‘You can quickly become a tourist in your native country’
On a recent visit from New Zealand, some things surprise me but others are depressingly familiar
Anne Tiernan (pictured with her husband Matt Johanson and children Jack, Molly and Oscar in New Zealand): ‘The prevailing wind will be felt on all Irish coastal waters and on the Irish sea; words etched in my brain rather like the Hail Mary.’
The ticket is booked and so I begin to study in earnest the Irish newspapers. Some things surprise me. Talk of the Celtic Phoenix, Sinn Fein the most popular party, the anger over water charges. Other things don’t. More revelations of sex abuse -although linked to paramilitaries this time which is novel - the inhumane treatment of women seeking abortions, Roy Keane ruffling a few feathers.
Among the articles is the moving story of Sean Parker, the 79-year-old Galway man who died in Kent, and was saved from burial in an unmarked grave with no family or friends to claim him by the local community in Glinsk, who paid for his repatriation and a burial among his own. Something in the detail of his childhood dog with a human name, Terry, is unbearably poignant. It speaks of a lonely boy and a lonely man. It was good of the locals from his native town to repatriate his body but I give thanks that I am lucky enough to feel the warmth of welcome, alive, from family and friends on both sides of the world.
The journey by minibus to Auckland Airport reminds me Ireland does not have sole rights on emigration. My fellow passengers, all Kiwis, are affected too. There is Wayne who works in African mines, Kate who tends horses in the Cotswolds, Robin, Digby and Kay who are visiting their children who work in London and Sydney. But these New Zealand experiences of emigration seem to lack the pathos imbued in the Irish experience. Perhaps these cheerful Kiwis retain something of the adventurous pioneering attitude of their recent ancestors.
After a bewilderment of time zones and airports I arrive in Dublin. I long for the man at passport control to acknowledge me and my journey. A simple “Welcome home, it’s great to have you back!” It’s pathetic I know, when he has seen hundreds, thousands of us needy, oversensitive returned emigrants streaming in day after day. “Thanks a million,” I say as he hands be back my documents. Funny how the words don’t fall as easily from my mouth as they once did. Something about the way I over enunciate the “th” makes it sound a bit forced.
I have a night out with old school friends. We spend most of it laughing, reminiscing on numerous exploits with and against the nuns. Nuns! Was that really me or a character in a Maeve Binchy novel? It seems so far removed from my godless, secular life in the New World. I wonder are we all scarred and neurotic from this irrational, almost mystical religious education we received? I look around at these funny, intelligent women and think, on balance, we are doing fine.
Talk turns to water charges. The first time it is mentioned I decide to add my tuppence worth about how it works in New Zealand. “Sure you’ll get used to it,” I say, “it’ll make you more mindful about how much you use”. This was a mistake. I have underestimated the anger people are feeling with the whole shambolic affair. I see how stretched my friends are, working long hours with children being raised by strangers in day care centres. The introduction of water charges has been a tipping point for many of them. I also realise how quickly you can become a tourist in your native country. And to quote Jarvis Cocker, “Everybody hates a tourist”.
One area I do feel qualified to comment on however, having once been a child, is Halloween. It is the first time in ten years I have been in Ireland for this festival. The country has lost the run of itself. Themed family photos, gardens turned in to graveyards, plastic ghoulishness leering from every window. It’s bewildering. I remember with fondness the Halloween of old, where we wore a cheap mask and a black bin bag every year. It was probably the same bin bag folded and put away carefully for the following year - the only concession perhaps being an increase in the size of the hole for my head. In New Zealand I had been Halloween’s greatest advocate. I would point out its Celtic origins when it was dismissed as being nothing more than a commercial American import. I had always felt that there was something too Puritan in the New Zealand psyche which prevented them from embracing the Catholic mysticism of it. Now I wonder if they were right after all.
I enjoy the succinctness of the Irish weather forecast. In New Zealand with its diverse landscapes and climate the forecast can seem interminable and I often lose concentration before my region is mentioned. Not so here. Irish weather is adequately and briefly described in terms of dryness. Today is less dry than yesterday but more dry than tomorrow. The prevailing wind will be felt on all Irish coastal waters and on the Irish sea; words etched in my brain rather like the Hail Mary.
If you wanted to give a tourist a real taste of Ireland, send them out for a carvery lunch, somewhere in the Midlands, of a Sunday afternoon. We are crammed like potatoes in a roasting dish in an overheated room that smells like roast beef. Three pink- faced lads with pint glasses of Fanta sit beside us holding a post mortem on the previous night’s drunkenness. Their conversation is comprised mostly of swearing. I’d forgotten how casually the Irish curse, the f-word used as noun, adjective and verb all in the same sentence. We are brought our meals along with several dishes of potatoes in various guises. My Kiwi husband always loved this idiosyncrasy. “Three kinds of potatoes with one meal!” he’d tell his disbelieving friends.
The owner of the hotel stops by our table when we request the bill. Twenty minutes later he is still there, we have discovered acquaintances in common. The easy way we fall in to intimate conversation, covering an array of topics from football to funerals, is a delight to me. I think this is one of the things I miss most about Ireland, the feeling of connectivity with even apparent strangers.
My sister and I go for a walk on the Hill of Tara. It’s a gloomy day in early November. The wind seems to be coming from every direction as we pick our way through the sheep dung littered grass. I don’t know if it’s the weather or the gothic ramshackle graveyard in the church grounds but I come over a bit maudlin. I think again of Sean Parker and it occurs to me I won’t be buried in Ireland. This seems a further cruel blow to my (hopefully) devastated Irish friends and family.
“Perhaps,” I say “I will be cremated and you could scatter half my ashes in New Zealand and half here”. She smiles. “Right so, and I’ll do my best to avoid the sheep sh*t.”
As usual I don’t linger with my family at the airport. They may think I am a bit heartless for scurrying away through security but in reality it’s just self-preservation. The goodbyes never get any easier. A burly Maori man studies my passport in Auckland. “Welcome home,” he grins. “Cheers,” I say.
Anne Tiernan has lived in New Zealand since 2004. She wrote last year for Generation Emigration about watching her mother's funeral over Skype, and how her homesickness has eased as the years have passed by.