me I have never missed Christmas at home, although I have lived elsewhere for over 20 years. This year I will break that streak. The holiday travel window means you could fly back to Northern Ireland from London. But my father is elderly, and our neighborhood on the border has been relatively untouched by Covid-19 until recently, so it doesn’t seem like the safest plan. Instead, I’ll be in London. It will be a year since I have been home; The longest I’ve been away
With a flight time of less than an hour, with a ticket often cheaper than a night out, I usually go home many times a year. It means that I will never have to miss a great night out; If it’s an emergency, I can be back in a matter of hours. Being home often feels crucial to my sense of identity.
My father and I live surprisingly different lives. Patsy left school at 15 and has been farming ever since. You won’t hear about retirement, at 81. Although he has never left the country, I have traveled extensively. I have gone to university in Dublin and London. I did not follow my father in farming but chose to dig with the pen, as the poet Seamus Heaney once said.
However, my father and I share a sensitivity for the world. Even now, if I tell him something about politics or how life is going, he will have a vision that is familiar and grounded. You will assure me that it is the world that is upside down, not me; although if it is the other way around, he also hastens to let me know.
This year, we have had to do this remotely, but these phone conversations have continued. I’ve been out for a walk with the new family dog, Percy, on FaceTime. I celebrated my father’s 81st birthday with him on a WhatsApp video call, with a cake and his two grandchildren there in person. to blow out the candles. I had Zoom calls with my six-year-old niece, Paige, who showed me the TikTok dance routines and the spots where her baby teeth had fallen out.
Over time, the permanent teeth have taken root; Other than that, it has been an uneventful year. There have been no big family occasions, no weddings, and thankfully no awakenings. So, I haven’t missed much, in a sense. It’s just that before 2020, I didn’t have to miss anything at all. In the first five years of my niece’s life I was very present. I hugged her when she was three days old. When she had sleepovers, I was in charge of guarding the bedroom door for monsters. In a production of The Gruffalo, we learned that monsters weren’t so scary. The longer this lasts, the more I will miss.
Migration is a rite of passage in Ireland and something that has touched every generation since the time of the famine. The 2008 recession resulted in the most recent wave; the Irish Times has a website dedicated to the “Emigration Generation”. Once, it used to be a one-way ticket out of the country. But recent immigrants, especially those living in Europe, have never had to think about leaving.
Over the years, I have been able to switch between the two places when it suited me. The home was settling down. London felt free. As long as I keep coming back, I’ve always bet that I will never be completely apart.
The current crisis may be subsiding, but travel could still be affected by the recession, and the climate crisis is another factor. How could all this affect the ability of émigrés to keep one foot in two camps? Dr Marc Scully, a professor of psychology at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, who has studied the Irish diaspora in England, says the ability to fly home on short notice seems crucial to their identity, well-being and endurance. FaceTime, he predicts, will be a poor substitute for being there.
It’s not just about flying for the big 40th birthday – when my mother got sick a few years ago, I would come back every six to eight weeks. I don’t know if it was of much practical use, but she was always delighted to see me walk through the door.
Being at home makes me resilient. I grew up gay in a rural working-class community on Armagh’s southern border. When I was young, I thought it was so different that I wasn’t in the place. But away from home, I found that I didn’t fit in better. I studied law in Dublin and then worked in the media in London. I didn’t meet many people like me. My experience was filtered through the perspectives of people who trusted theirs. Change your way of being in the world; it makes you less sure of your place in it.
Coming home roots me, although there are still many things that make me understand why I left, the way religion still has a grip there, or how outspoken people can be, especially if you’ve gotten up and gone. As a local bar manager once asked, when I said I had come to London to be a journalist, “Don’t we have a lot of newspapers here?” But home still fits better than most places.
These days when I call, my niece vaguely says hello under the duress of her father, my brother. In truth, we are both tired of talking on the phone. I’m missing the little things, like the last thing in school, or sitting with my dad when he finally puts down the tools and comes over for dinner. I worry about not being there when they really need me. And I feel my own in-between again, that potential to divide. All the ties that I have tried my best to maintain are beginning to loosen.
My niece still sends me drawings in the mail, and every time she spells her name with brightly colored crayons, it comes into focus more clearly, just as our relationship feels less and less. When I put the last piece of art on the refrigerator door, I wonder who I will be to her if we can’t hang out. And I think of my father, whom I have grown close to over the years, something we don’t handle on the phone. There is a saying about doing something weird, that is, being reticent around someone you haven’t seen in a long time. It’s usually used for kids, but if I don’t come back that often, I wonder if we’ll all become strangers to each other. And who will I be if I can’t be home?