Guest blog: Belinda McKeown – Hashtag Homesick

Belinda McKeown

This is how we do emigration these days. Online, of course; that goes without saying. Not that we emigrate to the internet (although, on second thoughts, maybe we do); rather, that we emigrate with a few clicks of the mouse – the destination researched, the forum joined, the visa sought, the flight booked. Then, once away, we click our way back into Ireland: status updates. Twitter streams. Text messages to the Ray D’Arcy show from a balcony in Melbourne. Comments on and the Irish Times blogs. Hashtags for discussions linking several time zones; #vinb, #todaypk#beingirishmeans. Some of us want to be where we’ve ended up; some of us feel we had no choice. Most of us are educated, and confident, and already sufficiently well-travelled to get on with it, to throw ourselves into the rhythm of life as its lived in these new countries we now call home; but most of us, too, are funny about calling them that, no matter how the years go by. “Home,” reflects the protagonist of Marilynne Robinson’s 2008 novel of that name, “what kinder place could there be on Earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?”

And this is how we do homecomings these days. Nervously; more nervously than feels necessary, or in line with the facts of the matter, which are that we are more connected to what’s going on in Ireland now than we were when we lived there, that we read the Irish papers more often, and listen to the Irish radio more often, and maybe even talk to our mothers more often, swiveling the laptop so that they can get a good look at the new coffee table, or the new cat, or the new grandchild, or whatever it is we have to show them through the little square eye of the webcam. As for friends, nobody needs 320 of them, especially not when 240 of them are Irish, and three years ago you wouldn’t give them the time of day if you passed them on Grafton Street, but Facebook has thrown all these connections at us like so many spindly-branched family trees. So visits home should be no big deal. And yet, Welcome to Dublin, the pilot says, and you feel it again: that weird, that embarrassing sensation of something like hope. That sense, childish but unshakeable, of a clean slate. The things you look forward to are so clichéd you barely want to admit them: a pint in the local. A pot of tea, for Christ’s sake. An encounter in the street with an old friend who’ll be glad to see you; a furious gossip with one family member about another. You think to yourself, what is this? What have I become? What am I, a character in a Tom Murphy play?

When Murphy’s The House was first produced on the Abbey stage in 2000, it seemed, on the surface, a curious choice. It was a new play, in the first year of a new millennium, in a country high on the bang of new money, new property, a newly invented version of what it was to be Irish. It was a time which has since been brilliantly captured in Anne Enright’s novel The Forgotten Waltz; Enright describes, for instance, a young man telling his partner, in their new house, to listen to the money. To the sound of its value going up – he does the calculations under flickering eyelids – of five cents every minute. “And for some reason, we were terrified,” Enright writes. “Don’t tell me otherwise.”

Is this why it was a play for that time, Tom Murphy’s drama of unease, emigration and small-town unfulfillment in 1950s’ Ireland? Because it was a play which saw that, in our hunger to grab at bricks and mortar, and the more the better, we were doing ourselves out of a home? Which saw that beneath all the bluster was something like panic – Don’t tell, pleads Christy, and the old woman’s heart breaks into pieces – something like terror? Maybe. In his programme note at the time, John McGahern provided a stark evocation of the 1950s, of how impoverishment had laid its hand on every house, on every aspect of experience, and he concluded by sweeping his gaze over the culture which held sway five decades later. ‘I think it is wonderful that nobody has to emigrate now unless they want to,’ he wrote, ‘and when I hear people bragging about the Celtic Tiger I wonder what the boasting hides.’

And now. Take a gloak at these numbers, as Murphy’s Birmingham brickie, Peter, might say. And take a gloak at the lack of them. More emigrating than at any time since the Famine; listen to those numbers, ticking in all the wrong directions. The word to use is relevance, which funnily enough had its first use as a legal term meaning to take up, to take possession of a property; the Latin root relevare referring to the act of lifting up, of alleviating. Or the word to use, maybe, is resonate, which means to echo, to sound again, to send meaning travelling across a distance like music heard from miles off.

Reproduced by kind permission of the author, Belinda McKeon, who lives in New York.
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