It is just after dawn and the children woke me early. Instead of moping about the lack of sleep I decided it was an opportunity and grabbed my camera and headed to the beach. I sat at the lily pond beside the beach bar and thought about the crazy, exotic and wonderful life that we have here in Antigua at the moment. I can’t speak for all expats, but I know from regular conversations that many have a hankering for ‘home’, a sort of niggling feeling about their homeland.
Here are a few words that I jotted down about my own thoughts on the subject, interspersed with some very early morning pictures of the lily pond where I go to dream.
Am I looking at Ireland through rose tinted glasses?
A colourful life in far flung lands yet ideals of the green, green grass of home: advice comes in different forms, solicited or unsolicited, a movie, a valued friend, a letter, a book, a newspaper article, sometimes dreams. After 23 years of living abroad in various countries and having a great lifestyle, why have I a hankering to move back home to Ireland? It is a strange thing when it happens, this yearning for the soil of home. I can’t even explain it to my husband, who is not from Ireland, by the way.
I phoned the bank to discover what I need to do to secure a mortgage for a property in Ireland.
“The line is very bad”, she said.
“I’m calling from the Caribbean”, I said.
“Ah sure, why would you ever want to come back to smelly, rainy Ireland?” she replied.
When most of Ireland puts itself down, slating the weather, the taxes, the crimes, the unemployment, why would someone with a perfectly good job abroad in a tropical destination want to move back then?
I was at an art exhibition the other day and I met a lady who told me in a proud Canadian accent that she was Irish.
“Really?” I enquired.
“Well, my parents are Irish and they emigrated to Canada” she told me. “I’ve never actually lived there, but I am Irish”.
This is somewhat the tale that my children will tell, born and spending their early years on ski slopes in Switzerland and then primary school in the Caribbean, they hold Irish passports yet know little of the soul of the country whose passport they hold.
I first thought of leaving Ireland when I wrote a French language essay for my Leaving Cert about emigration. It became a conscious decision to go and ‘find a country that I want to live in’. I somehow felt that Ireland held nothing for me and that I had to spread my wings and find the opportunities abroad. I fell in love with the mystic of Turkey, I was charmed by France, I had a lot of fun in Australia and almost stayed there but I felt just too far away from home.
In my subconscious I always thought that I was just travelling to explore the world and that one day eventually I would go back. Somehow, however, the work has been secure and the jobs easy to find making it easier to stay away than to go back. I feel that I have left part of me in each country that I have lived and left, and that each country has moulded me a little towards their way of thinking.
As a child, however, I was of Ireland: I knew I belonged. I was part of the soft grass and the gentle rolling hills, part of the round towers and the fiddle and the bodhràn. The history of the nation pulsed through my veins, the hardships and the fight for freedom, the Vikings, the religions, the economic growth like a new shoot in Spring watered by the rains that baptise the country plentifully. This is the land that gave me birth, that cared for my first tremoring steps, that showed me exotic animals in Dublin zoo, that nourished me with the finest fruits and vegetables and cradled me in teenage Summers as I lay on the cliffs looking across the sea wondering what life was in store for me.
I climbed hills with my parents to stand buffeted by the wind and to see all around, to count the forty shades of green in the rough patchwork of fields marked by hedges and stone walls. At school I breathed the counties and the names of the rivers and mountains that formed the shapes of our island nation. I absorbed the tragic yet defiant tales in the history books. I touched the stone in the statues of St Patrick, the bullet holes in the GPO, the castles that speak of grandeur and supremacy. You couldn’t think about the rain that made the earth boggy. You couldn’t think about the midges that attacked you on Summer evenings that seemed to go all night. You couldn’t think about the potholes that were craters to sink a car in. You couldn’t think about these things because they were part of the country and part of its beating heart. These things course through my veins that I once believed were green in Irish people.
I look at the country and the cities now through the eyes of a stranger, the eyes that have been filled with the stories of other lands, eyes that have changed with the stories of my own life. Yet I am looking at a country that has changed with its own parallel story too: an age-old story of emigration but one that now has welcomed immigration, modern roads and motorways, huge shopping complexes, modern eateries, rows of matching houses and a new world of politics. I don’t expect Ireland to be the same when I return: I’m not. I left as a teenager and I will come home as a wife and a mother.
The one thing that has always griped me in Ireland, is a lack of self-belief. It has become part of the craic to put the country down, to laugh at ourselves and to make fun of the weather. Foreigners see it as part of the charm. Living in the country you start to believe it.
I have learned that nowhere is perfect. Nowhere has the perfect weather, the government, the economy, the lifestyle. The place that you make home is the place where you feel safe.
For me, Ireland is where the hearth is. This is the soil with which I made mud pie with as a child. This is the land where I hunted for fairies and know in my heart that they are real. This is the grass that I can squish my toes in and feel the magic of an ancient land, these are the cows that brought me milk to nourish my bones and the land that gave me bread with the crusts on to make my hair curly (although that sadly never worked).
Perhaps you know this place and can sing proudly with the lines of Molly Malone and tell your children stories of the great Finn MacCumhaill and of leprechauns causing mischief at the bottom of the garden.
I’m proud of my heritage and proud of the island that I grew up on. Sometimes it takes going away to realise the wonders that we have on our own doorsteps. As my cousin in Dublin said to me, “There’s only so much lying on a beach you can do before it actually becomes dangerous”. We Irish have been welcomed the world over and I hope the welcome home when it comes will be as warm.
How about you? Do you dream of faraway shores, to escape from home or to go home?
And oh the lilies, how divine! You’ve got to love early mornings too, where fresh air is your coffee for subconscious thoughts and musings.
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Jennifer Ritchie is an amateur photographer and writer currently based in Antigua with her family and Ricky the dachshund. She works in hospitality by day and sometimes by night too, but mostly her interests are in lifestyle, food, travel and a passion for flowers. Her work has been published in the Irish Times and various magazines and websites.