Annie Mac: I felt an ache. I was homesick for Ireland
My life abroad comes with the contingency of regular pit stops home. But now that is cut off
Annie Mac: Home is home. It calls for us whether we like it or not Annie Mac: Home is home. It calls for us whether we like it or not
Every year, around this time of year, I travel from my home in London to the most southwesterly tip of of Ireland, Dingle, where I present the television show Other Voices. It’s a magical time, a weekend squeezed out of my schedule, involving 4am wake-ups and 6am flights and two-hour airport transfers drowsy in the back seat, waking up close to Dingle with the huge views and the sea right beside me. The work is lovely, interviewing artists in beautiful locations across the town, bookshops, snugs in pubs, lovely little cafes or galleries. The performances are filmed in the tiny Church of St James on Main Street. In the evenings, after my interviews and my links to camera, I get to sit at the balcony in the back of the church and watch the performances. This year, because of Covid, Other Voices sadly said goodbye to its live audiences and produced a nightly live stream from the church.
My friend who worked on the show this year sent me part of Hozier’s set, where he performed his version of the traditional Irish song My Lagan Love. I put it on in the kitchen while I made my tea. It starts with just his voice, undulating and tender, and slowly, warm waves of violins and piano wash around his words, until it becomes almost unbearably emotional. He sings of lullabies and twilight gleams and love being lord of all.
Somewhere, deep down, I knew I was feeling sad about not knowing when I would be home next. I had acknowledged the sinking feeling whenever I said goodbye to my mother or father on the phone. I knew that after doing messy chaotic Facetimes with my family, that I needed to be quiet for a while. To not say anything at all. But I didn’t know, until listening to Hozier singing My Lagan Love, that I was homesick.
When the song finished I played it again, and tried to dissect how I was feeling. I found all the other recordings of My Lagan Love and listened to them one by one – Kate Bush, Lisa Hannigan and The Chieftains, Sinéad O’Connor – and each time I felt it. It was an ache, yes, but there was nothing physical about it. It was a quiet, crushing feeling, a longing of sorts. So what was I pining for? I’ve lived in the UK for longer than I’ve lived in Ireland. I’m used to months on end without travelling home. Sure I was only home in August.
When you hear a song like Lagan Love, a song so dripping in Irish mysticism, you think of rolling landscapes and stone walls and low-roofed pubs with snugs and auld fellas at the bar who stand up and sing folk songs after a rake of pints. You think of circles of session musicians, feet stamping on the floor, bursts of laughter and glasses clinking. Of every Guinness advert that ever existed.
As much as I love the idea of this romantic Ireland, I know I’m not pining for it. So I listen more and allow my mind to wander. I smell the rich cedar smell of my da’s car from all the honey making paraphernalia in the boot. I see his hands on the gear stick, and his face in profile as he drives, telling me things. I follow the roads through the housing estate where I grew up, with its pebble-dashed houses and Christmas lights twinkling behind net curtains. I see the front door of my childhood home opening and my mam with some sort of a shapely jumper and a smile, her two hands in the air ready to hold my face so she can get a good look at it. I hear the sombre song of the Angelus on the radio, filling up the kitchen. There is Ma’s cactus collection on the windowsill. My dad poking at the fire. The reassuring bulk of Three Rock Mountain out the back window. I see the M-E-R-R-Y C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S letters cut out of coloured card and stuck on the wall in the hall. I feel the cold of the freezing bedroom, done up now as a spare room, but still bearing the ghosts of my teenage years, when I slept in a bed by the window under a black-and-white poster of Albert Einstein.
And I remember that every year since I left home at 18, I have always climbed on to the train or the plane home to Dublin in the last days of December. All the different incarnations of me: lovestruck and skinny, nose pierced, bleached-blond crop, on the Enterprise from Belfast; red hair and pudgy, hungover and heartbroken on the plane from Gatwick Airport; big-haired with a busy schedule in between gigs from Heathrow. I have brought home different men over the years, and eventually I brought home a baby, and then another one. This would be the 24th year of me travelling home around Christmas time. It would be my 25th but for the one year when I was too pregnant to travel safely, so they came to me. My mam sat on the sofa, snuggled in beside me with my newborn baby and we every evening for a week passing him to each other and staring at his tiny, scrunched-up face. That was one of the happiest weeks of my life.
I knew that I wouldn’t come home this Christmas when my mam told me that we Irish abroad were being advised not to travel home. I hadn’t really accepted the reality of this until My Lagan Love brought everything up and out of me in the inexplicable way that music does. It’s not the not seeing them. It’s the not knowing when I will see them. It’s the awkward video calls with faces frozen in confusion and irritation. It’s the awful performance of trying to get my kids to see them properly and listen to them properly when they don’t want to speak to someone on a screen. None of us do. It’s the knuckle -whitening prayer coming from somewhere deep inside me, pleading for nothing to happen to them.
My childhood friends are dotted all over the world: Toronto, New York, Edinburgh, The Hague. They are all the same as me, suspended in their chosen lives, with no certainty on when they will be able to fly home and fill themselves up with the essence of home. All over the world there are Irish diaspora dreaming even more than usual of Ireland and the people in it. Crying in kitchens. Letting their imaginations run wild with their versions of home; the hearty sarcasm and the swearing and the eye rolls and Santie, not Santa, and the tears and the hugs and the bread and the Chocolate Kimberleys and the endless cups of tea. It’s laughable, really, the levels of self-pity, when the world is ravaged by Covid and there will be more people than ever spending Christmas alone this year. Not travelling home is a small sacrifice to make. But for me, my life abroad is chosen with the contingency that these pit stops home exist, to refuel, to mend, to pump up and polish my idea of who I am.
I always find it shocking, when I walk through the threshold of my family home, how quickly I can regress back to the person I used to be when I lived there. I am the joker of the pack again, the pacifier, the kid who was never allowed to pour the water at the dinner table because I always spilled it. I understand that for a lot of the diaspora, this regression can be a source of deep and repeated pain. Trips home can sting. Every room and picture and smell and sound is loaded, heavy with history. A casual remark, a slur, even a glance is all it can take to decimate a new and carefully constructed sense of self. For lots of the Irish diaspora who have had to leave Ireland in order to be able to live how they want, it takes hard work to put yourself back together again after a trip home.
But home is home. It calls for us whether we like it or not. It creeps up on us in songs and smells. It tugs at our emotions until it makes us feel sick. And we will travel back when we can, when it is safe, to our families waiting to receive us. Because everything we know about love is wrapped up in home. And love is lord of all.
Annie Macmanus is a DJ and broadcaster