yorkers say it straight. They tell you to your face. Immediately. Emotions are raw, high, and expressed, directly, constantly. Ireland, not so much. Neither place is right or wrong, they’re just different. Irish people tend to be more polite, less direct, and confrontation averse. We like to diffuse things and avoid the awkward stuff of life. Having spent so long knowing exactly what people were feeling at all times, I’m now trying to read between the lines of what someone says to me. I’m in a constant state of confusion about whether I’m dealing with politeness or passive aggression. Is that really what you think? Or do I have to guess, on tippy-toes, what you’re actually feeling?
There is a kindness, a softness to Irish society that doesn’t exist in New York. I really missed it. I longed for it when I was gone. The toughness of big city living comes at a price. People become hardened. I developed some steel but I never hardened. It’s probably why I never fully settled there. Adjusting back to a gentler pace of life is like jumping out of a moving vehicle. There’s no easy way to do it.
Coming home to Ireland has meant facing dark demons I had run away from. There is a man who hurt me. Badly. He lurks in all the corners of my mind
I left Ireland when I was 32. I was newly married and had already been living part-time between New York and Dublin for four years. I’d hit a dead-end in my career in Ireland. I’m a playwright, and nobody, nowhere, would produce my work. A few kind souls had helped and supported me but I was mostly hitting brick walls and if I hadn’t emigrated, I’m pretty sure I would have stopped writing plays. New York, America, seemed like the logical and most practical place for me to be. My husband had a successful career, and in my early 30s, I was ready for a big adventure.
The loneliness hit early and hard. And I can honestly say that I never shifted it. I ducked and dived over the past decade to cope with it, but mostly I was adrift in loss, pining for home, hunting for a sense of home in myself. Sometimes, I would drive to Queens and visit the famed Butcher Block shop that sells Irish goods, and stand in the aisle where they stock Flash and Fairy Liquid and smell the bottles. The smells brought me home. I’d close my eyes and sniff and for a second I’d be in my father’s kitchen or my mother’s bathroom or my aunt’s living room. I once bought a shampoo that reminded me of my grandmother. She died within a year of me leaving Ireland. I kept the bottle. I still open it from time to time when I miss her.
Since moving home, the space inside of me that loneliness once occupied has opened up. There are vast chasms of open, emotional real estate that are now available to me. I no longer expend energy on soothing the hollow feeling of homesickness. It really cannot be overstated how hard the loneliness is when you are away from home. I use this energy now for my family, for my friends, whom I adore and cherish. I get to see them, still not as often as I would like, but I get to be close to them, I get to live in the same city as them. That is the greatest gift of moving home. That, and watching my daughter thrive in an Irish childhood, are the biggest blessings of all.
In the midst of all these whirling, beautiful emotions, coming home to Ireland has meant facing dark demons I had run away from. There is a man who hurt me. Badly.
He lurks in memory, on particular streets, in my peripheral vision in shops, in traffic, on all the corners of my mind, triggering the PTSD he so viciously inflicted on me. Balancing trauma and joy is the cornerstone of my life. The bittersweet of being home and confronting this pain is harder than I expected.
It is perhaps because of this that I keep myself busy. Too busy, probably. I write and work non-stop, knowing that in this business, career oblivion could be just over the horizon. A month before I moved home, I delivered a commissioned play to the Abbey Theatre. A few months after I arrived in Dublin, I was standing on the side of a GAA pitch, watching my daughter learn hurling, when I got a phone call asking me to be an associate playwright at the Abbey. About a month later, they gave me a production date for the play I had delivered. I couldn’t have been given a warmer welcome to the place I’d always dreamed of working.
As I write this, rehearsals for my new play, This Beautiful Village, are under way, preparing for a production in early September. Hanging on a wall, on the stairs up to the rehearsal room in the Abbey, there is a drawing of Lady Augusta Gregory. She was one of the founders of the theatre. It’s the type of picture where the eyes follow you as you move. I look at it every time I climb those stairs. She looks at me and I stare back her. I think about what a well-travelled, accomplished, powerhouse of a woman she was, what she means to the Abbey Theatre, and I think to myself: ‘Don’t f**k it up.’ I look at Lady Gregory and I think of the truth of what she once said, that, “I feel more and more the time wasted that is not spent in Ireland”.
The journey home is as much about finding the centre of your self as it is about finding your physical home. The geography of a life can be hard. But once you finally figure out where you want to spend your time, you best get busy not wasting it. Not for a moment. Not even for a second.
This Beautiful Village is at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin from September 2nd to 14th