|David Monahan portrait of a modern immigrant|
If you had an Irish childhood he was an inescapable part of it. He was the mythic young man who went on many exciting adventures, but his last and greatest involved a woman.
Niamh of the Golden Hair, as she was known, turned his head entirely. She was beautiful and beguiling and she led him happily into Tir na nOg, the mythical land of the young, where no one ever grows old or gets sick or dies.
Tir na nOg was a lovely place, full of laughter and good fellowship, but like every other Irishman who has found an earthly paradise he got heartily sick of it eventually.
Poor old Oisin secretly pined for home. He wanted to see his old mates, he wanted to visit his local, and he missed his old Ma’s cooking. Paradise be damned.
Finally giving in to his requests, Niamh gave him her white horse, Embarr, with a stark warning -- do not to dismount she said, because if your feet touch the ground it will be fatal for you.
Oisin nodded and set off for home. What he found broke his heart.
The hill of Almu, his ancestral home, had been abandoned and was in complete disrepair. All his old mates were long dead. Three years had passed for him, but 300 had passed in Ireland.
Later as he wandered about on his horse, stricken with grief and caught between two worlds, an event happened that ended his story. In an attempt to help some men working on a road, he accidentally fell to the ground and transformed from a beautiful youth into a dying old man in seconds.
As so often in life, how you feel about Oisin’s fate may depend on where you’re standing.
Oisin’s is the original Irish emigrant tale, one that comes with a dire warning -- what’s in your heart may not change but everything else will.
The ground Oisin once loved becomes literally toxic to him. He made his choice to leave and now he has to live with it, the story tells us.
There’s a hardness of mind about this tale that I always found very striking. Sure it was sad, but it was also needlessly cruel.
Oisin just wanted to see his old home, after all. What was the harm in that?
I bring all this up because I read with interest this week an in-depth report about the welcome the generation of Irish who emigrated in the 1980s experienced when they returned home for good during the Celtic Tiger boom.
They were returning to connect with a community they had loved and deeply missed during all their years abroad. They wanted to rediscover that sense of belonging to a wider national fabric.
They had missed that feeling living overseas. But what they found was that the country had moved on.
When they met their old pals in the pubs, the study says, they would most often be accused of having abandoned the ship when it was sinking. They were often subjected to unexpected and aggressive ridicule.
They found their motives for returning being put on trial. As welcome mats go, these were pretty threadbare.
And it’s happening again. A new generation is finding itself standing in Dublin Airport as they wait for flights that will take them far from home.
Like Oisin, they’ll probably imagine they’ll be coming back when things improve, and like the 1980s generation they’ll probably have their motives questioned when they do.
All those fond farewells in the departure gate may not make up for the ambiguous welcomes in the arrivals hall when that day finally comes. Ireland has long been caught up in economic cycles of booms and busts that our political class can neither seem to create or control, but it’s disappointing that we can’t seem to grasp that we can’t realistically blame young people for voting with their feet.
I have watched this new generation of the Irish try to keep the lines of communication open with the old country. I’ve seen them Skype to their relatives back in Ireland via the free WiFi at Starbucks.
I have seen the emotional toll that being pushed out of their own country due to lack of opportunity creates in them. To blame them for it seems as needlessly cruel to me too.