About six years ago, sitting in a lecture for my Irish-American history class, my professor,Patrick Griffin who, like me, is a first generation Irish-American, highlighted the significance of the question “How long are you home for?” which he had been asked on trips back to Ireland. This question resonates with me, as I also endured a childhood where family members on both sides of the Atlantic refer to Ireland as my “home,” which evokes mixed reactions in both my heart and head.
On the surface level, I, now 25 years old, consider myself extremely fortunate to have such strong ties to Ireland that I have a place that I can call “home,” which just happens to be a majestic little village in Kerry with blue seas and green mountains. When a relative says the simple phrase “welcome home,” it is incredibly reassuring, as if my visit in a way reverses the harsh and enduring realities of emigration and restores the natural order of things, albeit temporarily.
Yet, upon further reflection, this usage of the word “home” has raised problems when I seek to look introspectively at my own identity. When I use the word itself, I constantly use a qualifier – I am either going “home” to New York or “home” to Kerry, never “home” full stop. I am left confronting bigger questions for myself, and caught up between the Old and New Worlds. Am I more Irish or more American?
The tensions and contradictions of having a dual identity have plagued me for years and years. (For me, despite all of the attention afforded to the processes of migration both in Ireland and the United, both historically and in the present, one of the most neglected issues is the ways in which migration affects future generations.)
I, like many other children of immigrants in New York, consider myself to be as Irish as anyone else in the world. Our connections to Ireland are not just sentimental; the globalized world and internet age mean these connections are ubiquitous features of our everyday lives in ways which previous generations simply did not have access to. In this age of smartphones and broadband, our family and friends in Ireland are as easily contactable as our next door neighbors.
Words like “craic” and “cop on” creep into our everyday use, both intentionally and subconsciously. We can talk for hours with each other and Irish born immigrants about the latest Shane Long transfer rumor or our country’s Euro 2016 prospects the same as lads our age would do on the other side of the ocean. For as long as I can remember, a fresh loaf of Pat the Baker’s bread and a sleeve of Digestives have been regular fixtures in our cupboard.
Suggestions that I might be a “Plastic Paddy” are laughable in my eyes. After all, I have a firmer grasp on Irish history than most in Ireland, travel back “home” regularly, and have watched nearly every Irish international soccer game since the advent of internet streaming, even in the dark days of Staunton as the gaffer. My own sense of Irishness was organically instilled in me from the early stages of my childhood and is something which is substantial rather than romanticized.
Nonetheless, I don’t feel entirely Irish in Ireland or entirely American in the States – it is only within my immediate family and the greater Irish-American community in New York that these tensions seem to subside and it actually feels okay to have one foot on the Dingle Peninsula and the other in the suburbs of the Bronx. These strong, confused sentiments have left me agonizing on a daily basis for practically all of my adult life about where my heart and my future lie and about what exactly constitutes “home.”
Life works in strange ways, and I ended up moving to Wiltshire in rural England this past June to pursue my dreams in historical research, as I found an opportunity which is unavailable not only in Kerry but also in New York. My job is everything I dreamed it would be, as I examine historical content and significant documents on a daily basis, often on subjects related to both Irish and American history.
From an occupational perspective, I couldn’t be any happier as I derive a large amount of fulfillment from what I do without any sources of major stress. Yet this period since I’ve moved has also given me levels of homesickness and loneliness which were hitherto unprecedented. It is within these emotions in which I can most decisively untangle my dual identity as an Irish-American. Ironically, as an immigrant myself over here, I miss being part of an immigrant community on the other side of the ocean. I am, in essence, an exile from the exiles.
While I have moved away from family for extended periods of time before without similar levels of melancholy, my current situation has one glaring difference from all my other moves: I am currently lacking a significant Irish dimension in my life, for the first time. When I went to school at Notre Dame, I wouldn’t have survived without the encouragement, academic inspiration and friendship of the faculty of the university’s world-renowned Irish Studies department. . Similarly, while studying for a Masters in Oxford, it was always comforting to hear my dissertation supervisor’s Antrim accent and to have a strong network of Irish family and friends a short train ride away in London.
Unfortunately, this network is much more inaccessible this go-around in England for a multitude of reasons, not least due to my rigid work schedule and less-than-ideal location in terms of public transport. (However, to be fair, a nice perk of living on this side of the Atlantic is that trips to Ireland become quarterly, rather than annual occurrences. Even still, this does not overshadow the harsh reality that on many days out here the only Irish presence within my life is the Kerrygold butter I cook with!)
Tellingly, these feelings leave me not only longing for Kerry, but perhaps more so for New York. Sure, I pine for my friends, gangster rap on the radio, and Hispanic food regularly, but above all else I realize that this homesickness is inextricably related to the green-tinted lens in which I view New York. The majority of things I miss most about New York are uniquely Irish-American, especially in terms of family and the subtleties of everyday life.
When I am away, it is not any American holiday, but St. Patrick’s Day, when I miss New York the most. I long for the Sundays when my father drove us to Gaelic Park to watch football, with his insistence on listening to Saw Doctors tapes, or more recently streaming Radio Kerry over his phone in the car. My mind dreams of once again waking up to the snowed-in mornings in which my mom bakes a soda bread. I miss having the banter with my brothers in a twisted amalgamation of New York and Hiberno-English and playing soccer with the Lansdowne Bhoys, a club which represents the Irish community in the Bronx. It is this hybrid world, where Ireland meets America, that I feel most comfortable in. I guess I could say that I feel “at home” in a place that might not be “home,” if that makes sense.
Growing up in between two countries is both a blessing and a curse, particularly when one finds himself in a place that is not either one of his “homes.” It means that my heart grows twice as heavy when I am away, holding nostalgia not only for the stone walls and green hills in Kerry, but also for the paved streets of New York—both of which are, from my point of view, Irish in their own ways.