A Year in the Bog
Column #1 It's Not WHAT You Know
The Irish Echo
My first three weeks back after 15 years in Australia were wonderful - but why wouldn't they be. I was touring the West with my kids, revisiting old friends and favourite places, the weather unusually benign and the whole country seemingly on holiday. It was easy to pick the foreigners. They were the ones who picnicked facing the view, while the Irish drank tea from their car boots.
I'd been back several times since 1985, a tourist in my own country. As the years went by, I began to worry about my Rip Van Winklish forays 'home'. Everyone I knew would either have got married or split up, had children or weren't now going to, switched career, got religion, left the Socialist Party for the PeeDees or just got old or occasionally dead. I had not shared in their ups and downs over the past fifteen years, nor they in mine - how could we expect to reclaim the intimacy we'd once had?
It was easy enough when you were only home for a month. People made an effort to see you, exclaimed, despite the evidence, how well you looked, marvelled at the children and exchanged brief updates. One dizzy round of gatherings convened to say hello, excursions to special places that you'd always meant to visit before but didn't, then the forced gaiety of farewells, keep the music and the pints coming and sure you'll be home again soon enough. Except you didn't say 'home' anymore about Ireland, you said 'back.' But Australia, good as it had been to you, and with all the friends you had there, didn't quite feel like home either.
For me, as with many returnees, the crux came when I realised with shock that despite the Folk Tales of Ireland sent over regularly for Christmas, I was breeding two Aussies. And so it was that I let my house and headed in the opposite direction of the hordes descending on the Sydney Olympics.
Our new school required Baptism Certs. Although their Catholic education was limited to one class a week with Sr Mary, I had had them initiated by a plain-speaking priest in Redfern. During one of his tirades, Fr Ted Kennedy blasted the Church for 'treating women as consecrated coolies and gays as people whose innoculation hadn't quite taken', while the revelations of abuse by clerics he ascribed to a seminarian system which kept men in 'psycho-sexual short pants'. The way kids were hauled off to First Confession en masse reminded him of 'nothing so much as a sheep-dip.'
My boys learned a lot about social justice from Ted, but in our secular society, they weren't big on dogma. 'Your cousin Frank is visiting us after Mass', I told them on our first week back. 'What's Mass?' asked Conor, aged four. 'It's where that guy with the cool robes gets up and gives speeches', replied Declan, knowledgeable at eight.
Being hit for deposits for the ESB, the gas and Eircom was bracing, but it was school that made us realise we were really in another world. Battling to get a tie around Declan's neck, which had hitherto known nothing more formal than a T-shirt, I felt like the Man from Snowy River trying to cage a brumby. How would he cope, with the discipline, the strangeness, the homework - something his politically correct previous school would not contemplate? He'd already been called 'kangaroo feet' and I knew that was mild. I prayed his passion for soccer would atone.
Conor wasn't a problem. Within days he was heading off on the school bus without a backward glance and spouting Irish words like 'fuinneog' (window) and 'bainne' (milk). I just hope I can maintain his interest in milk and decent food. I've never seen so many overweight children here before. But I know I must not commit the fatal error of the Returnee and suggest that things might be better in any way Abroad.
In fact, beyond a rueful comment on the weather, references of any kind to your experiences outside Ireland are forbidden, if you want to be accepted back into the fold. I got proof at a summer school I attended in the dying days of the holidays. I had been a regular there in the old days and was welcomed back with great enthusiasm. A lecture on the Protestant Unionist tradition led to a lively discussion in the pub. I revelled in the vigour and range of this impromptu debate, which triggered a memory of a fundamentalist Catholic-hating Belfast couple I had encountered, whose outlook had been transformed in Australia.
'That reminds me', I began. Seven faces inclined towards me, interested. 'I met this couple in Sydney...' As if someone had given some secret signal, all but one simultaneously turned away and resumed an animated discussion as if I were not there. The only person to maintain eye contact was a young woman, who listened out of politeness or embarrassment to my story.
Don't get me wrong. I love the talk. I've missed the craic. I feel twenty-one again after last night's fun - but when the hangover's receded, there's the small matter of work. And I don't see why I should be airbrushed out of history because I happen to have been Away for the last fifteen years.
Qualifications? Experience? Forget it - especially if it's not from here. You could be Bill Gates or Albert Einstein, but unless you Know Someone, you need not apply. I spent over twelve months lobbying one institution from Australia, without getting so much as a written acknowledgement. Letters, emails and parcels disappear into a black hole.
But ring them from here and you're greeted cordially enough. You can join in the banter about the traffic, Sonia's great race, that program last night. You mention you used to work with the woman interviewed. The civil servant loses his guarded tone, reveals his opinion of the film-maker. You see him, raise him: you can't stand the gobshite either, he was always a chancer. But your woman who did that other series - you frantically comb your memory, take a punt - "she's a different kettle of fish". 'Oh she's not in the same category at all.' The warmth goes up a notch. 'In fact I worked with her on the Galway project', he says with gusto. You dredge up another ancient memory. 'The one Tadhg P. ran?' 'The same.' Bingo. 'I know Tadhg well', you say. 'Sure he and I were on the first Arts Festival together.' He starts talking dates, meetings - you're in.
The government has produced a handy booklet for Returning Emigrants, which includes the cost of a typical supermarket buy, tax rates and important things to bring back, like birth certs. I suggest they add Contacts: before you arrive, re-excavate the family tree, get a list of your old school class, acquire the name of every stray neighbour you ever nodded at in the street.
Years of enthusiastic youthful socialising has left me vaguely acquainted with half of Ireland and I intend to put every last pint to work. God help blacks, foreigners or teetotallers. CVs? Ability? References? I'll send it on - but now tell me, don't I know your dad's first cousin, would he be the same Mick Flynn used to do the school run out of Ennis?? Now you're talkin'.