An emigrant's lament: begorrah bejaysus, I miss Ireland
The classic emigrant dilemma of missing Ireland even as I was there
History is full of Irish writers waxing sentimental about Ireland while refusing to live there. Joyce was guilty of a good deal of that. Photograph: Lipnitzki/ Roger Viollet/ Getty Images
The London grocery delivery man mocked my accent. It wasn’t hurtful, just very dull and quite tiring. Since moving to London eight months ago, this sort of thing has happened a couple of times. Not many, but enough to make it very boring.
I opened the door, anticipating some milk for my next cup of Barry’s Tea – I would drink a cup of briny water from the Irish Sea before assaulting my palette with an English supermarket tea, which tastes like a mouthful of change extracted from a hospital vending machine on an oppressively hot day.
“Where are you from?” he asked immediately after I greeted him. Sometimes, this question is asked with genuine curiosity and goodwill. Suspecting this was not one of those occasions, I gave him the benefit of the doubt anyway. “Ireland, ” I said. “Oierland,” he said. “Ah shur, begorrah bejaysus.”
I looked at him expressionlessly and in silence, too bored to engage in his stupid joke or tell him what he already knew – that I am one of millions of people who sound vaguely the way I do, and that his own regionally specific accent was not in fact the global default.
He took umbrage. “I suppose I shouldn’t be so ray-cissst,” he said, his tone heavily implying that actually I should just laugh at my accent – clearly so laughable – along with him. I persisted in expressionless silence.
When you go home to visit, your time with people is high-quality recreational time, not worrying over broken boilers and being late for work
After some more leprechaun sounds and a small, unenthusiastic jig, he eventually got the message, gave me my groceries, for which I thanked him, and buggered off.
History is full of Irish writers waxing sentimental about Ireland while refusing to live there. Joyce was guilty of a good deal of that, as was Beckett. Since I don’t anticipate ever being uttered in the same sentence as those lads or their ilk unless I happen to be killed by a falling bookshelf stocked with copies of Irish literary masterworks, I feel safe enough in saying, perhaps hypocritically, that I miss home.
For a while, I didn’t, but a trip back last week had me missing Ireland even as I was there, which is a classic emigrant dilemma.
My life in Dublin – much as I love our capital city – consisted of spending 70 per cent of my take home pay on a poorly refurbished rental property with a broken fridge. On the tendency for the old building to mould, our landlord advised keeping our windows open, even during last spring’s shin-deep snow. It was like something out of Dickens, only in the era of Wifi.
Dublin is a city I became priced out of, and toward the end of my time there, I spent most of my days worrying about money. Going home to visit, there were only the lovely things – the vast stretch of unobscured sky over the city, seeing beloved friends who I had the luxury of missing, visiting the Milk Market in Limerick with my aunt and uncle – when you go home to visit, your time with people is high-quality recreational time, not worrying over broken boilers and being late for work. Real life cannot compete with that.
They are homesick for a place that does not exist, except in their memory
What the Irish emigrant seeks when they long for home is a feeling which is not geographically located. They are homesick for a place that does not exist, except in their memory. It did not exist even then – the true texture and experience of living in it is bent to fit by memory, which is a liar.
They have forgotten the reality of it apart from how they felt sometimes, when they lost their self-awareness for a while, and could melt into their surroundings, bobbing merrily along on the momentum of place and people, and noticing after the fact, when they are back inside themselves, that what they felt must have been belonging.
The emigrant does not belong, cannot. A person who associates their sense of place or self with somewhere they have left cannot fully merge with the place they enter into. Nor can they really return to where they came from, which changed the instant they left and did not stop changing.
To miss home is to miss belonging, unselfconsciously. To leave is to wake up to the fact that you cannot ever really feel that way again. Begorrah bejaysus, that’s hard enough.