I’m heading home later today, to the north coast of County Antrim. It’s not long since I’ve been there, just over three months, and although I don’t live there anymore, and I’ve not lived there for any great length of time in twenty odd years, I still look on it as home. I suppose I always will. I feel that I belong there. I don’t count myself as an Irish emigrant, as I don’t feel I have wandered far enough for long enough; but even given the short peregrinations that I’ve made, I still question where I belong, where I might end up. I think it is a conundrum that hangs over many of the Irish diaspora – or any diaspora for that matter: ‘where do I belong?’ For some it will be their birthplace, for others it is where they spent their formative years. Some people are clear that they belong wherever their family is – be it a partner or children – and as long as the nuclear family is together, then place is unimportant. Others might find a special place late in their lives, a place to which there might be no obvious connection and yet they find it and feel like they have come ‘home’. We all know people who have a deep sense of belonging that comes from location: those who must live by the sea, or in cities, by their beloved mountains, or in the countryside; and if they were uprooted from their place of belonging, just like the strongest of trees felled at the roots, they would wither. How do the millions of displaced people in the world fulfil this basic human need to belong? For today’s economic and political refugees and those fleeing war, survival trumps belonging, but belonging also begets surviving.
English folk singer, Ralph McTell wrote a song inspired by some time he spent working on a building site in London in the 1960s with a group of Irish men whose lack of belonging threatened their emotional survival. I heard him sing live once and he introduced a song from this time by explaining how the Irish navvies told him they felt caught betwixt and between: not belonging in London, yet no longer belonging back home either. McTell told us that one of the labourers spoke of his longing to return to the west of Ireland, of how acutely his missed his homeplace, but that he couldn’t bring himself to go back. There had been an irreparable severing, a sundering, an impossible chasm. When McTell asked the labourer why this was, he gave the cryptic reply, “Ah, sure, it’s a long way from Clare to here”, and the tragic song was born. I think they are amongst some of the most heartrending lyrics I know: “There’s four who share this room as we work hard for the craic / And sleeping late on Sundays I never get to Mass / It’s a long way from Clare to here / It’s a long way from Clare to here / It’s a long, long way, it grows further by the day / It’s a long way from Clare to here / When Friday comes around Terry’s only into fighting/ My ma would like a letter home but I’m too tired for writing.” It’s a poignant eulogy to those who are lost, adrift and without a sense of belonging to either place or person, landscape or heritage.
John O’Donohue dedicated one of his books, ‘Eternal Echoes’ to the issue of belonging. He writes: “The hunger to belong is at the heart of our nature. Cut off from others, we atrophy and turn in on ourselves. The sense of belonging is the natural balance of our lives. Mostly, we do not need to make an issue of belonging. When we belong, we take it for granted. Belonging suggests warmth, understanding, and embrace. No one was created for isolation. The sense of belonging keeps you in balance amidst the inner and outer immensities. The ancient and eternal values of human life—truth, unity, goodness, justice, beauty, and love are all statements of true belonging; they are the also the secret intention and dream of human longing.”
My late husband lived away from his home country of Canada for more years than he lived there. He wrote about belonging and how he missed home: “It is with a mixture of gratitude and regret that I reflect on how this part of the world has become my home. Gratitude, for the good fortune that such beauty and complexity could grab me so deeply and so quickly; regret, that in my very core, all my default settings, childhood memories, and (I think) sensibilities are deeply Canadian. And I miss all those things that we take for granted while we are there – from the howling wolves in Algonquin park, to the way your glasses fog up when you enter a building in a proper Canadian winter. I suppose this is that constant tension in the migrant/refugee life, between longing and belonging.” He wrote beautifully and very honestly. We belonged with each other but he longed for Canada. Longing and belonging do not always coalesce; you are blessed if they do for you.