Moving back to Ireland has not felt like coming home
Relationships with friends and family change when we emigrate. So too should our understanding of ‘home’
Gemma Kiernan in Newfoundland, before she moved back to Ireland.
This article started about three months ago when I was four hours into a 12-hour bus journey. I was heading away from Toronto, where I had lived for two years, and towards a road-trip in the US. It was there, queuing for what would (hopefully) be my last Tim Horton’s coffee, I realised I wouldn’t be returning to Canada for a long time. It was a strange feeling. During the rest of the journey I became aware that this weird discomfort I was feeling was actually of loss. I wasn’t sad about it, just surprised I had something to lose that I hadn’t been aware of.
There had been many things about Toronto I disliked: the superficiality, the never-ending construction, and the public transport system, to name a few, that I gave up my life there with a flippancy I now find shocking. I had spent so long focusing on the things I didn’t like, and on some romantic ideal of “home” back in Ireland, that I had failed to appreciate what I was losing: the real home and real friendships I had spent two years building.
It used to be that your home was a prescribed space: where you grew up was usually where you found a job, got married, bought a house and raised children. But as more people immigrate and emigrate, we have been forced to re-evaluate this model, and this can sometimes create a tension.
Many of my friends abroad have spoken of the guilt they feel when they start to accept their new country as home. They feel guilty about missed weddings, new lifestyles and friends but mainly, about not wanting to go back to Ireland. As friends and family constantly inquire about when they’re coming “home”, they feel a conflict between assimilating into a new culture and retaining their Irishness.
This guilt centres on the notion that home is a singular place and any aspiration to establish a new one somehow devalues your connection to the old. It wasn’t until I left Toronto that I realised “home” is not the fixed location or concept it once was. Just as our relationships with friends and family have adapted beyond physical closeness, so too should our understanding of home. We need to allow ourselves to feel emotionally connected to other places without thinking that this is somehow disloyal to the motherland.
I never allowed myself to consider Toronto my home, but now that I’m back in Ireland, after three years away, it also doesn’t feel like home. It is the plight of the emigrant, that when you return you still feel very transient. You quickly come to realise that your idealised notion of home does not exist. There are lots of tiny nuances to which you need to readjust, and although things might look the same, they’re not. You begin to understand that your hometown, a place you subconsciously thought of as a paused film reel, has moved on. Your return does not reanimate the scene. The movie has progressed without you.
Everything has changed, including you. Without realising it I have subscribed to the very North American custom of not inquiring too much or giving away too much information. I was in the bank recently when I was asked so many details of my life over the last two years that I found it quite invasive. Yes, it’s nice to chat Ms Bank Lady but shouldn’t you be serving the nine customers behind me instead of asking me how much rent I paid in Toronto?
But despite the change, there are plenty of things that help you remember why you returned, some glimpses of the home you’ve cherished in memory for so long. Listening to that sing-song cadence of a Limerick accent is still a novelty for me (although I doubt this will last), and I love how Irish people can have entire conversations that are the weirdest mix of small-talk and deep personal revelations about illness and family deaths.
And of course, there’s family. If anything is going to help me feel like Ireland is home it’s them. For better or worse, coming back to Ireland means slotting back into a family dynamic that is sometimes infuriating, sometimes wonderful, but always familiar. It’s very freeing to be able to meet up with your friends and family without feeling sad when you leave, wondering when you’ll see them again. I've also returned to a good job with an advertising agency in Dublin.
In many ways, coming back has not meant coming home. The place of my memory, which I held up to such unrealistic standards in Toronto, is nowhere to be found. For now home is still undetermined, still intangible.
I know settling back will not be the easy, magical transition I had once imagined, but I also know that with time and effort I will re-establish a sense of belonging. I will weave myself back in the fabric of Irish society and despite everything that has changed, Ireland will eventually feel like home again.
Thinking of moving home from abroad? Check out The Irish Times Returning to Ireland guide, with practical information on things like jobs, housing and schools, as well as first-person stories from people who have already made the move.