Much has been written on the sense of displacement that stems from the diasporic experience. Growing up in Britain with a firm sense of Irishness, identity has always resided in something of a halfway-house. In Britain, you’re part of ‘that Irish family’. In Ireland, you’re ‘the English cousins’. Your Irishness is a pendulum that veers and swings across the Irish Sea. An exile in touching distance of home. A home that is near and yet still too far. The slight disconnection that you feel in England is only punctuated by a routine of Easter breaks, summer holidays, and long weekends ‘back home’.
The pandemic put a brake on these recreational homecomings. A quick jet over or ferry escapade to Ireland was neither viable nor justifiable in a time of the coronavirus.
What were once regular, albeit still too few, intervals back home suddenly became non-existent.
The nature of my work, pre-lockdown, had me in Belfast at least twice a month. Whether for meetings or briefings. On top of this, there were regular enough trips to Dublin, or other notable Irish cities, for additional work and engagements. And sprinkled throughout the year were trips to every inch and corner of the island for personal holiday breaks or family get-togethers.
Thus, a day spent in Belfast on 2 March 2020 fast became my ‘last’ day in Ireland. Not that I knew it at the time. In the months that followed I lamented how little I’d appreciated the day. How I’d squandered it as routine, or even mundane. As months passed I’d realised how I’d not before gone this long without a trip to Ireland on the horizon.
Work meetings and family meet-ups swiftly became virtual ‘Zoom’ calls. Calls I attended from my desk in southern England. In the comfort of my house but not my home.
I adhered to the lockdown guidance and Covid measures diligently. Safe in the faith that the sooner this virus was beat; the sooner I’d be back in Ireland. Only then would things be back to normal. By-and-large at least.
For the first time I had little to really look forward to. The next trip just wasn’t in sight. Soon I began to miss even the routine experiences of travel: waiting in an airport, packing a suitcase, or collecting a room key. As one-step removed as Ireland had always been, now it felt as if it was totally removed.
The break in this limbo came in early 2021. A combination of Brexit, Boris, pandemic, and a minor health-scare; had propelled my parents into retirement and relocation to Co. Fermanagh, in the north of Ireland. A global pandemic is probably not the most ideal environment to move house, but sometimes needs must.
And so it was, in mid-February, a physically exhausted groundworker and an emotionally exhausted palliative care nurse returned to the ‘home country’ for their ‘Part B’ of life.
Left behind temporarily in England was their dog, Gerry, and the mum’s car. So for five weeks I minded their dog for them as they got things set up in Fermanagh. Working from home, with nowhere to go, and besides that nowhere open; it was an easy enough ask. The responsibility also meant that I finally had a long-awaited justification to once again get back to Ireland.
On 12 April, the dad and I commenced on the long journey to Fermanagh with lil’ Gerry in tow. A seven hour car journey from the south east of England to Stranraer. Followed by a two hour ferry-crossing to Larne. And a two hour drive from Belfast to Fermanagh. A route chosen to minimise the time the dog would spend on the ferry on his own. But not necessarily suited for someone who suffers from travel sickness. As I do!
However, even in a post-Brexit, global pandemic world, the journey was seamless. We had angels on our side. Despite some commentary to the contrary, the protocol was not particularly discernible. The journey over was much the same as any we’d made before it. Though the dog did required worming, a rabies vaccination, and an animal health certificate, none of these were particularly cumbersome to secure ahead of the journey.
In any event, no amount of travel sickness or bureaucracy could have deterred me. After a year locked-out, I was delighted to be on the move and on the road to Fermanagh.
Gerry the border terrier now, quite appropriately perhaps, resides in the border county. My parents have finally returned home and are not looking back. And I have once again touched home sod, celebrating the ability and fluidity of hopscotching between these two islands.
Although returning to England towards the end of this month, I look forward to many post-pandemic trips back home to make up for time lost. Alternating between my house and my home.