'Ireland will always be my home-home': Emigrants on the meaning of 'home'
Is “home” a house, a village, a county or a country? Or is it a feeling rather than a place? We asked readers abroad
Simone Hackett and family in Utrecht, the Netherlands
Is “home” a house, a village, a county or a country? Or is it a feeling rather than a physical place? For some emigrants, Ireland will always be the place they call home, while for others, home is where they now live, where they have made a new life for themselves.
The theme of the St Patrick’s Festival in Ireland this year is Home, so Irish Times Abroad put a call out to readers living overseas, asking where home is and what the word means to them. We received more than 80 responses – here is a selection.
Utrecht, the Netherlands
I’ve been living in the Netherlands for 12 years. I have a Dutch husband, a one-year-old daughter and another little one due in May. We have bought a beautiful house with a 30-year mortgage, so we have no plans to move to Ireland.
However, when I’m talking to my Irish friends here in the Netherlands or my family back home, I always refer to Ireland as home. When my husband hears me say this, he responds, with some concern in his voice “This is your home!”.
When I go back to Ireland, I always refer to the Netherlands as my home. So I suppose I have two homes. But Ireland will always be my home-home, in the sense that when I think of it, or when I’m there, it feels familiar, comforting and where my roots and culture are.
I have lived abroad for 35 years, in France, the US, Argentina, and now France again, but Ireland is still my home country. In Buenos Aires, 13 years ago, when the children were small, we got a dog and he has followed us since. Two of the children are now away from home. The eldest, who is now in Taiwan, simplified the equation by saying – home is where the dog is.
“Tu es un électron libre.” I leaned this French phrase for free spirit while living in Morocco. People used to say it to me all the time, bewildered as they were by my decision to leave my home country and live abroad.
Moroccans weren’t convinced by my talk of sunny winters, interest in travel, learning a language, or wanting to work abroad. They simply couldn’t understand how I could leave home, or why I would ever want to.
No matter what discipline you look to for a definition of the word home – biology, chemistry, astronomy or meteorology – the nucleus is the centre. But it is in physics that the nucleus is referred to as the positively-charged centre of an atom. If that isn’t home, what is? It’s the positively charged centre of your life. No matter where you are. Try saying atom fast. It sounds like at home.
Home is where my heart is and where my soul resides. It’s a place where I wasn’t born and did not always live, yet holds my thoughts forever. It’s where I could come and always feel safe, a place where love was given, and I always felt important. My parents and siblings, my husband and children, will always be there, no matter where they are. Home is where we shared our thoughts, as well as our meals, where happiness and sadness met with joy and understanding. All of these were found in many houses and in many places.
For now, home is Hammersmith, London. An Irish butcher sits poised between a Sikh fabric shop and a Caribbean cafe. I walk past, yet like when Mikado and Tayto feature in the ethnic section of the supermarket, refuse to buy. Perhaps because I don’t indulge in sausages, rashers or those biscuits when I’m home.
That’s not the sort of Irishness that resonates. Instead, home is the left-leaning Catholic community of Northern Ireland, with a resilience and anti-establishmentarianism personified by Bernadette Devlin, that “Castro in a miniskirt”.
Home is in the accent of my Northern Irish friend, another lawyer educated at Cambridge, whose religion I neither know nor care about in this new home where different rules apply.
Glen Eira, Australia
Home is where my mammy is. Home is the smell of turf in the fire. Home is where everyone can pronounce my name. Home is a sense of belonging. Home is Ireland.
Returning home from abroad is a scary process. I actually wrote this in my phone notes sitting on the plane, coming home. For me, the return to what you know is home. I can complain and moan about this, that and the other with regards to Ireland, but nothing makes my heart sing for home more than the journey towards it.
I returned from South Korea on an Etihad flight that swung through Abu Dhabi on its way home. It’s my second time at this exact gate. I’ve spent the past two years as an expat, but the final return to Ireland is terrifying. It was so easy to move away and it is so much harder to return.
It’s in Abu Dhabi that you begin to see the kit bags from various GAA teams as hand luggage. The Irish gather at the gate, rushing from connecting flights from the Middle East, Australia, and all over Asia. They tote new babies about to meet their grandparents for the first time, gifts stuffed into overflowing bags, and pockets filled with savings that come from working abroad. People chat excitedly about tea and sausages and friends who are long missed.
I am nervous returning home, nervous about trying to restart my life again, but as I listen to my people talk about their lives abroad, with all the emigrants who left before us and all the journeys undertaken with fear of the unknown in their hearts, I know that there is no greater journey than the one home.
Going ‘home’: going home to my apartment.
Going ‘home home’: going back to Ireland.
Guess that says it all.
AMANDA O’ LEARY
This year marks 17 years since I left home, on the first plane allowed to land in JFK after the 9/11 attacks. For years, I mourned home. It wasn’t until I had my two children that I began to feel settled. After 17 years , I still think of Tullamore as my home. I always look forward to “going home” to visit and when I leave I’m “going back”.
Home to me is my mother. Home to me is the smell of turf and the noise of crackling coal on the roaring fire. Home to me is visiting my aunts and feeling like I’ve been part of the furniture all along. Home to me is seeing the washing on the line and the anticipation of that first ominous drop of rain. Home to me is hot whiskeys in the Bridge House, coffee and scones with friends, my mother making Brennan’s toast with Dairygold butter, waving at every car you meet on the country roads, the banter in the pubs ... The list goes on.
Our concept of home is mostly in our heads. We can live somewhere for years and never consider it home, or find a new place that fits us like a glove and makes us feel as if we are grounded there.
The idea of home is generated by a complex mix of places, experiences, emotions, sensations, impressions, memories, and people. I have come to understand that I carry most of what I need to set up home in my head. Moving has helped broaden the definition of home for me and has given me a deeper insight into how we define and differentiate ourselves.
Home is a distinct location for me. A topsy-turvy house where you can crawl through the hot press and end up in the bathroom. There, the hot tap runs cold because the immersion isn’t on, but a bit of cold water never did anyone any harm. My good clothes are covered in Labrador hair two minutes after getting through the door. But the fridge is full of real butter, cheddar cheese and Brady’s ham. The kettle’s on for a cup of Barry’s tea with real milk – none of that continental UHT – and it’s accompanied by chats about how so-and-so is getting on. For some, home might be where the wifi connects automatically (Dublin and Brussels airports are great for that). But for me, it’s the house that has been in our family for three generations.
Home. A very important word. A very important place. For me, an Irishwoman, pensioner and retired interior designer, it is a feeling of belonging. I now live in Italy with my brand new husband, whom I met just after I moved here. Me, a pensioner, finding romance, in probably the most romantic country on earth! My life now feels complete and I am finally home.
When you realise that you are craving your bed at the end of the day, and that bed is in this new country, that becomes a little bit like home, and you feel a bit sad for the old single bed in your parents’ house.
When you notice that you have a favourite coffee shop, that becomes a little bit like home, and then you start to think about the places you frequented with your friends from school, and you drown your sorrows in some baked goods.
When you start to have a preference for a bread that isn’t Brennans or a tea that isn’t Lyons, that becomes a little bit like home, but it makes you feel like a traitor all the same.
When your phone rings and it is a friend you’ve made in this new place, that feels a little bit like home, and you are glad that you are becoming part of a community.
But then you ring your Ma for Mother’s Day and break her heart when she asks you when you will be home again. Because you know it won’t be anytime soon. And it breaks your heart, too.
Home is where my best memories are from. I have lived in Canada for three years, Australia for one, the US for one, Dublin for eight and Clare for 14. There is no doubt to me that Clare is my home, but more importantly Ireland.
Even with residency visas, the opportunity of citizenship, family moving to Vancouver this year, and possibly many more years ahead of me in Canada, it still feels strange to tell someone I am going home to my Canadian apartment.
Going home means flying into Dublin airport. Going home means seeing family and friends. Going home means getting back into an Irish lifestyle: driving on the left, being sarcastic, talking as fast as I want, not using a fake name in Starbucks. The first of my friends’ weddings is happening next week. I’m going home for it.
Home means two places at once, and this dichotomy will always exist for us as a family. Home is Engen in Germany, where we have been living for the past seven years and where our children were born.
Home is also Ireland, where we hope to return this year. I have spent the past nine years in Germany, missing home, and yet I know already that I will miss the home that we have made here, the only one that our children know so far.
For me, home is also a language ... feeling “at home” in a language helps with whatever geographical location you happen to be in. While living here in Germany, it has always been a delight to come across a fellow expat and be able to chat in English. Equally, if I’m in Ireland and meet a German, it’s comforting to talk in German and know that that home isn’t so far away either.
As a child, I recall my Daddy telling me: “The sea took you away, the sea will take you home.”
Yes, home is Ireland. In 2014, I took my first trip to the Emerald Isle, at 60 years of age, and from the time I stepped foot on Irish soil, I felt like I’d never felt before. I was finally home. Nothing about Ireland felt new, it was as if I’d been there before.
“Home is where the heart is.” It is where you are happy, content, comfortable and valued. It is where I share those feelings with my spouse, children and pets.
I was raised in a village outside Clifden, Connemara. Everyone knew everyone and all belonging to them. You walked the straight and narrow or were accountable to your mother.
I now live in the townland of Oro-Medonte, Canada (a hour’s drive north of Toronto). We all know one another and keep an eye out for the kids.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child and I am happy to say I was raised in a village, as were my own children. I sometimes feel that I have come a full circle in life. I have the same sense of home in Oro-Medonte in Canada as I feel in Ballyconneelly.
Home for me is potatoes. Ugandans simply call them ‘Irish’. Every day for lunch, I order ‘Irish’ with a side of local vegetables. Home for me is watching the Six Nations in a bar and finding camaraderie with anyone cheering against England. Home for me is the sight of a Guinness sign hanging outside a pub in downtown Kampala. It won’t be as good as the pints in the Harbour Bar in Bray. Home for me is the sound of Westlife playing from my taxi driver’s phone on a Saturday night and singing along to it from the back of the car. Home for me is telling people that I’m Irish when they ask me where I’m from and informing them, with certainty, that the weather is far better in Kampala. Even in rainy season.
‘Home has always been such a controversial topic to me. Growing up as an Irish Protestant, going to one of Ireland’s top boarding schools and constantly being told when I would venture home at weekends how English I sounded, Ireland never really felt like home while I lived there.
As soon as I had the opportunity when I finished my Leaving Cert I fled the nest to London, where I felt, finally, I would be certain to find a welcome home. That I did. However I was made aware that to the English, I certainly sounded very Irish. Surprisingly, I have actually savoured that, being a little bit different and proud to be from a place that stirs such affection in people’s hearts.
After six years in London, I am finally at peace with the fact that I have two homes. Ireland, where my parents will live out their years with love and devotion to their land. And London, where I have carved out my own life.
Home is definitely Ireland, but I haven’t lived there since 2003. It is very odd that I still say I’m going home, rather than back to Cork. I’m fairly settled in Walthamstow, London. My husband and I own a house there and we both work in London, but funnily enough I wouldn’t call it home ... yet. To me, home is where I’m from rather than where I live at the moment.
I am glad I realised, through living elsewhere, that people from other countries are equally proud to be from their homelands. It didn’t dawn on me properly until I left that Irish people don’t have a monopoly on home, or culture or being welcoming. People from other countries have their own sense of home – music, literature, sayings, funny words, fantastic leaders, sports, ridiculous in-jokes, legends . That was a good lesson to learn.