Tuesday, 28 December 2010

An Irishman abroad, Christmas 2010

Winter in Quebec is bitterly cold and I’ve often regaled my family in Ireland with tales of life during snow-time. But this Christmas, Dublin is colder and snowier than Montreal. There’s a bitterness in the Irish air too. The prideful country we imagined in the past decade has vanished, and we emigrants again find ourselves unable to answer the naive questions of friends in our adopted countries “What’s happening in Ireland?”

I try to remain detached. I love my life in Quebec, and I will never be one of the emigrants who pine for the old country, gathering in lame Irish pubs to join in maudlin ballads that would be laughed at in Dublin. I first left Ireland in 1986, a grey and pessimistic country going nowhere, and I revelled in the optimism of North America and the pragmatism of Sweden. I dodged the reasonable yet unanswerable questions from my new colleagues (“why are the Catholic and Protestants fighting?”) and smiled inwardly at how my homeland marketed itself abroad. The large advertisement in the check-in area of Stockholm airport for example. It showed smiling Irish students proclaiming “We’re the young Europeans” and while literally accurate it was completely misleading; the fact that it remained there for 10 years as it aged and faded said so much more.  I returned to Ireland in 1999 and bought a house; or rather I climbed on the property ladder and made my personal contribution to the bubble that has burst so disastrously. I left again for Quebec in 2007, this time probably for good. Late each evening when the kids are in bed and I’m scrubbing the pots and pans I listen to RTE radio, broadcast over the internet. That’s the early hours of the morning in Dublin, so my fellow listeners are probably few in number – insomniacs, taxi-drivers, the night-shift. My Mam and Dad are sleeping fitfully as always I fear, and I listen to yet another discussion on the prospects for the economy; will there be cutbacks in support for elderly people like them who want to keep their independence and live in their own homes for as long as they are able?

We’re spending this Christmas in Quebec and greeting the family across the Atlantic through phone and internet. We have plum pudding, my Mam’s recipe, and our own habitual Christmas dinner: roast beef with Yorkshire pud and Baked Alaska for desert. The addition of maple syrup to the latter allows me to call it Toasted Quebec, which amuses our guests. I will also make my now traditional joke about Toasted Quebec being a both delicious desert and a timely reminder of the danger of global warming. There’s no tradition of holiday telly here, so I’ll try to encourage everyone to leave their video games for a few minutes and go for a skate in the nearby park; it's our equivalent of the Christmas afternoon stroll to the devotions at the Carmelite Church that my parents used to always take. Of course Dad can’t walk that far now.

Later that evening when the house is quiet I look out the kitchen window and see the snow falling softly. Nothing we can’t cope with, we citizens of “New France” are at home in winter. This year snow is falling too on the corporation house in Dublin that was my childhood home, where Mam and Dad live still. But it’s a different sort of snow, bringing apprehension, uncertainty and incomprehension.

I suppose it’s a good time to be out of Ireland, but it doesn’t feel like it.

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