Trapped between worlds.
I’ve lived in the States for 11 years and I love it and yet some part of me remains separate from here. One of my favorite things is when my weekly Saturday edition of the Irish Times arrives in the mail. I savor it all, the main section mostly politics and current affairs, the weekend supplement with broader coverage of the arts and culture, and the magazine with special interest articles on food, music, travel, people, etc.
More than anything else this helps me to feel connected to home, makes me feel that I’m keeping up with what’s happening culturally in Ireland. In the time I’ve lived in the U.S., Ireland has changed so much. I left at the height of the Celtic Tiger, the boom years that saw Ireland’s economy catapult to unimaginable levels of prosperity.
There’s always been wealth in Ireland and the notion that I’ve come across here, that most Irish people lived in poverty and semi-squalor without electricity or running water until relatively recently, is completely inaccurate. Like many of my friends I grew up in a middle class household and thankfully have never known hunger or scarcity. But we definitely did not have lots of disposable income or access to huge amounts of credit, as people began to during the boom years.
After I moved to America, visits home in the first four years or so were a bit odd, in some ways Ireland was becoming a place I no longer recognized. A nouveau riche sense of obnoxious consumption and spending was everywhere, like a bad smell in the air. People in Dublin city weren’t quite as friendly, less time to chat at the checkout counter, walking faster, no time to dally. The energy in the city felt different.
A welcome change however, was the move from Ireland as a more or less homogeneously white country with a smattering of emigrants to a multi-racial one. The thriving economy attracted industrious adventurers from far and wide to have their chance at prosperity. It’s a beautiful thing to hear Irish accents coming from little black and Asian children who’ve been born in Ireland and know no other home.
In my last few visits home since the recession hit hard, I’ve noticed that Dublin is returning to its former laid-back friendly, quirky rhythm. People have more time to chat in shops and cafes, there’s a sense of pulling together to get through the recession-resultant austerity. Theatre, live music and creative entrepreneurism are thriving. Independent stores specializing in everything from old-fashioned sweets to knitting and artisan breads are popping up all over the place. It feels edgier, more gritty, on the edge of possibility, the way it felt when I was a teenager in the late 80s and early 90s.
Thanks to my weekly Irish Times I feel like I’m tracking the pulse of the country. Recently I read an article about a young couple who returned from living in England with successful careers to set up a bakery and bread school on an island off the southwest coast with a year-round population of 27. One outcome of the recession is that people are moving away from supermarket shopping, going back to the butcher and the baker, looking for better value and wanting to be more self-sufficient, bake their own bread, grow their own vegetables. (Incidentally Ireland has fantastic food grown locally and it’s the norm for restaurant menus to list where meat, chicken and fish come from down to the farmer’s name and address.)
At the end of the article was a recipe for a basic bread and as I read it tears welled up as I remembered my mother making her own bread, kneading the dough on our kitchen table. And I cried for all the things I miss about Ireland—the use of language, the rhythm and cadence of speech, Irish accents; Dublin wit, the smell and sights of its streets, the feeling of being in Europe. The way a big crowd will gather and listen respectfully to buskers and then clap when they finishing playing; how easy it is to walk everywhere in Dublin city centre, how accessible theatre and the arts are. The feeling of being 100 percent at home, never having to repeat my name several times and spell it out to people who can’t, or won’t, get it. The wild Atlantic coast, the terrible beauty of which Yeats spoke—desolate, raw, unconquerable. The sometimes wildly miscalculated optimism of Irish people about everything from the weather to their chance of defeating Germany in a world cup soccer final.
But does our home country define us? I’m really not sure…
Yes, I’m Irish and self-consciously identify as such, but more fundamentally I’m human; the life-force that pulses in me is the same life-force that pulses in everything. I had a visceral understanding of this a few weeks ago, again reading the Irish Times. I read a review of Patti Smith performing at the Electric Picnic festival in Ireland reigniting the flame of idealism and sense of possibility that the 1960s epitomized.
Again, I had the feeling of not quite understanding how I’ve lived away from Ireland for so long…the use of language, the word choices, the sense of feeling tapped into what’s happening there, connect me to some place I can’t name, it doesn’t define me, but it animates some part of me that remains eternal.
And yet I’ve been so happy living here, this home from home. I wouldn’t change it and yet, and yet…something so often a hair’s breadth off…that turn of phrase, that particular syntax.
Later that day I drove through Laurel Canyon and thought about how the musicians who came out of there in the early 1960s, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell et al, also embodied that ethos of hope that Patti Smith re-energized. And in that moment my feeling of homesickness disappeared as I felt how music connects us, cuts through the ether. That same spark, pulsation, that animates a great song has the same resonance whether you’re in Dublin, Los Angeles or anywhere else. It’s that sense of aliveness and possibility in the music tapping into our own aliveness across generations, across continents and oceans, eliminating time and space in its effervescent immediacy. And in that moment I realized that my common humanity with others is so much more important than my Irishness.
This is one of the beautiful gifts about being an emmigrant, you get to occupy a liminal space between the worlds—frequently feeling not one hundred per cent part of the society you live in, yet not wanting to go home, where you also don’t completely fit in—you also get to belong to both worlds. You occupy in the in-between space…sometimes I wonder if there’s a deep teaching about non-duality in this…transcending otherness to become whole?
Ed: Kate B.