It can take a long time to feel 'at home' after emigrating

Ireland isn’t exactly ‘just another place’, but it isn’t home anymore, either

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote: "The labyrinth of London disorients me", which may describe how you will feel when you leave home and arrive in a major metropolitan centre in the EU, on the other side of the Atlantic or on the other side of the world. It may take a while to connect with your new place and make it your own, but you will, and one day you will say, "I love Ireland but this is home".

After my three isolating years in small town rural Ontario, Montreal was love at first sight, but it wasn't home. Only Belfast could be home, as only Mum could be Mum.

Then, after three decades, on a warm, sunny, day in mid-April 2009, after cycling the Lachine Canal bike path to Lac Saint Louis, I sat on a bench by the shore, ate my sandwiches and an orange, drank from my water bottle and then leaned back and gazed out across the lake, admiring the sun sparkling on the waves and thinking about nothing in particular.

After about 15 minutes, I felt well, different. It took me a while to recognise that I was at peace, since that wasn’t something I’d encountered often, if at all, in my life. Then, astonishingly, I couldn’t find Belfast anywhere in my thoughts: from that moment on, I felt truly at home in Montreal.


Being of a curious nature I needed to understand what had flipped my existential switch. I began by eliminating the usual reasons for really “settling”: parents passing on, meeting that special someone, staying active, getting involved, a new career, learning new stuff, a failed reverse emigration project and so on: I had experienced all of these and none had had any effect on my sense of home.

As strange as it may seem, the catalyst for my transformation was the sudden closure, at the end of January 2009, of the little software company where I’d worked for 18 months. With my 60th just around the corner and the job market frozen by the global financial crash, I knew my career was over. This reversal of fortunes didn’t traumatise me; instead, I felt free, freer than I had since, and even before, I immigrated.

My new freedom bought me more time in my favourite urban spaces: Mont Royal that overlooks the city, the Botanic Garden, the parks and nature reserves along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River: all easy, pleasant, bike rides from where I live. Although I had always frequented these parks - intensively so during previous periods of unemployment - they never got through to me.

It wasn’t simply that they couldn’t compete with the Glens of Antrim, Donegal, or the beaches of Tyrella or Inch (can anywhere?). By the time I arrived in Montreal, the unique experiences and first times of my teens and early 20s had all been duly registered in indelible emotional ink, against the backdrop of places in Ireland. Those memories weren’t going to move over and make room for Montreal.

I also was still processing the emotions of coming of age in the early years of the Troubles, and my survivor guilt at leaving mum and dad, brothers and sisters in the middle of the violence. Then there was my very flawed emigration: I'd left too hastily, on my owney-oo, in mid-winter, for rural Ontario, to settle in a small Empire Loyalist town, where I had no friends, family, relations, or Irish community, and where I was the first immigrant in a century.

In Montreal I had to learn to work and live in French and navigate a society divided by language. My immigration life had been like changing the wiring at home with the electricity still on. With so much information to process I had little remaining bandwidth to upload the sights, sounds and colours of my new place.

Even before I emigrated, university had catapulted me into a white collar world that didn’t sit well with the working class kid I was. I never did become a good salaryman, and in my 50s, my third new career (in internet solutions) deteriorated into a sleep-shattering, migraine-inducing, threat condition.

When it crashed and burned, in January 2009, a lot of my legacy issues that I mention above, and the migraines, perished in the flames. Suddenly, I was no longer under threat, my fight and flight instincts shut down and my senses opened up to the sights, sounds and colours of my favourite places in Montreal.

The rush of place information from my senses overwrote the once read-only memories of treasured places back home. My internal, cognitive maps and compasses updated to match the world outside - this, in biological terms, is what coming home means. As weird as this narrative (I hesitate to say theory) seems, it is an extension of research on how the brain manages place information so that we can self locate and navigate. It’s my best and honest attempt to explain how my favourite Montreal places finally became places of the heart.

Mind you, I paid a price for this homecoming: there really is no free lunch, you know. Undoing the Belfast home connection undid some other connections that I'd have preferred remain intact. First of all, my cherished Irish identity, made indelible, I believed, by my coming of age in the early, violent, years of the Troubles, faded away.

Then in June 2010, in Belfast, I could only see my native city with my eyes and not with my heart. Belfast wasn’t exactly “just another place”, but it wasn’t home anymore, either.

Mum though, is still mum. Some things don’t change; some things you don’t mess with.