The rose-tinted view of the Ireland we left behind

As emigrants we divorce ourselves from the reality of everyday life in Ireland

Lady of the West by Pete Dunne

Lady of the West by Pete Dunne

 

I’d never considered myself anything other than Irish, and that is despite the fact that I left Dublin in the sweltering summer of 1976. I went straight to an Irish pub in a basement in Piccadilly called Wards that was famous for all walks of life and all kind of shenanigans.

I felt an immediate affinity with godless London, it was such a relief to escape from the “frown squad”, the morality police that was the Catholic church. What an exciting time to be young and buzzing with endless possibilities. Punk was in its infancy and the Jamaican blues parties were smoky with a baseline that hit you in the chest like a freight train.

I settled into the life of an exile and got a job as a labourer on a building site. I never really got homesick but I was always drawn back, not just to family but by the land itself.

A Bend in the Road by Pete Dunne
A Bend in the Road by Pete Dunne

I spent one summer walking around Sligo and Leitrim and went wherever the lie of the land took me. It was the early 1980s, long before the roar of the Celtic Tiger and I knew it was a chance to glimpse an Ireland that had a tenuous grip on the past and a foothold on the future, a world that could disappear forever.

I was foraging for wild food and sleeping wherever I could. I remember one night bedding down in a derelict house in Leitrim and it was as if the people had upped and left without saying a word. The newspapers under the lino were from the 1950s, the briars were peeping in through a broken window and the obligatory portraits of Pope Pious, JFK and Michael Collins were all heading south, along with the house, slowly disintegrating back into the land.

The place oozed melancholy and it seemed that even the memories of the people who had once lived here had long since given up the ghost. It resonated deeply inside me because I knew this is what I had done and could never return, never go back to my house and the person I had been.

Red Hot Pokers by Pete Dunne
Red Hot Pokers by Pete Dunne

One of my favourite homecoming stories was one that I overheard on a rainy afternoon in Grogan’s pub in Dublin. There was a penniless poet holding court, and his next pint was dependant on the yarn he was spinning. He was recounting an episode when he got off the boat train from England at 7am in the morning at Westland Row station. He had heard about the early openers, pubs that catered to the dockers and he asked a likely looking lad with a bulbous nose and a ruddy complexion, “excuse me, can you tell me where the nearest boozer is?"

“You’re bleeding looking at him,” was the reply. The laughter that ensued guaranteed his next drink. This is what I miss most and love about going home, that rapid fire wit and “having the craic”.

I have a rosé-tinted view of Ireland and my memories are filled with sunny days, laughing with friends and being absolutely astounded by the landscape. Whenever I remark on its beauty, the locals most often reply “sure, you can’t eat the scenery, boy!” True enough, but as an artist and an exile it provides nourishment for the soul like nothing else. Yum, yum.

Pete Dunne: ‘I never really got homesick but I was always drawn back, not just to family but by the land itself.’
Pete Dunne: ‘I never really got homesick but I was always drawn back, not just to family but by the land itself.’

My upcoming exhibition in London, “A spin around the West”, sees a move away from conceptualisation and subversion, as I set out to explore the "rosé-tinted view" that allows us, emigrants, to divorce ourselves from the reality of everyday life in the Ireland we left behind. We are forged between two places. To always have a foot in each camp, is the lot of the London-Irish.

Pete Dunne’s new work can be seen at the London Irish Centre Camden from May 17th, 2018. www.petedunne.net

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