With the Carrickmines Travellers losing their home and loved ones and the migrants fleeing theirs, Elizabeth O’Neill, who hated seeing her family home go on the market, got to thinking about what a home really is.
There’s been a lot of movement in the neighbourhood recently. Sold signs in front yards, and new crops of greying beards, vintage bicycles and house renovations. To me this suggests another attempt at gentrifying Dublin’s south inner city. What had started in the boom and flat-lined in the bust, seems to have picked up momentum again. That in itself highlights the fact that for some the recession is over and there’s money flowing somewhere. What the stalwarts think of the new arrivals is anyone’s guess, but if they can hold onto their hubcaps and antique racers, that means they’re in.
I’ve noticed a young couple across the road, who’ve been making tentative steps towards ownership of their new house. Weekends mean hauling over cleaning equipment and DIY supplies. That’s what happens when you buy your first house. You clean, sweep out the old, the residue of those who went before and begin to slowly make it your own.
When I bought my house, it took about a month before I actually faced moving into it. In the meantime I stayed at home, in the family house with my mum — that was a safe harbour. That was home. I wasn’t quite ready to face up to ownership and all that meant and there were a few of those tear-inducing trips to IKEA to contend with in an effort to fill the empty spaces.
I visited my new house at weekends and cleaned, and figured out how to switch off the alarm, locate the boiler, and name plants in the garden, grown by other people I’d never meet.
It’s a slow process for a house to become fully yours, to discover all the inherited problems and idiosyncrasies. It was only last year, after five years already there, that I discovered a switch behind the fridge for an outdoor light. I also found an accidental socket on the bottom of the bookshelf.
While fully possessing a building is a slow process, for a house to become a home can be the work of a lifetime. How, and the means by which, it turns from bricks and mortar into that safe harbour, the shelter when life’s storms churn up rough seas are not quantifiable. It depends entirely on what happens inside, the connections, and memories made there.
During the summer the Science Gallery had an exhibition called Home/Sick that examined how to define home for the digital age. It was curated in part by Anne Enright, and she gave a talk about how she builds a home with words.
Not only does she know the wallpaper pattern on her fictive homes, she also knows the wallpaper behind the wallpaper. She strips it back to the skeleton before putting flesh on its bones. In reality that’s what we all do. We paint, we paper, we furnish, we throw parties, we make memories. More often than not, for both good and bad, home is equated with family.
So understandably losing a home is devastating. We see the coverage of Syrian refugees who’ve not just lost their homes but their country. What does that mean? It’s a stripping away of layers of identity, security, prosperity and community. I’ve seen this myself at an Internally Displaced Person camp in Gulu in northern Uganda, where 20,000 refugees lived in a 3km square camp. It’s neither home, nor shelter, it’s long-term temporary crisis accommodation, where no one can expect to flourish.
Likewise, we know of the 700 or so Irish families who are now homeless. In the past week, I heard an RTÉ report where a seven-year-old girl said she was sad and worried waking up every day in the one room shared by her family in a Dublin B&B. Some 39 other families live under the same roof. That is heartbreaking and shameful on our parts.
While not as extreme or traumatic as the above situations, losing a childhood home is inevitable for most adults. However, much like the death of a parent, it is rarely, if ever, spoken about. Whether it be through a necessary downsizing, or a bereavement, divorce or a family feud, that place, that safe harbour is not guaranteed to be a constant in your life.
Not long after I had moved into my house, my mum sold the family home. It has become too big and too sad. The person who had filled it and built it, was no longer around, and with all her children gone, she had to move on. The soul of the house had departed. We all knew it. This happened about three or four years ago, and I could not think about it or discuss it for a long time.
We were the first family that had lived in it, loved it and grown with it. Dad had it built to suit all our needs and I still remember the laying of foundations, that seemed dwarfed without the provision of scale by its concrete walls. “This is your room, right at the front” — “but it’s tiny” — “don’t be daft”.
I wasn’t a child when we moved in, I was a teenager but it’s the house I loved best. The happiest place of all, especially the back garden, with a greenhouse, where we grew herbs and sunflowers and tomatoes. It was the safest place on earth.
It sold quickly, even with the recession and it was a relief to mum. I managed to avoid the packing by being busy at work. It was all hands on deck (aside from mine). A skip was brought in, and years of debris were cleared, stripped away and discarded. Books were boxed up and given away. Furniture was sold and a lifetime of belongings were disposed of in various ways.
It was like another bereavement and for a long time afterwards, I got the heebie-jeebies when I returned ‘home’ to visit friends. Where was home? It was no longer Bray, Co Wicklow, where I grew up. The idea that another family, a family with young children would live in our house, and breathe life back into the place was both comforting and completely unbearable. It took a while before I realised, what I was feeling was a sense of homesickness, but there was no going back.
I asked a friend about his experience of losing his connection with his family home, not through bereavement, but through a protracted fallin- out with his parents. His experience has been very different. With a partner and two daughters, he has made his own home — and continues to put his stamp on it every weekend, with gardening and DIY projects. He said losing his childhood home was a relief. He no longer had to be that grown-up child, and he had spent much of his teenage years avoiding going home anyway. He spoke of the inevitable infantilisation when you walk into your parents home, of how we can all revert, regardless of how grown-up we think we are. He doesn’t miss it.
Another acquaintance recently spoke about losing her family home, the only home she’d known. She still seems stunned by the speed at which the house had been sold and packed away. In a bid at a eulogy, she threw a big party and said goodbye in style.
In our own houses, we know the skeleton. We know the creaky floorboards or the stuck lock and now as grown-ups it’s time to build our own homes. Like all life’s certainties, you have to let go because the house you’ve known for much of your life, your formative years, is going to belong to another family.
You hope that family is going to be as happy and make use of the garden. but when they subsequently flatten the beds and uproot the plants, you know it’s in the past and lives in your memory and your heart.
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