Surprising mammy: Why homecoming videos pack such an emotional punch
‘The cathartic moment of return has displaced the sorrowful moment of leaving in cultural narratives of emigration’
A video clip of a mother being reunited with her daughter after three years on The Late Late Show has been watched almost 1 million times.
One of the aftershocks of the economic collapse was the return to high levels of emigration, with more than 200,000 Irish-born people leaving the country between 2009 and 2015. While mass emigration has long been part of the Irish experience, the current wave is set against a backdrop of the impact of the previous 15 years of rapid (if highly unequal) wealth accumulation, and the arrival of new media and digital technologies including social media.
Yet in Irish media, it is not stories of leaving but narratives of return - often for short visits - that now, paradoxically, dominate popular representations of Irish emigration. In showcasing the emotional pleasures of return as emigrants reunite with their families, the newly popular genre of the surprise homecoming video masks the real economic and social problems that are driving the latest wave of emigration.
Homecoming videos such as “Irish Mums (sic) Reaction to Surprise Visit From Her Son”, that populate video-sharing sites such as YouTube reflect the preoccupation with the returned migrant in post-Celtic Tiger popular culture.
Another example, “Mother Is Reunited With Her Daughter After Three Years”, captures an incident on The Late Late Show in which host Ryan Tubridy first quizzes a mother in the studio audience about what she misses about her daughter, then reunites them on air.
The popularity of such clips can be gauged by the fact that in a country with around 4.5 million people, “Irish Mum” drew half a million views and “Mother is Reunited” almost a million.
The Irish homecoming videos are similar to American homecoming videos of military personnel, which started to appear in high volume from approximately 2005. Both emphasise the emotional intensity of return and steer clear of the political and economic causes of departure.
The earliest examples of the Irish videos date from summer 2013; the same year that national levels of emigration peaked following the global financial crisis. Their appearance coincides with the year of the Gathering, the tourism initiative supported by multiple national and local organisations which encouraged Irish migrants abroad and the extended diaspora to holiday in Ireland to support the struggling economy.
The Gathering raised almost €170 million in tourism-related revenue and increased the number of overseas visitors in 2013 by 7.3 per cent. But its greatest achievement, for the political establishment at least, was to switch the focus from the 50,000 Irish people leaving the country that year to the 270,000 Irish people who were returning - even if only on holidays.
On the surface, the Gathering was a year-long festival focused on a celebration of the Irish abroad (or the Irish abroad who were willing and able to come back for a visit), but it also served to silence national sentiment about the exodus of mainly young people from Ireland in that exact period. Narratives of loss and leaving were now officially disjointed from the national project.
Irish homecoming videos signal the ways in which not just the returned migrant but also the moment of return has been fetishised in response to the sudden recurrence of high levels of emigration in Ireland, and the trauma of economic collapse. The cathartic moment of return has displaced the sorrowful moment of leaving in cultural narratives of emigration. This is striking because historical cultural representations of emigration consistently focused on the moment of leaving, highlighting the individual and national cost of emigration and population loss.
In earlier periods of emigration, the ritual of “American wakes” reflected the assumption that the emigrant would never return, making the moment of departure more poignant. By focusing on the moment of return, the videos suggest that emigration is less permanent and more of a lifestyle choice.
The fantasy of easy return, which often features elite globalised workers, seeks to differentiate Irish migration from non-white economic migration. This, in turn, pulls attention away from the fact that the economic crash disproportionately affected lower skilled workers and the construction sector. There has been little cultural reflection on the additional 200,000 non-Irish born people who left Ireland in the wake of the crash.
The surprise homecoming videos thus avoid any political or social commentary on the necessity of departure. Rather, they reinforce the continuous inference (from the top down) that all Irish citizens were responsible for the economic downturn because “we all partied” in the peak.
The videos therefore represent a form of national compliance - by leaving emigrants become part of the solution rather than part of the problem and their return visits raise no problematic issues about employment or state benefit support. The videos stage a buoyant relationship with Ireland and display traditional notions of Irishness, despite the unhappy circumstances which required so many young people to leave.
The Gathering instrumentalised citizens, exhorting them to become tourists in their own country. The videos demonstrate that citizens have tended to fit their own experiences with the image of a “business-friendly” nation in recovery. The videos also divert attention from questions about the changing class composition of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, and the ways the recession has imploded the dream of an expansive and secure middle class.
Irish surprise homecoming videos can be read as works of emotion in which the act of leaving is nullified by the ecstasy of return and the cathartic moment of family reunification. They not only ignore the ongoing social damage from a ruinous bank bailout and punitive austerity regime, they also support a national fantasy that Ireland is a place one comes to rather than a place one leaves.
Diane Negra is Professor of Film Studies and Screen Culture and Head of Film Studies at University College Dublin. Eleanor O’Leary is executive officer at the Irish Research Council. From September she will be Assistant Lecturer in Media Studies at IT Carlow. This article was originally published on the Working-Class Perspectives blog.