Over the course of various youthful adventures, I developed a painfully earnest habit for when I’m homesick. It began when I was au pairing in rural France aged 15, miserable and alone in the house every day, looking after a one-year-old and a three-year-old whom I privately referred to as “the Troll”. Late one night when I couldn’t sleep, I got out of my creaky bunk bed, found my iPod Nano and played a song we had sung in choir at school, called “Irish Blessing”. Indulging, in true teenage fashion, the fear that my family would all be dead by the time I returned to Belfast in a few weeks’ time, I allowed myself to burst into tears during the lines “until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand”.
A decade on, I did my homesick routine yet again, alone in my London flat, on the night that Boris Johnson urged a voluntary lockdown. Suddenly, home felt very far away, and a thought entered my mind: “I’m on the wrong side of the Irish Sea.” An old friend from school, Niamh, rang me from Paris in a panic over whether she should leave France before it closed its borders, to go home to her mum. I told her I had just had a cry listening to “Irish Blessing”, and she burst into uncontrollable laughter.
I am quite aware of my own ridiculousness. (For other cries, I rewatch Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent audition on YouTube, or that video of a lion being reunited with his former owners. “He recognises them!” I sob, as a sort of catharsis.)
Everyone is missing the family they can’t see during the pandemic, whether they’re shielding a few streets away or on another continent. Yet that thought – “I’m on the wrong side of the Irish Sea” – persists.
The Irish identity is fundamentally a diasporic one. When you’re on the island of Ireland, there’s sometimes the urge to take flight, away from certain attitudes, or towards opportunities or adventures elsewhere. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man captures the Irish tendency towards flight beautifully: Stephen Dedalus goes through Irish rites of passage before fleeing into exile, like Daedalus from Greek myth, who literally flies away. In Naoise Dolan’s brilliant new novel, Exciting Times, a character from Texas remarks, “It’s weird how all the Irish leave Ireland… There’s so much green. What the heck have the Irish got against Ireland?” Ava, the main character, replies: “You know we can’t get abortions?”
But when you’re away from the island of Ireland, you don’t stop calling it home. There’s a wistfulness, a tug back, that characterises so much of how the Irish think of themselves. The “Irish blessing” from choir is an old prayer beginning, “May the road rise up to meet you”, praying that the person you’re addressing will be kept safe until you next meet.
It cuts deeply to some of the most painful aspects of Ireland’s past: the million who emigrated during the famine; the long history of going abroad for work, never to return. Depending on how you define the Irish diaspora, the Irish abroad vastly outnumber those at home. It’s this widespread, hereditary homesickness that means Irishness can sometimes be romanticised to the point of being flattened: just greenness, Guinness, friendliness, and the sound of tin whistles. But it’s also a fundamental part of how we think of ourselves: as a disparate group of people missing home, or missing those far from home.
I have always believed that Irish diaspora identities are legitimate, just as I don’t believe I am less Irish for also considering myself British, as the Good Friday Agreement allows me to. In London, I’m both home and away, still in the UK but away from Ireland.
I’m rubbing up against my Irishness in many ways during lockdown. I’m reading books by Irish women. I’m (re)relating all the time to the stories of Irishness I got from authors like James Joyce, and filling in the missing ones, of the Magdalen Laundries, of the treatment of Irish women. I’m following political developments, in NI and the Republic. But I’m also romanticising the part of the world I’m from, and wondering when I can go home.
Tracey Thorn is away
This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt