Driving home for Christmas is a trip through time

Journey home can be painful for emigrants but also for those who never left

‘You do not have to have emigrated to experience missing home. All you have to do is to move forward a sufficient distance through time.’ Photograph: David Sleator

‘You do not have to have emigrated to experience missing home. All you have to do is to move forward a sufficient distance through time.’ Photograph: David Sleator

 

I blame Gabriel Byrne, who has a stage adaptation of his memoir Walking With Ghosts opening in the Gaiety at the end of January, for causing me to walk with some ghosts of my own.

On his radio programme, Brendan O’Connor asked Byrne recently about what it was like to come home, to play for the home crowd. Byrne said something that I have been thinking about ever since.

He talked about how for people who have emigrated, “Home becomes a different thing. Home becomes a kind of an ache because sometimes what you are missing when you think you are missing home is that you are missing childhood. You’re missing things that you grew up with.”

You are right, Mr Byrne. You are right, completely right, except that you are wrong. You do not have to have emigrated to experience missing home. All you have to do is to move forward a sufficient distance through time.

Did I really grow up in a thatched house? I did. I find it hard to believe myself. It was picturesque in a way, although a purist would shudder at the flat-roofed porch shoved on the front

Gabriel Byrne is older than I am but I am a thousand years older than my children. The childhood I experienced is so far from my children’s childhood that they may as well have happened in alternate universes.

I think about my parents, who are both dead, more often than usual at Christmas. My father decorated the house every Advent with sprigs of holly tacked just below where the yellow-painted ceiling started to follow the slope of the thatch above it. 

He found the holly with the best berries in our glen and would claim, with a little crooked half-smile, that lots of berries were the sign of a hard winter. He knew that it was not really true because he knew all sorts of things about the weather, seasons and so much more.

I know almost nothing about such lore and my heart aches for my foolishness in refusing to listen to my father. He knew which mushrooms to pick and which would make you sick. He knew where to find rosehips when the whole country was swept with a craze for collecting them to make vitamin C syrup for children in what we called the Third World. He could find wild hazelnuts and where the wild strawberries hid.

It was the same with relatives. I had no interest in tracing my relationship to third cousins once removed. Now I see my mother’s green eyes in a stranger’s face and know that my father would be able to tell me the connection. 

Did I really grow up in a thatched house? I did. I find it hard to believe myself. It was picturesque in a way, although a purist would shudder at the flat-roofed porch shoved on the front of it and the aluminium-framed glass door with opaque glass my parents were so proud of.

It was also riddled with damp and the only well-heated room was the kitchen, which housed an enormous four-oven Aga that my grandfather had bought secondhand from a Christian Brothers’ house in Waterford. My father converted it to oil and the Aga was never happy about it. I remember his toiling over it when it would refuse to light.

I can never read Robert Hayden’s poem Those Winter Sundays without thinking of my father. 

“Sundays too my father got up early/ and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,/then with cracked hands that ached/ from labour in the weekday weather made/ banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.”

It might have been 1970s oil rather than banked fires but the meaning was the same.

He never told us he loved us. He just did things for us instead. And just like the last lines of Hayden’s poem, “What did I know, what did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

Darkness and light

There was much darkness at that time, in the way we treated what we called unmarried mothers, or people with disabilities or anyone who dared to be different.

But there was also bright. My parents’ generation lived much more in harmony with the earth. Spuds had seasons and strawberries were fleeting. I often wonder if my father’s iron constitution stemmed from never having eaten anything except organic food for the first decades of his life.

Except no one called it organic. It was just food. At Christmas, turkeys were located locally and vegetables came from local fields. I watched those market gardens wink out, one by one, unable to compete with cheap imported vegetables that taste very little of anything.

When I was a child, farmers were ripping out hedgerows and ditches for EEC grants so that their grown children could receive grants for putting them up again from the European Union.

Byrne concluded that for him, home is not a place but a sense of where he came from. Maybe this odd Christmas, when so many of us feel internally displaced and not quite at home, we could meditate on why our hearts feel a kind of an ache. Perhaps it is not because we miss too much, but because we don’t miss enough, the better parts of where we all came from. 

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