I REMEMBER summer. I remember Ireland every summer. School finished and we packed our bags and waited for the coach and caught the boat and went ‘home’.
Every summer we left our city home and went to a place where there were fields and cattle and hens.
I remember all of it and I remember it because it was all so different. The light was different, the air was different, the rain was different, even the telly was different. There was sea and fish straight into the pan.
I lived in a city far away from the sea and even the smell of it struck me so much that even now, living a short distance from the ocean, a certain smell on the wind and I am taken back through the years.
Every summer thousands of second-generation Irish kids would leave the cities of Britain and wash up in Ireland — to run around with cousins and see aunts and uncles and grannies and granddads and leave behind being from an Irish family in Britain and instead be the English cousins.
As part of an immigrant experience this is deeply fundamental. If your parents are immigrants but from a country far away, especially back then, the chances of going back were fairly slim. The chances of going back regularly were even slimmer and the chances of going back every year, every summer, were non-existent.
But a trip back across the Irish Sea was within the reach of all those working-class immigrant families. Families from city streets that, particularly to a child, could not have been more different than the country of their parents they went back to. From inner city streets to green fields. From concrete and buildings to the sea. From the constant noise of the city to country silence. Yes, it sticks in the memory alright.
Without it maybe Ireland would have left us alone. Of course we would have related to the place, enjoyed our Irishness as a family and community experience in British society. Carried certain elements of Irishness on through our British lives. But the thing was that Ireland wasn’t that far away. It wasn’t the other side of the world.
My uncle who emigrated to New York around the same time as my parents went to Britain didn’t come home again for decades. He simply couldn’t afford it. It was beyond his reach. But it was different for us. We came back. We were brought back. Every summer. Summer, after summer, after summer. What chance then of Ireland ever leaving us alone?
I don’t think there’s anything like those ferries anymore. Whole families slumped around their baggage, happy to have found some space on the ground. The bar in full swing as some decide to sing their way back home. City kids falling asleep against a suitcase trying to remember last summer and whether they really do want to be in Ireland for six weeks. And then trying not to cry at the end of August as they go back and find the house and the street and the city they live in to be suddenly strange. It doesn’t get much more dislocating than that. No wonder Ireland stuck in our minds.
Fish straight out of the sea and into the pan and one time we are standing on the rocks and the mackerel are breaking in waves before us. Trying to kick a GAA ball over the bar. Sitting on the floor in the pub as the sing-song goes on and on and not that one again but… she can really sing!
Walking for hours and disappearing for the day and not coming back until its dark and what have you been doing and nothing much really. All day long. And walking back from the pub and getting a crick in your neck from watching falling stars. And just how many kids are there in this house?
I remember summer. I remember the black crows on the gate of my grandmother’s garden and the pony cart down the road that seemed to be rotting into the ground. And I hear Irish voices all the time in England but I have no idea what this man is saying.
And why can’t we get Tanora in England and why is lemonade red? And why do our hearts feel heavy as the ferry pulls out and the lights of Ireland recede? Why don’t we live here anyway? And why don’t we come back at Christmas — I can’t wait to just be at home.