The ghosts of belonging


Karen Kissane

`HOME” was a mysterious place, the stuff of myth and legend; my family’s dreamtime. It was never the corner shop where we lived and worked; not the cement backyard of Tarax bottles where we pedalled our trikes, or the storage shed of Sorbent rolls and tinned food where we played hidey among the cardboard cartons. I grew up knowing that “Home” was not the place with which I was most familiar, but somewhere altogether different.“Home” was where families went for a holiday as soon as ever they could save the money. “Home” was where other families went for good when they just couldn’t crack it here – because of the slog or the heat or the heartsickness. “Home” was the place grownups talked about at their parties, sang about over their beer and referred to (only half-jokingly) as “Holy Mother Ireland”. Home is where the heart is, and their hearts were thousands of miles away.

This psychic umbilical cord seemed the source of all their grief and all their joy, and the intensity of the attachment left me feeling that life in the country of my birth was somehow insubstantial. Grownups’ memories of the childhoods they had been forced to leave behind overshadowed the reality of the childhood I was trying to live. Perhaps it is like this for all children of migrants.

Everything significant seemed to come from the other side of the world: my unknown grandparents and aunts and uncles, my fairytale heroes and heroines, the music that made me want to dance, the picture-postcard scenery that looked like Tolkien-land.

In the 1960s, urban Australia had little to offer a child’s imagination. But the Irish had stories of forebears in the famine dying by the roadside with grass-stains round their mouths; of priests risking death to run illicit schools for Irish children; of the heroes of the Easter Rising in 1916. The Irish knew who they were and what had been suffered on the way to it.

Some were less forthcoming about their painful personal histories. They could be dogmatic and prickly, a quick-tempered pride shielding their vulnerability to shame (that scarring trifecta of poverty, oppression and religious rigidity being altogether ennobling only in romantic novels).

But beside them, easy-going Australia seemed unformed, passionless, bland. Aussie families never seemed to have heated rows about politics at the dinner table, and they didn’t laugh as much either. Their flame of life seemed turned down to simmer.

Anglos did ballet or swimming; I learnt Irish dancing and sweated in a woollen kilt in the March heat of the St Patrick’s Day procession. I went to crowded schools run by stern Irish nuns and took in the national neuroses like mothers’ milk. I left school adept at pontificating on mortal sin, but wholly unacquainted with Shakespeare (just another bloody Englishman, after all) or even Joyce (“that filthy man”).

I did try to draw a line, deflecting my Dad’s attempts to fire me up about Irish politics. But Dad died when I was 10 and, after that, holding on to Irishness became a way of holding on to him. Holy Father Ireland.

So at 20 – as soon as ever I could save the money – I went home for a holiday.

At first I was conscious only of my foreignness. My mother, who was travelling with us, derided me for a tourist whenever my girlfriend and I exclaimed over the remnants of mediaeval castles that litter her patch, the west of Ireland. “Those ould ruins!” she’d sniff in disgust. “They’re all falling down!”

We’d insist on clambering over the ancient stones, heady with the glory of our find, while she sat in the car, arms folded and foot tapping. She hadn’t been home in nearly 20 years and she longed for time with her family, not with the crumbling homes of people long gone. I didn’t understand that this time, my preoccupation with the past was robbing her of the present.

Her mother – my grandmother – and I failed to connect for the first two days we were under the same roof. She was in her eighties and had more spirit than strength – her sight was failing and she moved stiffly with the aid of a walker, but her thin hair was defiantly hennaed and her cheeks determinedly rouged.

Her brogue was so thick that I thought she was talking Gaelic and waited for others to translate for me. She had impatiently written me off as a tad sub-normal, given that I couldn’t answer a simple question. When we finally twigged to each other, at least we discovered that we laughed at the same things.

My mother was a village girl. At 18, she had left Ballinrobe, where “marrying out” meant wedding someone from the next parish, to search for work in London and then half-way across the globe in Australia. My grandmother had never been further from home than Galway. She had never even made the three-hour trip to Dublin.

What had we to say to each other? We shared only a warm goodwill and a love of the woman who linked us. So I sat and listened as Grandma and her three emigrant daughters rewove the threads of their old life together as if it were a tapestry frayed by time. They came alive chatting of births and deaths and marriages, of the way the local convent school’s uniform had changed. They used preoccupations with the everyday to draw a veil over their emotional lives and their years of separation; too painful, perhaps, or maybe just too hard to bridge. It was affectionate. It was revealing. But it was not home. Not for me.

My father had been a Kerry man. Hard men, they say. But the landscape of his heartland is soft; lush green hills and lakes of a brilliant blue. When I got to his hometown of Killarney it was easy to give over entirely to the role of tourist, roaming for the sheer pleasure of it.

That, in itself, might have been un-Kerrylike. I went to see the farmhouse in which my father had grown up. It stood whitewashed and stolid near the edge of a road, blind-siding a glorious view of the Killarney lakes. Did any of the rooms overlook the scenery? I asked a local. Mmm, the bathroom maybe, he said, himself puzzled by the question. To him, the scenery was no more matter for comment than a fencepost – and a darned sight less useful.

Then came the thunderbolt. I was wandering along the main street of the town when a strange woman charged at me from across the road. I’ve never seen her before or since. I couldn’t tell you what she looked like and was too floored by what she said to remember what she told me about who she was.

She said with delight, “Sure, you must be Gerald Kissane’s daughter. You’re the image of him.”

He’d been dead for 10 years and out of the country for 40. I struggled so hard to remember what he looked like, and she’d known him well enough to recognise him in a daughter she didn’t know he’d had. Because they had grown up in a village. Together. They knew what it was to belong, and for their families to have belonged for so many generations that their presence was as natural and right as the rising of the sun.

FOR one deeply etched moment, it seemed that I must belong too. Nowhere else in the world would a stranger recognise me for my clan. For the first time, I felt what my parents must have felt; a sense that my roots go back for generations, that I was part of a long family history and enfolded by a familiar community. And then the full force of what my parents had lost hit me. I grieved for them and for me, for the aloneness, the dislocation, the never-quite-fitting-in-anywhere that is the fruit of immigration, unto the next generation.

The stranger disappeared after our brief encounter, like the mysterious wise women in Celtic fairy stories who vanish once they have revealed what the protagonist needs to know. Her appearance had made me understand my links with that place; her cheerful, unthinking farewell was a reminder of their limits. Ultimately, I was an outsider. My connections with this town lay in the past. Its ghosts had been a large part of my life, but I had never been part of its small world.

Some time later I was in San Francisco. Unexpectedly, it had gum trees, tall, scraggy, tangy-scented eucalypts that triggered a wave of homesickness as fierce as a blow.

It was near the end of the journey. Time to go home.

First published in The Sunday Age.