What exactly is “home”?
If, for example, you grow up in the wilds of Connemara, with the backdrop of picturesque but barren mountains, roaring Atlantic waves, stony fields, and the beautiful, living Gaelic language, can you always call it your home?
Even if, as thousands upon thousands have done, you are forced to leave your native place out of economic necessity and spend your entire adult life hundreds or thousands of miles from home?
The thought struck me while watching the wonderful ‘Rocky Ros Muc’ in Galway this week that few people are as connected to their land, their local communities, and the stories the rocks and the stonewalls could tell, as the people of the West of Ireland.
Boxer Sean Mannion returned home from Boston for the emotional Galway screening of the new documentary film about his life and it was striking to see how many people in the capacity audience were moved to tears by his life story.
It wasn't because he lost a world title fight but because Sean achieved a level of fame most of us can only dream of when he fought Mike McCallum in a grueling bout for a world title in 1984. Even if he never made the dollars!
But because Sean’s story was our story, and this extremely modest man – who in many ways has been his own worst enemy – epitomizes the struggles all of us face when the land which produced us fails to sustain us and we are forced into exile, to start new lives in places like Boston, Brooklyn, Birmingham, or Brisbane.
It was striking to see that a man who has spent most of the past 40 years living and working in the US still felt more comfortable speaking “as Gaelige” (in Irish) when it came to a questions and answers session after the film.
All through his life Sean has been so proud of Ros Muc, the village where he was born and the place he still refers to as “home.”
Yet Ros Muc, through political incompetence or geographical isolation or deliberate neglect, never offered Sean – nor most of his generation – a future and so he found himself bound for South Boston and a new life at a time when he was an Irish junior boxing champion.
In Dorchester, in ‘Southie,’ he found a community that sustained him, a place where he could work on the buildings when his 15-year boxing career came to an end, a place where he could enjoy a laugh and a story in an Irish pub, or a game of cards with friends and family members from “home” who would converse in Irish into the early hours.
And yet, after 40 years away, Sean still looks at Ros Muc, and Galway, and Ireland as “home.”
It’s an experience which is so common to so many of us . . . the spirit of adventure, the need to travel for opportunities, the start of a new life, and yet the loneliness and the longing many of us experience for home.
Sean is a quiet-spoken man and yet it’s remarkable how film-maker Michael Fanning and writer Ronan Mac Con Iomaire manage to get him to open up about his own personal demons, which could resonate so much with many Irish people scattered all across the globe.
We see how he embraced the new life in Boston, how the close-knit Irish community sustained him, and how his attempt to move home to Ros Muc, the place he dreamed of and was so proud of, ended after a few short months.
The reality didn’t match the dream when he compared life in the rugged, wild west, in a quiet empty village, with the new life he had made for himself in vibrant Boston.
The story of the Irish is one of exile, broken dreams, loneliness, but also a stoic determination to succeed and a story of a people who have always tried to make the most of life, even when the odds were stacked against them.
We sometimes rail against the stereotype when we are depicted as the “drunken Irish,” but even our fondness for a night out and a pint is just a reflection of how much we love to engage with and socialize with each other.
Memorably, in the film, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh talks about his own battle with alcoholism and how it was common to so many Irish simply because they were so lonely for their friends and family members back home.
Walsh grew up in an Irish-speaking household and still refers to Mannion’s village, little Ros Muc on the Atlantic seaboard, as his “second home” even though he spent his childhood in the tight-knit community of South Boston.
Some got into drugs, some drank their lives away, others joined the police or fire-fighters, or put their children through college and created opportunities which were never available to them in the little Irish villages they left behind.
At one point in the film we hear that Mannion turned down an offer of $25,000 to wear a sponsor’s logo on his shorts at Madison Square Garden, a figure which would have matched his pay package for the biggest fight of his life.
The prospective sponsor was miffed that someone else had got there first. What he didn’t know is that Sean didn’t want any money, he wanted the words ‘Ros Muc’ to be prominent when his 1984 title fight was beamed live all across Ireland.
The sponsor wanted to know what product his supposed rival had.
“People,” was Sean’s simple and honest reply.
He was fighting for a world title,before a huge global audience, but he wanted to honor the tiny community which produced him and gave him a love of boxing, and of life.
The wonderful film makes it so clear that Sean’s life has been tormented by regrets over how he lost that fight in 1984. So it was amazing to see a capacity crowd give the Southpaw (now 60) a standing ovation for this fantastic film about his full, but troubled, life.
He had an innocence when he left Connemara which ensured he didn’t earn what was rightfully his from boxing and yet he also socialized with some of the toughest criminals in his adopted city.
Sean Mannion would never consider himself a national hero, but in the way in which he has battled with issues such as emigration, loneliness, broken dreams, addiction, and a sense of belonging, he really has encapsulated so much of what is so good about being Irish.
And, of course, the film also has plenty of belly-laughs, because where would the Irish be without humor, even in the toughest times?
Sean has never felt fully settled in the United States and yet, like so many, he’d find it difficult or impossible to return to Ireland after so many years abroad.
Perhaps, though, it’s not so much about the village or the town you are from, but the people you get to know and connect with throughout your life.
His comment about the Ros Muc people reminded me of an Egyptian scuba diving instructor I undertook many trips with a decade ago.
Sabry Awwad taught people from all over the world how to scuba dive in the Red Sea for many years.
Every year, he used to laugh heartily when he’d hear me complain about having to return to the wind and rain of the West of Ireland in December.
He loved meeting people from all over the world, but he had a special regard for the Irish people he met on holidays in Egypt. For Sabry, the Irish – above all visitors from all across Europe – were special.
“You don’t know how lucky you are,” he used to tell me. “Different countries have different things to be proud of, but you guys are the luckiest of all. In Ireland, you’ve got the people.”
Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. You can find his Facebook page here