Leaving Ireland was sort of accidental. It began on a J-1 visa with my brother. We arrived in New York like so many before us, but we fled the Irish-heavy streets to meander west in search of the authentic United States.
Thirty-six hours of Greyhound bus later we found it, in Wisconsin – a glorious, eye-opening summer. Later, a green-card lottery win meant I would remain while he returned home. The first of many bonds was broken.
I adjusted to US life and quickly fell for my new home and its people. They seemed so open and interested. I was hooked. Chasing Americana, eccentric friendships, strange and varied jobs, and travelling the byroads culminated in a home in the paradise of southern California.
That first bus trip was more than 20 years ago. One day I was criss-crossing the country, chasing Kerouac, Steinbeck and the A-Team; the next, two decades had passed in a blur, punctuated by a stream of transatlantic check-ins.
I had never wanted to re-create Ireland in Whitewater, or Fort Atkinson, or Berkeley, where I lived for a time. It was natural to remain closely connected to family and friends at home, but I went out of my way to avoid the expat scene wherever I landed.
Years passed. And I met some Paddies, began to play Irish music, and found myself celebrating that which I had left behind. It wasn’t an overt Irishness, more a stubborn, still-sound-like-my-brothers-despite-20-years-here, debate-politics-and-the-craic Irishness.
Nights of tea, whiskey and trad sessions began to have an effect.
Today I work for a company owned by an Irishman. I play in a band called Brogue Wave. We play Irish pubs, and if I have a drink it’s likely Guinness. My wife, Jamie, and I savour the odd Barry’s-tea-rashers-and- toast-with-Kerrygold Sunday morning. Sometimes we even break the seal on a jar of marmalade.
I hadn’t intended to stay forever. Then again I hadn’t really intended to go home. But I’ve embraced the contradiction. Home has always meant Ireland, and while there’s much to love about my adopted country I’ve always been a proud Irishman. Honestly, I thought I couldn’t be prouder. But last week I found out I was wrong.
Irish Outreach, an immigrant support group led by Stephen Aherne, a Limerick man, called to see if I could play at a memorial for the J-1 students who lost their lives in Berkeley.
So last Saturday night, at St Brigid’s Church in San Diego, J-1-ers, Irish-Americans and newbie emigrants sobbed, applauded and nodded in unison as one Irish student after another took to the altar and did themselves, and us, proud.
They were fantastic. Vulnerable in what they said. Strong and sensitive in how they said it. Feisty and funny. But, more than that, wise. They revered their six friends so we could mourn them as our own.
Afterwards Jamie and I drove in silence. We had been taken off-guard. There to pay our respects, we left heavy with sorrow. But we were also proud of and inspired by these young people.
From the Irish priest reflecting on the devastation with tact and humour to the musicians who had met in an anteroom just before the service began – not forgetting the hang sangwidges and stew from local Irish pubs for the hundreds of hungry J-1-ers – it had so much of what I love about Ireland, and everything that those who love Ireland see so clearly when sometimes we can’t.
The night changed me. I grew up a little, not just for the reminder of how fragile life is but as a kick to do more, appreciate more, love more. I’ll never forget it, and I do know this: we have some very sophisticated young people waiting in the wings. And we should be thankful for them.
Next week my daughter will touch down in Ireland for the first time. I’ll be that much prouder to show her home.