The emigrant song

Dublin-born author Felicity Hayes-McCoy is a kind of accidental emigrant, dividing her life between London and the Dingle peninsula. She reflects on what The Gathering means to people like her

I didn’t see myself becoming an Irish emigrant. Born, raised and educated in Dublin, I moved to London in the 1970s. Taking the emigrant road was normal for people of my generation. In my case, like many others, I imagined I’d go away, see a bit of the world, and then come home.

I never thought I’d come to call London home as well.

At first it felt alien. Even the food tasted different. While still a student in Dublin I’d fallen in love with Ireland’s Dingle peninsula, its cultural inheritance and stunning physical beauty. I remember standing in a London bookshop, looking at pictures of Dingle’s glorious scenery and almost bursting into tears.

But, as time passed, I made new friends, built a career – first as an actress and then as a writer – and met and married my husband. Together we bought and renovated a dilapidated flat, followed by an even more dilapidated house, set up a creative partnership, and generally put down roots.

Now I’ve lived longer in England than in Ireland.

But 30 years after I first took the emigrant road, my husband and I found yet another dilapidated building to call home. This time it was on the Dingle peninsula.

Now we divide our time between inner-city London and a place where Irish is still the everyday language and where a powerful sense of community rooted in an ancient cultural inheritance offers contrasts and similarities that enrich and colour our life.

 

Facing another world

There was a time at the beginning of the 20th century when it seemed as if rural Ireland would be completely depopulated by emigration. Older people on the Dingle peninsula remember relations setting out for America alone, aged 14 or 15. Some had never been farther from home than Dingle town. Carrying bags and bundles, with the money for their passage carefully hidden in their clothes, they’d turn their backs to the life they’d known and their faces to another world.

The contrast between home and the places these teenagers came to must have been unimaginable. And the great sadness of their emigrant experience was that most knew they’d never come home. The way I live and work now wouldn’t be possible without 21st-century travel and telecommunications.

Those two factors fundamentally altered the emigrant experience in my lifetime and opened up options I could never have imagined back in the 1970s. They also underpin the concept of The Gathering 2013.

 

Gathering for good

Living on the Dingle peninsula, hearing it discussed, debunked, embraced, promoted and recalibrated, I’ve begun to realise just how big and how small The Gathering’s core idea is. Yes, it’s an initiative led by central government, but it can’t work without individual and communal buy-in. It can be what we want it to be.

It taps into two of Ireland’s strongest and oldest values: hospitality and self-help. And by reaching out to and engaging with a worldwide web of communities and individuals with a hugely diverse sense of what it means to be Irish, it opens up potential for further creative initiatives and debate.

I suspect that The Gathering’s greatest legacy will be that diversity of input. Especially now that going away no longer means we don’t come back.

Felicity Hayes-McCoy's The House on an Irish Hillside is a memoir of a life lived between London and Dingle, and a life changed by a house on a windy peninsula. You can find her on Facebook.