‘Why I’m happy to celebrate my returnoversary to Ireland’

Jennifer O’Connell: ‘Ireland is a gorgeous country which we seem determined to maim’

Dublin at dawn. “The housing market’s grand – as long as you’re not trying to buy a house or rent a house”

Dublin at dawn. “The housing market’s grand – as long as you’re not trying to buy a house or rent a house”

 

This week is my returnoversary: the anniversary of the date we packed up our Californian house and came back permanently to Ireland. Not that we knew it was permanent then. That took a bit longer. It was at least 24 hours before I sent the first daft.ie link to my husband; another 10 days before he flew back to Ireland, and managed not to be entirely appalled by my notion that we might stay.

It was a few weeks’ more before I told my Californian employer I wasn’t coming back; before I emailed my lawyer to stop the US visa application process, the administrative kerfuffle that had sent us home for – or so we thought then – a few weeks.

But I think I knew in those first 24 hours, on a fundamental, cellular, entirely illogical level, that I was home, that our journey to find the place had ended right back where it – or at least mine – began.

When I tell people here the story there’s always a pause at this point, while they wait for the real dirt to come out. Because no one could possibly choose grey, pessimistic Ireland over blue-skied, optimistic California on so insubstantial a basis as “home”.

I had no idea Trump was coming, but I sometimes had the sensation I was living in a fragile, gilded cage

Were you really unhappy, though; were you a slobbering, homesick mess; were the children miserable; were you riddled with guilt about your parents; did you know Trump was coming. Go on, go on, they silently urge, you can tell me, I’ll tell no one, what was it really?

But the truth really is that dull. There were lots of things about living in California I loved – wise, kind and funny friends; pizza by the pool on Friday nights; wine tasting in the Santa Cruz mountains. No one was homesick. My parents – still young, still energetic – caused me no guilt whatsoever, and quite a bit of envy.

Code red

But. There was always a but. I loved the lifestyle, but not the values. I loved that my kids did coding in primary school; I did not love that they did “code red” drills where they practised what to do in a shooting.

I didn’t feel guilty about family, but I missed them constantly.

I loved my job, but not the sensation that I was running faster and faster without getting anywhere I wanted to be.

I had no idea Trump was coming, but I sometimes had the sensation I was living in a fragile, gilded cage – one slam of a door, one gust of wind and it would shatter.

When you remove the rose-tined, returned emigrant glasses, you notice all the things about Ireland that weren’t perfect back then and aren’t perfect now

But I could have put up with any or all of that except for one thing. It wasn’t home.

Coming back to Ireland didn’t immediately solve all our problems, or any of them. In the short term it created quite a few new ones – small stuff like where to live, what to do for a living, where to send the children to school, what to do with the cars and the fire pits and the hammock stands and all the stuff. The stuff. Oh God, the stuff.

When you remove the rose-tined, returned emigrant glasses, you notice all the things about Ireland that weren’t perfect back then and aren’t perfect now. We have a gorgeous country we seem determined to maim.

The beaches are beautiful – as long as you don’t visit them the morning after a long weekend. The ditches are green and lush, and full of broken washing machines and dirty nappies. The towns and villages are charming, with vibrant small retailers and cute streets fouled by dogs.

The health system is fine if you’re really properly sick; if you’re just not quite well it’s a Sisphyean nightmare of crowded waiting rooms and overworked staff.

Coming back felt like taking a breath. A year on, we are still breathing easier

The housing market’s grand – as long as you’re not trying to buy a house or rent a house. The education system and the church are still locked in an unhappy, mutually unsatisfying marriage kept together for “the sake of the children”.

‘State of yer man’

But that’s all the structural stuff, stuff that can eventually be fixed. It’s the other, more ephemeral things that make Ireland somewhere I want to stay for good.

The ease with which you can hop in a car and be over in Kerry or in Galway by lunch. The ease with which we make connections. The “howryes” and the “state of yer man” and “are you off anywhere this years”.

The lightness with which we wear our history. The big-hearted, loud-mouthed, cynical, engaged, opinionated, furious, resilient, kind, lewd, rude, confused and compassionate people.

Coming back felt like taking a breath. A year on, we are still breathing easier. A place to call home has been found. Jobs have been secured. The toddler still talks about “Mewikah” but the Californian accent has given way to a drawling Waterford one. She goes to the bookshop with her granddad, like I used to when I was a child. The older children are learning to garden with their grandmother.

They’ve swapped baseball for golf and hurling and friends who are “a bit less polite, a lot more real”.

Knowing what we know now, would we make the same decision? There’s no contest. Happy returnoversary to us.

joconnell@irishtimes.com

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