Going home?

Clouds and a beautiful bog in County Leitrim

I’ve recently moved (yes, AGAIN) to Astoria, Queens. A few days ago, when I left my building, I decided to ask a passerby whether the N train was running properly, since that would determine if I should take a right at the end of my street, or turn left and walk an extra 15 blocks. (The N has been struggling of late). Anyhow, it turned out the guy was Irish, as I instantly recognized from his tell-tale Northern-sounding accent; he told me he was a construction worker, from County Louth.

The Irish are back, tentatively returning to the areas that were their haunts in the nineties — notably Woodlawn, according to a recent New York Times article, but also, it seems, Astoria and I imagine other traditionally Irish Queens locales like Woodside. When a friend forwarded me the Times article, a few lines in it caught my eye. The writer observes that brogues, lilts, and an ‘Irish feel’ are replenishing parts of the city, and interviews the wonderful staff at the Emerald Isle Immigration Center (which caters to Irish but also to other immigrant groups). The piece ends with the following quote:

Yet, said Ms. Kelleher, who herself emigrated from County Kerry in 2004, Woodlawn is about as close to Ireland as you can find in America.

“Anything you can enjoy at home you can enjoy here,” she said.

Except for the people they left behind.

“The only thing you don’t have is family and friends,” Ms. Kelleher said. “That you have to live without.”

No offense to Ms. Kelleher — I’m sure that quote came out of a much longer interview, and it was the journalist’s decision to use it as a kicker, thus giving it extra emphasis — but we Irish really need to change the account we give of ourselves, both to ourselves and to others. Having to leave home — or to leave one’s home country — is simply not the worst thing that can happen to a person. In many ways, the Irish are incredibly lucky and well off (cf. Japan, Libya, Sudan, etc). It’s high time we at least tried to look for silver linings on the clouds that have admittedly been looming over us.

I should say that I left Ireland a decade ago through choice, and not because I had to. That’s rather different from those whom bad economic circumstances push out, and I know that for long-term illegal emigrants based in the US, life is very hard; the longer you’re away without a visa, the more complicated that situation gets, and I have friends who were unable to return home for family funerals. Nor do I mean to exonerate our former government from screwing up the country’s finances and continuing a policy of withholding the vote from ex-pats, both causing unemployment and emigration to shoot up and depriving those forced to go of a voice. Nor, finally, do I intend in any way to echo the patronising statements of the former Tanaiste, Mary Coughlan, who said that young people leave Ireland because “they want to enjoy themselves” and “gain experience.”

But just because people are compelled to emigrant doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy themselves or gain experience either. With skype, free long-distance phone-deals and flights that are much cheaper than they used to be, perhaps we could cheer up … just a little? Life in another country does enable you to learn about other folk and teach you to live by your wits. By its nature, it broadens your horizons, so that when you return — and I truly hope that will be possible for those leaving now, if they want to — you can bring experience, and make change.

A friend of mine has observed, brilliantly, that many of the ads we were fed on TV as kids were variations on the myth of Going Home. She notes, “The weird thing is that these ads were all for the domestic market: showing that even when at home in front of their TVs, Irish people still love to feel nostalgic and homesick” (see below).

My friend suggests, with some inventiveness, that for the young man in the ad, “it’s not just home he’s going to: it’s the foreign country of his youth.” Perhaps. Either way, I hope the new generation of Irish emigrants will find an imaginative alternative to the sorrowful narrative of Irish homesickness. Leaving home can be fun too.

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