I have come back to Ireland after more than twenty years abroad to finish a trilogy of novels provisionally called Island View. The island in the title refers to many things, one of which is the legendary Hy-Brasil, the isle of the ever-young, which in Irish folklore is thought to occasionally appear at sunset off the Atlantic coast of Ireland; those who see it can make out a glass castle on the island, filled with young, beautiful, happy people making merry.
My trilogy is set in a Dublin suburb from 1982 to the present and follows the lives of ordinary people, but its structural foundation comes from one of the ancient myths associated with this island, the story of Oisín in the Land of Youth. In this legend, the young warrior Oisín is tempted away from Ireland by Niamh, a fairheaded woman who carries him across the ocean on her white horse to Hy-Brasil. Oisín lives in great happiness among its eternally young inhabitants of the island for three years, but grows homesick. He borrows Niamh’s horse, and gallops back across the waves for a visit home. In Ireland, he can find no sign of his former family and companions; his father’s great fort is a pile of rocks and brambles; the country is populated by an unrecognizable people, weak and short in stature, nothing like the warrior giants he left behind. Oisín realizes he has been away on Niamh’s island not for three years but for three hundred. His stirrup snaps, he falls off his horse, and the moment his foot touches the soil of Ireland his young body withers to that of a very elderly man.
The three-volume novel I am writing, set in the present or recent past, might be called ‘Irish suburban epic’. The legend of Oisín is present in the background, giving form to the plot, and shaping its imagery, metaphors, and rhythm. Only my own long time living overseas, and having this legend to hand, have allowed my writer’s inner eye to transform the cul-de-sacs and laneways and newsagents of my childhood into a mythic expanse of longing and adventure.
Paradoxically, the past is much more vivid and alive to someone who emigrates than it is to someone who stays at home. The separation preserves it. That is why emigrants often have such difficulty growing up, why emigrants often retain certain features of immaturity which are shed by those who stay at home. If you stay living where you grew up, if you live as an adult in the place you were a child, the faces of the past are a regular, unremarkable feature of your daily existence, because they are always liable to return to you—in the queue for the supermarket checkout, at a rugby match, at the next table in a restaurant—slightly altered each time: hair a little thinner, jowls a little looser, voice just slightly more gravelled, a new flash of pride or disappointment in the eyes. For those like myself who leave the place we grew up in and have our adult lives somewhere else, among strangers, the faces of the past do not return sporadically, they are not part of our experience of daily life. Those left behind are frozen in the mind of the emigrant as they were at the moment of departure: a bully, a rake, a boastful idiot, like those ashen denizens of Pompeii condemned to embody for eternity whatever they had been doing at the moment that Vesuvius erupted—the lover, the eater of oysters, the owner of a dog—as though it were the whole of their identity. Just as the lived reality of antiquity is far more tangible in Pompeii, where life was stopped in its tracks, than it is in Rome or Athens, where building went on, where generations and factions and nationalities continued to succeed each other, so too for the emigrant that the past retains a purity and immediacy which it loses for those who stay.
This accounts, inter alia, for some of the differences between Joyce’s Ulysses—the epic of an emigrant—and Proust’s Recherche, that of someone who stayed at home. There is only one day in Ulysses: if you failed to buy a round on the 16th June 1904, in Ulysses you are condemned to be the symbol of a miser, no matter how generous you might have been the next day. The inhabitants of Dublin must bear the heavy weight of allegorical and symbolic meaning: the Invalid, the Poet, the Drunkard, the Faithless Spouse. In exile, temporary characteristics are frozen as innate qualities, and the routine of everyday life, as we see so clearly in Ulysses, becomes sacralised and solidified as ritual. A life like Proust’s, however, lived in or around one fixed place, offers space for reversals, returns and development, and unlike Ulysses, few characters in the Recherche turn out as they first seem. No one ends the novel as they began. The rich become poor, the cowardly become brave, the heartless adulterer becomes a devoted and caring husband, the most avid heterosexual turns out to have been secretly gay. Proust’s own quotidian world always held out the possibilities of long-lost individuals showing up again, living proof of the passage of time and the constant work of change.
For those who stay where they grew up, who mingle and remingle with the faces and places of their youth, the past is completely contaminated by the present, no longer attainable in its pure, original form, a mess of different, overlapping times, an indecipherable palimpsest like the Roman Forum. For the emigrant, on the other hand, the past retains all its remoteness from the present, all its weirdness and immediacy; it loses none of its fresh cruelty. When I hear the name Ranelagh, the place where I went to secondary school, for example, I see before my eyes a Ranelagh of the early 1990s, full of chippers and video arcades, the air crowded with homophobic slurs, long-skirted girls in doc martens weeping in phone-boxes as their Eircom cards run out of credit. For my classmates who had stayed living in Dublin, that old, anxious, adolescent Ranelagh has gone, gradually diluted into oblivion by all the other Ranelaghs they have seen and been in since then—a place where their wives frequent a fabulous tapas place, where there is a great “grooming” salon for men, where their friends “Brendan and Caroline” once bid on a house—to be visible any more. For people who stay living where they grew up, the past is constantly returning, its salty waves mingling with the freshwater flow of the present, so that their reality, “the present”, is a brackish mixture of the two.
For the emigrant, the past becomes falsely identified with a geographical place (so to think of “going home to Ireland” really means to travel back in time). The past is not something hidden beneath the surface of everyday life (as it was for Proust, as it is for people who stay living close to where they grew up). For the emigrant the past becomes a distant, unreachable island untouched by time, where the inhabitants are eternally young, a place which can be glimpsed only occasionally, and from a great distance, in irregular, vivid flashes from across the ocean, distorted by waves and foam and Atlantic spray.