neither here nor there: a note from the irish diaspora (& widowhood)

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The immigrant’s heart marches to the beat of two quite different drums, one from the old homeland and the other from the new. The immigrant has to bridge these two worlds, living comfortably in the new and bringing the best of his or her ancient identity and heritage to bear on life in an adopted homeland.

— FORMER IRISH PRESIDENT MARY MCALEESE

Continuing to pay tribute to the Irish Diaspora, President of Ireland, Mary McAleese visited Phoenix, Arizona in December 2008. Moving through the crowd gathered at the Irish Cultural Center, she greeted many of us personally, even obliging me with a photograph when I told her where I was from. “Martin” she said to her husband, “Come you here for a photo with this girl so she can send it to her mother.” The three of us, all graduates of Queen’s University of Belfast, smiled for the camera on that chilly morning in the desert southwest, proud of the narrative we shared.

mcaleese_Phx_08

Yvonne Watterson with President of Ireland, Dr. Mary McAleese, Dr. Martin McAleese ~ Phoenix, Arizona 2008

Later, addressing a a crowd of about 400, Dr. McAleese acknowledged the Irish Diaspora as well as the return to Ireland of over 100,000 émigrés in the previous five years. I don’t think any of us – including her – would have predicted that in the remaining years of her presidency, we would see so many of those young people return from Australia, America, Canada, and New Zealand, only to find themselves once again forced to leave. For us, it seems emigration is the default response to hardship. Soon, the Celtic Tiger would be licking its wounds, and the President’s aspirational vision of a “golden age of affluence,” a dream deferred with devastating impact.

Like me, Mary McAleese was the first in her family to attend college, to learn an alternative way to move through treacherous waters.

Our faith in winning by enduring most
they made anathema, intelligences
brightened and unmannerly as crowbars.

from THE CANON OF EXPECTATION, SEAMUS HEANEY

As a scholar, with the “crowbar” of an educated mind, McAleese was well equipped to respond differently to the challenges placed before her, particularly those that for decades has poisoned the minds of young people in Northern Ireland. Fitting, then, that she declared the theme of her presidency – Building Bridges. In her Inaugural address, she thanked the countless immigrants who make up the Irish Diaspora, scattered far and wide across the globe,

  . . . whose letters home with dollars and pound notes, earned in grinding loneliness thousands of miles from home, bridged the gap between the Ireland they left and the Ireland which greets them today when they return as tourists or return to stay. They are a crucial part of our global Irish family. In every continent they have put their ingenuity and hard work at the service of new homelands.

Like many of them, I felt I had no choice but to leave because of possibilities diminished and promises broken in Northern Ireland over the course of my first twenty-seven years. At the same time, I can barely remember a time when I did not feel the lure of America. I was always eager to take what Doris Kearns Goodwin calls that “spectacular risk,” but although I have now spent almost half my life in these United States, there are still unguarded moments of dislocation that bring a crushing loneliness and a viceral longing for “back home,” for the very things that sent me away in the first place, the rain, the low-hanging clouds, the lack of anonymity.

In Prospective Immigrants Please Note, poet, Adrienne Rich considers this duality:

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily

to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely

but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?

The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.

It is only a door.

It is only a door.

The rare cloudy days in Phoenix remind me of Irish weather. Today, I find myself recalling a rainy afternoon in a classroom in Antrim Grammar School. I am sixteen years old, having a bad hair day, reading and underlining in red, bits of George Moore’s short story, Home Sickness.” It is the tale of an Irish emigrant, James Bryden, who works in the Bowery in early twentieth century New York. He falls ill and on his doctor’s recommendation to take a sea voyage, decided to see Ireland again, an Ireland he has since romanticized. When he returns to his village, he is forced to confront again the harsh realities facing the peasants and the disillusionment with Ireland gives way to a yearning for the America he has left behind. The slum in the Bowery now transformed in his memory, he wholly rejects the prospect of spending his life in Ireland with Margaret, a woman whose memory will return to him many years later when he is old, back in the Bowery, with a wife and family:

There is an unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself and his unchanging silent life was his memory of Margaret Dirken. The bar-room was forgotten and all that concerned it and the things he saw most clearly were the green hillside, and the bog lake and the rushes about it, and the greater lake in the distance, and behind it the blue line of wandering hills.

Ostensibly, Bryden’s story is that of a malcontent for whom the grass is invariably greener on the other side. But I suspect a similar tension lurks in the heart of every Irish immigrant, and with age, grows a desire to hold on to home or some pleasant version of it –  from a distance – bringing to mind the tension Joseph O’Connor describes in his introduction to Ireland in Exile: Irish writers abroad.

You might be coming home for Christmas, or a family celebration, or a funeral, or to see a friend. Or you might just be coming back to Ireland because you’re so lonely and freaked-out where you are that you can’t stick it any more, and you need a break, and you’d sell your Granny to be back in the pub at home by nine o’clock on a Friday night, having fun and telling stories.

And there it is, this IDA poster, illuminated at the end of the corridoor that leads from the airbridge gates to the arrivals terminal; the ghostly faces of those beautiful Young Europeans. It always seems poignant as any ancient Ulster saga to me, this pantheon of departed heroes, so hopeful and innocent, frozen in their brief moment of optimism.

And you meet your friends the night you get home, the people who stayed behind . . .  about half an hour before closing time, you find yourself looking around the pub and becoming frantically uptight. You’re feeling completely out of place, you don’t know why. It’s weird. You don’t get it. But somehow, despite the ceol and the caint and the craic, something is wrong. You’re home in Ireland, but you’re not home really. London is still in your head, on New York, or Paris. But you’re in IrelandHow did this happen? It’s not that you’re unhappy exactly. But it’s just not right. You take a swig of your drink, and the music seems louder. You close your eyes and try to fight back the almost overwhelming urge to be somewhere – anywhere – else. And you realize in that moment that you really are an emigrant now. And that being an emigrant isn’t just an address. You realise that it’s actually a way of thinking about Ireland.

~ JOSEPH O’CONNOR

Perhaps that is why I write in this space that has no borders other than those I build around it. It is a blog about being home or maybe finding home. And, there’s no place like home – its books and music, its warm fire, the sound of it settling, belonging in it . . .

It didn’t start out that way. It began with my hoping I would catch the very best words about breast cancer and save them in a jam-jar with holes poked in the lid, ready to release them whenever they were needed. And then it was the place to which I turned when Ken died, when the grief balled up in my chest like a sharp stone.   The fast and furious flurry of euphemisms that followed the cancer diagnosis and then Ken’s death ten months ago were replaced at first with something more closely resembling the routine of someone forced into a kind of exile. For a time, I felt as though I had been banished to a new country that required me to be bolder and braver than ever before, an immigrant once more, even a bit like Rip Van Winkle, no longer as sure of what awaits when I wander down once-familiar roads.

But who wants to spend a happy hour talking about fear and uncertainty? Nobody. I don’t. So we don’t. It’s awkward.  I don’t look afraid and uncertain. (But then you aren’t there in the morning when no-one but me is looking in the mirror). So I write about it, but only when I forget that life is for the living, and it is brief.

If you have visited this blog, you know I consider it a home away from home, a safe place to fall where I can put my feet up, have a beer or a hot Powers, and listen to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers all day long if I feel like it. I don’t have to keep it clean. I don’t have to check the mail – I don’t even have to open the mail. If I don’t feel like company, I don’t have to answer the door. If I want to throw a party, I can invite people from all over the world. If I want to be alone with my angst the way I did a million years ago, rambling into my diary in the wee hours, I can do that too

Mind you, the best part about this virtual world might be when, every once in a while, it collides with the real one. Magically, these known strangers are in real time – Lesley Richardson sitting across the table from me in a snug at The Crown Bar and later with Fiona McLaughhin at Home in Belfast. The Blarney Crone and her sister at a restaurant in my Phoenix neighborhood, Nick McClelland and his wife and children filling my house with laughter and Northern Ireland colloquialisms over pizza and beer.

Surreal and real, it is as if we have known each other a lifetime, our worlds at once expanding and narrowing right in front of us, reminding me again of what Mary McAleese said about the Diaspora:

. . . something palpable in the Irish psyche nudges us to be and keep on being community to one another. A deep appreciation of the emigrant experience and an affinity with a sense of Irishness – however that is interpreted – are defining characteristics of the global Irish family. Our culture and heritage are powerful instruments of connection.

Why all this talk of Diaspora today? First, the blog has made it to the final round of the 2014 Blog Awards Ireland competition in the Best Blog of the Irish Diaspora category sponsored by the Irish Dairy Board. It is a lovely thing to know that there are readers for whom this corner of the blogosphere represents the Irish abroad, and I am delighted with the recognition.

But more than that, today would be Ken’s birthday. It is the first without him, and it is surreal. Since she could hold a pencil, my daughter drew pictures for her daddy. She’d scour antique shops with me trying to find the perfect gift for the man who told her to tell her mother not to get him anything.

Ken understood – perhaps better than anyone – that the cancer altered our life together; it altered me.  He understood that when I retreated to this timeless space, that it was to reconnect with the girl I used to be and the country I left behind. Even though the blogging often excluded him as I spent so much time in my own head, he made coffee for me on Sunday mornings and left a glass of Old Vine Zinfandel on my desk, just to get the juices flowing.  When I finished a post, I would always read it to Ken first. God love him, he sat through thousands and thousands of words about breast cancer, bad hair days, and Belfast, long rants about menopause and motherhood and having it all or not having it all, about Seamus Heaney and back home, about brown paper packages tied up with string the way my mother still does.

Sometimes he’d get misty eyed, but mostly he’d find something to laugh about and tell me to keep on keeping on. So it is the laughter I remember most, and for that Sophie and I are grateful.

This one’s for him.

xo

one of the things Sophie loved about her beloved daddy

one of the things Sophie loved about her beloved daddy

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