There’s a kind of homesickness only emigrants understand at Christmas

Jennifer O’Connell: Our line was ‘it’s only a day, after all’, to be repeated over and over

The journey back to jobs and lives abroad after Christmas began at Dublin Airport in early January 2019 with emotional scenes as family said goodbye to the thousands of Irish people who live outside of Ireland. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

There’s a particular kind of homesickness that only emigrants understand.

It comes as you’re sitting on the beach at Manly or Freshwater on Christmas morning, sipping your sparkling wine and watching the surfers in their Santa suits, knowing that all should be right with the world, all is pretty close to perfect, by any objective measure.

But there is an unease just beneath your sun-warmed, sand-grazed skin; an echo of those few seconds of consciousness in the early days after life has delivered you a world-shattering blow. For the first few moments of every day, as long as you don’t start to think, there is a tremulous peace.

We couldn’t find Christmas crackers, but we had Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl on the speakers, and drinks by the fire, and it was good and easy and fun

Being away from home at Christmas is like that, I think. For long stretches, you don’t think about it, and then you pull out the stockings that you bought in a shop in Blackrock, or reach for a decoration that fell off the tree – a small silver photo frame that a friend gave you to mark your child’s first Christmas, say – and it comes over you again.

It isn’t only about family – or it wasn’t for us, that first Christmas we spent away from home – because we were surrounded by family. There were 13 of us around the extendable Ikea table that we inherited from another family of returned emigrants. There was a huge, artificial tree, and a ham cooked on the barbecue – both essentials in the indecent heat of an Australian Christmas. The table was covered with a tablecloth decorated with Christmas baubles I found in a shop in Mosman, and it was almost as good as the real thing. Almost.

Homesickness isn’t really about place. It’s about experiences. It’s a longing for memories of another time, memories that don’t yet exist, and now won’t ever exist.

I’ve had that feeling in California too, where Christmas felt a bit more authentic than it did in Sydney. The tree was real, chopped down by the husband on a misty Sunday afternoon at a farm in the Santa Cruz mountains. The temperature at least had the decency to fall low enough to make the idea of turkey not seem like a total abomination. We didn’t have family around that year, but we filled the space with friends. We couldn’t find Christmas crackers, but we had Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl on the speakers, and drinks by the fire, and it was good and easy and fun.

Even so, there were moments when I felt like we were actors in a play, and our line was “it’s only a day, after all”, to be repeated over and over. As my friend, P, put it, sitting in the sunshine over coffee by Sydney Harbour, you’d miss a proper frosty morning. Frosty mornings. You never know what they meant to you until they’re gone.

And then, in a heartbeat, you’re back. Maybe just for a holiday, or maybe, like us, for good. It’s when the slotting back in starts that the real homesickness kicks in.

I discovered recently that the Welsh and the Portuguese have uniquely beautiful words for this, for the very particular kind of homesickness that only emigrants understand; the homesickness that is sometimes at its most acute when you’re back in the place you missed. The Welsh call it “hiraeth”.

It’s rare to come across anything poetic on Wikipedia, but here is the definition it offers of hiraeth: “missing a time, an era, or a person – including homesickness for what may not exist any longer . . . the bittersweet memory of missing something or someone, while being grateful [for] their existence . . . a longing for a homeland, potentially of your ancestors, where you may have never been.”

The Portuguese word “saudade” is similar. It means, I think, the presence of absence; a longing for someone or something that you know you can never experience again. It’s not an entirely bereft kind of longing, because it’s a longing for something that was once yours.

This will be our third Christmas back home. The hiraeth has faded, replaced by a sense of belonging, and all the other things we hoped we’d find, some of which took longer than others

I didn’t know the word, but I remember noticing it in my son, who was five when we left Ireland and eight when we returned. The longer we were away, the more Irish he seemed to become. He was feeling the presence of the absence of his Irishness.

Coming home from a long period away invokes both hiraeth and saudade. Even when you’re back, you sometimes find yourself unexpectedly plunged into the want of a place that doesn’t have GPS co-ordinates on a map. You’re home, but not home, because you can never really go back. Home is more than a place; it’s a story we tell ourselves; it’s people, sensations, memories and feelings.

This will be our third Christmas back home. The hiraeth has faded, replaced by a sense of belonging, and all the other things we hoped we’d find, some of which took longer than others. And sometimes, unexpectedly, there’s something else. I’ll put the tablecloth with the baubles out on our new diningroom table, and it will creep up on me, a longing for other places I’ve been, other Christmases I’ve had; Christmases that didn’t feel entirely right at the time, but which now carry a nostalgia of their own.

joconnell@irishtimes.com

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