Why I'm struggling to get into the Gathering groove


FIFTYSOMETHING:I’VE BEEN narrowly missing rear-ending nicer cars than mine, craning over the dash, trying to understand those billboard posters advising us to invite a relative home for The Gathering 2013.

The sad fact is that I’ve nobody to bring to the party. I don’t have an Uncle Sam from Chicago to open my humble home to, or an Auntie Ita from Inverness to ply with smoked fish and potato crisps, in the hope that she will prise open her alligator wallet and pay off the national debt – or whatever it is the returning emigres are supposed to do during their enforced vacation.

A tad pressurising, no, getting the homestead shipshape for the shindig?

Maybe the idea of The Gathering is to boost small upholstery-cleaning businesses and ensure a boom time for the rubber-glove manufacturers as we collectively attack the grime built up over years of self- indulgence since our kinfolk’s weepy departures.

By Irish standards, I come from a meagre family. It seems other people can stack up relatives like deckchairs in a downpour, while my scanty clan could squeeze into a cup of lukewarm chowder. Maybe my Protestant paternal grandfather, whom I remember as elegant and myopic, grew weary of the garrulous Catholic he married. Or maybe she just scared the living finesse out of him. Whatever, they had two children, my father and a sister, who upped and dispersed into the west like a raincloud.

Then there were my mother’s side of the family, vaguely Italian and somewhat musical, who billowed around the laburnum and mowed the grass and invited the archbishop to tea and somehow, over the china cups and strains of Count McCormack, lost a daughter, a third of their small litter, to a stern god who kept her under lock and wimple for an awfully long time, long enough anyway for the laburnum to wither.

I remember going to a wedding among the Irish community in Camden when I was about 17. I had a borrowed velvet jacket, too much jet-black eyeliner and some precociously muscular ideas about personal freedom.

But my 17-year-old notions didn’t hold water among that extended emigre clan, lovely people whose values and mores were forged by beliefs and traditions that my small family seemed to have mislaid along with the key for the piano.

The long and short of it was that I spent the night before the wedding sharing a bed with my then boyfriend’s mother, while he slept on his aunt’s couch.

I lay awake for hours, raging against the restraint. Out there beyond the bedroom door, slumbering first love; and beyond that, London, pulsing, whispering, laughing in our chastened faces, kicking open the shutters in bovver boots and ripped fishnets; and in the silent bed, me, mummified.

The next day at the wedding, in the local community centre, people danced reels and jigs and sang songs about loss and yearning that I’d never heard before. And for the first time I got an inkling of what it really meant to be excluded from your heart’s desire, of what it might mean to be an emigrant, to yearn for a country, to long for something as ephemeral and quixotic as homeland.

I don’t know; patriotism scares the highlights out of me. I love lots of things about this country: the vivid streets of Clonakilty; the world’s-end glow of Connemara; the echoing metal hulls of the trawlers moored to the pier near my home; the barnacled seal who popped his head above the waves and watched as we scattered my father’s ashes into the drink below the lighthouse; the kittiwakes on the blackened back of Ireland’s Eye; the bars – god, the bars – and the rain.

Sometimes I feel a sort of tenderness towards the rain and I have a great fondness for all the fire escapes and back lanes and rooftops and pungent alleyways where I flicked my cigarette butts all over Dublin city during the smoking years. And all of this feels diminished by leprechauns and rebel songs.

Is that patriotism or sentimentality? I don’t know. I’ve never had to chew over nationalism with the kind of hunger I’ve seen in Camden and Queens.

I’m lucky that I only left when I left because I was sick to the back teeth of this place, and I only came back when I came back because I forgot I was sick of it, and lucky that l’ve managed to survive here since.

Anyway, I’ve still got a couple of months to get in to the Gathering groove, shelve my niggardliness, have the sofa reupholstered, dig up some dispersed mates and reassemble the pyjama party. Pass the rubber glove, why don’t you.