I clung fiercely to my Irishness for decades after emigrating

Generation Emigration ‘Ireland and Me’: Patrick McKenna, Montreal, Canada

Patrick McKenna: ‘Suddenly one summer - in 2009 to be precise - my homesickness just fell away from me.’

Patrick McKenna: ‘Suddenly one summer - in 2009 to be precise - my homesickness just fell away from me.’

 

For decades after I arrived in Canada in 1975, I clung fiercely to my Irish identity. I wasn’t ready to relinquish something that cost me dearly in psychological and emotional terms as I came of age in Belfast in the early years of the Troubles.

Not only was I proud of my Irish identity, I was also smitten with Ireland’s land- sky- and sea- scapes and her culture, music and stories. I never had much time for the North American Dream that was, and still is, way too materialistic for my tastes.

I was the classic homesick immigrant; I wrote and called home (pricey in those days, at $10 for three minutes), sent the remittances, flew back as often as I could (on my Irish passport of course), collected cherished LPs (from that by now ancient era of vinyl) of the Dubliners, O’Riada Sa Gaiety, the Chieftains, Planxty, Boys of The Lough, and so on.

Believe it or not, this state of affairs continued for 34 years. Suddenly one summer - in 2009 to be precise - my homesickness just fell away from me.

It now seems, five years on, that loosing my homesickness is as irreversible as it was sudden. I was dumbstruck by this change. It was as though some invisible hand had reached inside me and flicked an invisible switch to “off”. I felt like a serpent that has just wriggled out of its old skin. I was at last, free.

This wonderful change wasn’t that simple, however. When I shucked off my homesickness, my cherished Irish identity went with it. Bathwater and baby both went gurgling down my life’s existential plug hole. Suddenly, I no longer felt Irish. Belfast, Northern Ireland, Ireland - each one was “just another place”. They no longer possessed any emotional charge for me. We had gone our separate ways.

I suppose you may be saying, or thinking, “It must be great to be a Canadian now”. Well, there’s a problem with that, too. I don’t feel any more Canadian than I ever did. When I thought this through I realised Canada is way too big - 9.2 million square kilometers - for me ever to get to know. How can you love somewhere (or someone) you don’t know?

Even Quebec, at almost 1.2 million square kilometers, is too big to know. To my Quebecois friends and acquaintances, no matter how good my French is, I am an Anglophone or “Anglo” (which really means “English” - so ironic for someone with my pedigree.) They introduce me as “Notre petit Anglo” just as my protestant friends and acquaintances would introduce me in Belfast as, “our wee Fenian”.

The place I can embrace is my little corner of Montreal, that, after 36 years, I know well enough to know I love. It is my “heart of heaven”, it’s where I belong, at least for now.

This article was submitted as an entry to the Generation Emigration ‘Ireland and Me’ competition, which is now closed. For more ‘Ireland and Me’ stories, click here.

Patrick McKenna is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read his articles from the archive on life in Montreal, and dealing with homesickness, and most recently, his advice on preparing for your first Canadian winter.

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