Thursday 22 August 2019

'Remember that Christmas homecomings are not always hugs and happiness for everyone'

Coming home isn't such a wonderful experience for everyone
Coming home isn't such a wonderful experience for everyone
Tanya Sweeney

Tanya Sweeney

The first time I ever saw Alan Hughes in that ESB ad, way back in the Eighties, I thought that coming home for Christmas looked like a splendid thing.

Getting all misty-eyed at the sight of the local nightclub, marvelling at the main street in its festive finery, and enough electric blankets and hot scones to bate the band. And Dusty Springfield to boot. Count me in.

And much like ESB's iconic ad, other images come to mind as Ireland welcomes home its emigrants for Christmas. Excited nieces holding placards at the arrivals gate. RTE's camera loitering nearby for the requisite cuddly shot. Heart-warming scenes of hugs, hankies and happiness.

I lived away from home for years, and I'll tell you now, it was about as un-ESB as you could get. I'd make my way home from the airport alone, as it was assumed I was a grown-up with a working knowledge of public transport (and sure people have enough to be doing than waiting on a Ryanair flight because you know what that shower are like).

Once I got home, I'd walk past my family and straight to the fridge, because for the previous three months, I wouldn't have seen hide not hair of a fully stocked one.

I'd barely be in the house an hour before there would be an argument, usually over my brother wrapping his gifts with the Yellow Pages in an 'ironic' fashion. The niceties would last mere minutes before complacency would kick in. I'd return, as everyone who goes home does and is powerless to resist, to being a moody teenager.

Back then, meeting with friends over Christmas was often a sodden affair. And despite our closeness, there was always a sense of barely-there tension: the invisible tug-of-war between those who stayed and those who left Ireland.

We had a sense that lives were diverting in different directions. That geography was creating very different futures or opportunities for us.

There was much talk of the 'brain drain' back in the Nineties, leaving many to conclude that the cream of the country blasted off the rock as quickly as they could, while those who stayed behind weren't up to the challenge.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Those who stayed have shown every bit as much moxie, determination and grit. Still, there's often a pressure on the emigrant to play up their fortunes, as though moving country will automatically mean a better life and untold amounts of success.

The stayers would downplay their lives, shrugging that nothing ever happens in this town anyway, while the leavers would envy their comfort, and the fact that they barely know how good they have it living at home, near their families and friends.

There is good and bad in both: those who stay will always enjoy an uncomplicated sense of belonging in the city where they live, and those who leave will experience the adventures that living in a different country brings.

That said, a friend has identified one particularly maligned strain of emigrant: the one who goes to Australia, lives with the Irish, dates the Irish, socialises with the Irish and marries the Irish, only to come home restyled as the most travelled and cultured person ever. This Christmas, do yourself a favour and avoid those people like the bubonic. They will harsh your buzz.

In Ireland, the two states of being are fluid and interchangeable, of course. I moved home eventually and found that instead of being the leaver, I was the stayer.

But here's the funny thing: with the tables effectively turned, I've realised that the prospect of being the leaver over Christmas can be… trickier than it looks. This week means peak socialising, and the pressure is on the prodigal people not just to bond with family, to also to see as many pals as possible, often within a short period of time.

Best-laid plans come undone after the first bender of the season: usually with extended family in whatever home-town watering hole has the most 'fluid' licensing laws.

If you've been living in the US or on the Continent, this level of drinking comes as a real shock to the system, and takes full days to recover from. Jet lag doesn't get a look in. And while there is only one of you to go around, there are dozens of people who want to catch up with you. There will always be someone left out in the cold; never enough time to do it all.

The leavers will return to their adopted homelands, and while there's some universality in the Irish emigrant's experience, things have changed down the years.

Thanks to Skype and social media, the emigrant experience of today isn't the same as it once was, and people are rarely as cut off or isolated as they may have been some years ago (in fact, my Irish friends in Australia are among the most vocal about their identity on social media).

Ultimately, we're a fluid and intrepid people, albeit one who will often always have an unbreakable link with home. It's entirely unique to the Irish, and we should celebrate it, wherever we live.

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