Paul D'alton returned to his home in Rsocommon after 36 years abroad and it's brought him unexpected contentment.
IT’S easy for us Irish to wallow in nostalgia, to indulge in sentimentality.
But as the autumn sun set over Slieve Bawn, in Co. Roscommon last week, turning the ‘White Mountain’ a rich hew of scarlet and gold, I stood on my own piece of land, with a beer in my hand, and truly experienced an almost visceral, physical feeling of contentment, as every fibre in my body screamed out: ‘I’m home.’
Let me explain: I left Ireland as a baby living in London for 30 years and for the past six years, I had happily lived in Connemara, having left the UK after a divorce.
But in the last 12 months, I had watched my beloved mother fall into ill-health and my five-year relationship break down. I had also undergone my own medical scare and my media consultancy business had gone belly up.
I had always wanted to live in Roscommon town again and everything seemed to point to now being the time to return.
So I became part of ‘reverse emigration’: people of a certain age who cannot, or do not want to, emigrate (again) to London, or even Dublin, because of family responsibilities or life choices.
Trust me: when you reach balding middle-age, unlike the youngsters who can or must jump on a plane, the thought of relaunching your life in a foreign land is too much.
Of course, it’s easy to say that those of us in our 40s and 50s are effectively ‘stuck’ back home; that we have nowhere else to go, even if we wanted to, unlike the ten of thousands who recently left our shores.
But that isn’t right. Because being back home causes a plethora of emotions to flourish: silly things, like the smell of the turf fires as you step down from the train at our little station; the sense of being back in your ‘birth womb’, as it were; rekindling old friendships and family ties; and immersing yourself in the place you’re from.
Yes, there are the down-sides: sometimes you miss the buzz and thrust of a city, the anonymity of a big metropolis, where not everybody knows your business, being able to order a takeaway Lebanese mezze spread for dinner, having the money to pop over to London or Paris to watch the rugby.
But, in comparison, being back home has far greater, and far longer-lasting, rewards.
On the first weekend I moved back, I had to present a prize at a local agricultural show in memory of my late father. On that day, four generations of the D’Alton family assembled, including my youngest cousin, Oscar, aged just six.
For much of my life I never knew these cousins, never had the opportunity to enjoy their laughter, intelligence and kindness.
But now I do and flying club class to New York, as I once did for nearly two weeks of every month, seems a long way away and I genuinely don’t miss it a jot.
It’s also the other small personal things about being back in your homeplace which, again at a certain chapter in your life, make the downsides insignificant: having a pint with friends whose very own grand-fathers and mothers were the best of friends with my maternal grand-mother, the close familial links passing on through generations, and us hitting it off as our near-ancestors once did.
Popping into Charlie and Kevin at the local pharmacy, buying a birthday present in a shop where the owner’s mother-in-law was at boarding school with my mother, having your hair cut by your cousin’s best friend while chatting to a man in the next chair who was taught at national school by my paternal grandfather decades ago.
While this might seem small town, like a rose-tinted excerpt from a John McGahern novel, there’s one word that keeps cropping up when I speak to people in a similar situation: contentment.
One friend, an archaeologist with five children, does not want to emigrate, to uproot the children.
But unable for now to find a high-end job, he is helping out at the local equivalent of B&Q. “Why”? I asked. “Because,” he said, “I’d go mopping floors if I had to, just so I could stay home with my kids.”
That, of course, is no succour to the young Irish, many now struggling to even feed themselves in Australian cities.
Perhaps, and hopefully, they too will come home eventually.
And if and when they do so, I hope they find what I have: that even in the darkest of times, there can be a warm glow at the end of that long tunnel.
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