Sunday 25 March 2018

Back home for the holidays - yet again

When Mark Hayes moved abroad, he soon realised he'd have to resign himself to a lifetime of summer holidays spent trudging around the the rain-soaked midlands

'Vacationative': Mark Hayes with daughter Kim in Tullamore. Photo: Jeff Harvey.
'Vacationative': Mark Hayes with daughter Kim in Tullamore. Photo: Jeff Harvey.
Mark Hayes on the Viking Splash Tour

You're probably familiar with the term 'staycation' - whereby people stay in their own country for a holiday rather than jetting off somewhere exotic.

But you are probably less familiar with the term 'vacationative' - and that's because I just made it up. This is a word I've had to Frankenstein together from other words to create a label for an unsung cohort of which I am a member - emigrants who are compelled to spend their holidays back in their native land.

I have become a tourist in my own country and I'm not alone. While the most recent Fáilte Ireland figures for 2013 show that just 4pc of those described as "overseas holidaymakers" to Ireland were Irish born, just over a third (37pc) of those coming to Ireland "to visit friends/relatives" (a different category to overseas holidaymakers) were born in Ireland.

Now, obviously everyone's situation is different and I want to make it clear that I'm not complaining here - I realise I'm very lucky to get back so often, and that there are many people in far-flung places who would love to come home on holiday but can't.

But I'm sorry to say that since I emigrated from Ireland eight years ago, I haven't been anywhere in the world you might consider exotic. Unless perhaps you count Ballycumber, Co Offaly, as exotic. There's a very obvious reason why I come to Ireland whenever I can scrape a few quid together and get a week or two off work - I'm very close to my mother and my brothers and sisters, and am happy for my own family to be close to them too. That's why we are here at the minute, for our seventh summer holiday in seven summers.

But if, as a boy growing up in Tullamore, Co Offaly, you told me that I would one day spend a week's holiday in a rented house out the road in the village of Ballycumber, I probably would've laughed and cried at the same time. And that's exactly where I spent a week back in April, as I brought a party of 10 French in-laws to show them the sights.

It was a brilliant trip, we toured the country, east and west, everyone had a great time and, most importantly, I'm still married. But, for me personally, there were two low points.

The first one was on the Thursday evening, as my 'belle famille' and I traipsed around Athlone in the rain. That's when it hit me like a runaway trailer of turf - I need a break from these holidays in Ireland.

Now, I don't want to invite the wrath of, oh, I dunno, Niall Horan and his zillion Twitter disciples, and I know Westmeath has a lot going for it. But we were reduced to sheltering from the rain in the local shopping centre and poking through the assorted pound-shop tat. Now this was all new and interesting and perhaps even exotic to my French in-laws. But for me, ducking into a midlands mall out of the rain and flicking through the CD racks and finding mostly stuff like Declan Nerney is just a little bit too reminiscent of what I used to do on Saturday afternoons as a bored teenager. Not exactly a tantalising carrot of a holiday to keep me going through those long months slaving over a hot computer.

I'm sorry, Athlone, but as a boy I always expected my future holidays would be the exact opposite of what you have to offer. When I was a younger man (and the only mouth I had to feed was connected to my beer belly), I did a fair amount of travelling and I made it to a few exciting and exotic places. The farthest I got was the Caribbean, but I reckoned I had plenty of time to go farther afield - Australia, Asia, South America and so on. Then I met my future wife and, although I didn't realise it at the time, my long-haul travelling days came to an abrupt halt.

She is from France, so for the first few years we were together, almost every holiday was spent in France visiting her family and friends. Then we moved to France and since then every holiday has been in Ireland.

Now, again, don't get me wrong - we've had a lot of great times on our trips to Ireland. What we tend to do is base ourselves in the aforementioned Las Vegas in the bog that is Tullamore, but also spend a few days touring some other part of the country, maybe with my mother and some siblings and their entourages in tow. Over the years we've had a marvellous five days in Mayo, we had a wonderful week in Waterford - despite my daughter rechristening it Waterproof, because that's what she had to wear most of the time. We've had jaywalking sheep halt our progress on the road to Clifden, we've pillaged through Dublin on the Viking Splash tour. Just last week we stormed Birr Castle, and I can highly recommend Lough Boora Discovery Park, where you can rent bikes and literally get lost in the wilds of Offaly - but in a good way.

Anyway, back to my second low point of our April trip. On the Saturday after Athlone, we took the train to Dublin. I lived in the capital for 15 years and had never before set foot inside a Carrolls Irish Gifts shop. But that day I spent 45 minutes in the one on Westmoreland Street, waiting in the aisle with the leprechaun suits for dogs (no, really) for my beloved in-laws while they partook in the traditional buyin' o'the souvenirs.

As I watched the tills cha-chinging in Carrolls, it also struck me that the 'vacationative' (ahem) euro must be doing its bit for Ireland's economic recovery. My understanding family make it a very attractive holiday option for me, with free accommodation, the loan of a car, letting me hold the remote control, etc, but I still shell out all around me.

So when Enda Kenny starts snake-oiling and best-small-country-in-the-world-ing in a bid to lure emigrants back home, I often think: what about the rest of us, the ones who don't want to move home, thanks all the same, but wouldn't mind a bit of special treatment in return for our holiday loyalty?

If the HSE can currently pay a €1,500 relocation fee to bring nurses home to work, maybe the Department of Tourism could come up with a creative sweetener for the likes of me, when wet Thursday evenings in Athlone get me dreaming about Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat.

For example, a scheme whereby if paying for goods or services with a card from a foreign bank, you can have a modest discount if you can prove you are Irish by passing what I'm calling the Timofte-Huberman test, as put to you by the person working the till. That is, answer at least one of the following questions that all Irish people will know the answer to, but nobody else will:

1. Name the Romanian footballer whose penalty was stopped by Packie Bonner.

2. Name Brian O'Driscoll's wife.

Or else you could, y'know, show your passport but where's the fun in that?

Now I know that's a fairly hare-brained example. But Enda, some of your well-paid think-tank chaps might come with something a bit less facetious.

In the meantime, if anyone would like to send me somewhere (anywhere!) exotic to write a travel article for them - yes, I'll do it.

Irish Independent

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