…home is the place of belonging. Home can also be the opposite of that, highlighting the sense of not belonging, the sense of otherness. Home then, embodies a strange paradox in that it can be understood as both happy assimilation into place and tribe as well as being one’s concept of defiance, individuality and difference. From this interpretation we can see how identity is closely connected to home. Are we a product of, or a reaction to where we are from? And what happens if you are dispossessed of a birthright as indelible as belonging? How do you keep your identity if you have no place to which you can return?
I am being very indulgent and quoting myself in that opening paragraph. It was a reflection I included in a post on storytelling that appeared here two years’ ago. Having been recently back in Ireland for the first time in almost three years I have found myself once more succumbing to the emigrant’s opium – looking at the road behind and not the one ahead. Is nostalgia a simpler way of putting it? The donning of rose-tinted spectacles is something I am deeply suspicious of but the longer I find myself living abroad the more likely I am to slip on those glasses every now and then – just to check my vision, so to speak.
I tell myself there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with my vision but it’s hard to see clearly the green vistas of home I conjure up in my memory because the tears of sentiment are flowing so liberally from my twinkling Irish eyes. It’s all I can do not to ring 1-800-Irishman-Abroad to have my aching heart consoled by some anonymous dial-a-mammy cooing down the phone soothing reassurances of yesteryear, filling her placations with a smattering of Irish (that’s Gaelic to the uninitiated) which only makes everything worse as my inability to understand it compounds the homesickness with a large helping of guilt for letting down my culture, my country and my people by failing to wield the sword of my native tongue as an act of conspicuous patriotism.
Yes, well. If things really were that bad I would be in serious trouble. My wife does occasionally suspect that I sit up late at night channelling leprechauns and other fairy folk in a bid to permanently destabilise our Antipodean existence but that is simply not true. Not one bit. I mean, for a start, fairies don’t even exist, right? That actually depends on what you believe to be true. A friend in Ireland has recently constructed a stone circle on her land. Now, a stone circle is not just some ornamental thing to pretty up the place. A stone circle has magical and mystical significance and is an established aspect of Celtic mythologies and rituals, amongst others. A great deal of thought went into the project and a great deal of faith. Faith that the project wouldn’t be ridiculed. Faith that it would in fact be taken seriously. Faith that it was the right thing to do. And our friend is delighted with the outcome as all meteorological, topographic, and geometric considerations have delivered a place of very special energy and ambience, not to mention its aesthetic success.
Which is all well and good, but are there any fairies there? I don’t know. I don’t even know if our friend has any interest in that sort of thing and I’m not just lazily conflating folklore with structures of historically verifiable significance. But sure you can’t be engaging with this subject matter seriously. Come on now, cop yourselves on! Fairies! Would you go on out of that. Although… There was a fairy ring that surrounded an old tree in the corner of a newly-acquired field not far from where I grew up. The new owner required the tree be removed but he could not secure the services of a single person to act out his request. Nobody wanted to disturb the magical ring of stones that encircled the tree. If the tree came out there was no question that the fairy fort would be destroyed. To be a part of that would be bad mojo. So that was that.
No, it wasn’t. Eventually five men were found who were able to tick the box on the job application form that said “Fairies? What a load of shite.” Off they went to the field and ripped the old tree out of the ground leaving a sorry mess behind where once had been a ring of innocuous stones. “Fairies? Fairies me arse!” they sang as they took their pay for a simple bit of work. Job and knock. Off for a pint, home to the wife and that’s the end of the story.
Or is it?
How would you feel if I told you that three of those men were dead within a year of removing the tree? Would that raise the hairs on the back of your neck? It does mine. Merely coincidental? Perhaps. Probably. And yet. There was a reason so many people refused to take the job. I don’t believe in fairies but I wouldn’t have done it either. I don’t think of it as superstition. I think of it more as bad form. Just not really the right thing to do. Just as I would take no pleasure in desecrating the ground of any sacred place or defiling any country’s national flag because it would do nothing but invite into my life paranoia, guilt and uncertainty. And probably retribution. As soon as you start messing with what people believe in, you’re asking for trouble. Beliefs dictate behaviour. Behaviour becomes ritual. It becomes tradition. It becomes habit. It becomes something that is no longer questioned. Things that are not questioned become articles of faith. But when does faith curdle into dogma? When does folklore become fact?
I’m not sure they ever actually do. I think in these matters there are just degrees of belief. From non-belief at one end of the scale to zealous certitude at the other. I enjoy being from a culture where there’s a place in the conversation for otherworldly considerations. And you don’t have to be a daft hippy to take part in that conversation. Irish people don’t need an excuse to talk though. As one of my cousins put it with delirious understatement – “we’re chatty!” We were both greatly amused by this insight, informed somewhat I’m sure, by the fact neither of us is currently living at home.
We were back in Ireland for 25 days. In spite of a declared intention to take it easy we filled our social calendar with alarming speed. Between scheduled catch-ups, coffees, sit-downs, dinners, gigs and impromptu drop-ins and ‘bump-into’s we had, for want of a less snooty word, 67 engagements that took in a good 200 people. Or should I say 200 good people? In any case, there were plenty of chats. Plenty. And frequently the topic was about living here rather than there. Comparisons were required and preferences demanded but when you have the same conversation over and over again your answers become a bit rote. My wife would be very diplomatic while I would amuse myself by egregiously overstating the cultural gulf between our two homes.
There, I said it. Our two homes. Australia is where we’ve made a home for now. Our daughter has been born here. We have good friends and family here. Life is alright. There are good things in place. And there are some exciting things on the horizon.
But there are no fairies. If you believe in that sort of thing. And speaking both literally and metaphorically, I like fairies being part of the conversation. And I know which home offers that more readily.
What about you? Seen any pookas or leprechauns lately? Is that world something you belong to?