Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Parting's still a sorrow but it no longer tears families apart

My eldest son, the practical one, has left home. Well, in fact he left home some years back and found himself a fashionable garret smack in the city centre, and proper order too, given that by then he was never going to see 21 again.

But that fashionable garret was only a stone's throw away if ever I felt the sudden urge to embrace him. He likewise, although he was home every other Saturday for a game of footie with friends and to do a quick rummage through his old room in search of misplaced odd socks.

This time it's different. New York is 3,000 miles away and even in this day of cheap air travel you can't just hop on a Flywhat'sit.com whenever you feel like it.

So this going is different. Although, unlike previous generations of young Irish men and women, notably in the Fifties and the downturn of the Eighties, he is not leaving because of economic considerations.

For generations, emigration left its heavy toll on this island when families were torn apart as fathers and sons took the boat to England or America or further afield in search of those streets paved with gold. There are many success stories of how such emigrants did find their fortune, and sometimes fame, in these far-flung places. Or perhaps it is only the success stories we hear about: those who didn't quite cut the mustard ending up down and out on a backstreet boardwalk.

If emigration back then took its toll, it was most certainly on the country left behind - because often the best emigrated: the best as in the most adventurous, the most determined, the most able.

And the lot who stayed behind did so because they didn't have the bottle to embrace the New World or because someone had to mind the farm. And that lot have been running things ever since. Ergo, where we are today.

On a level of more note, migration and its changing patterns and influx in northern Ireland from as far back as 1609 set the political tone and agenda for centuries to come and the price of which the province is still paying today.

Personally, I saw the large families on both my parents' sides parted because of migration, with half of the collective 16 leaving Ireland with not much else save the clothes on their backs. My father pined after his younger brothers for years, felt they had been 'hard done by' in having to leave, and the youngest, much to my father's sadness, he only ever got to see once in all the intervening years.

The Old Man kept promising he would one day get to Australia to see young Joe 'one more time' but never quite made it and the two died in old age, just a year or so apart. And I have many cousins I have never laid eyes on.

No, my son is leaving, not because of economics or discrimination, purely because he fancies a change and his company just happened to have an opening in their New York office.

So, off he's gone and his mother is not the better of it.

But the reality is that, in all probability, he is not gone forever and, even if he were, he is these days just around the corner.

Emigration for many decades was to places a day or two's journey away, to an uncertain start. Air fares were prohibitively expensive, and even on the low-cost assisted passage to Australia the sheer distance was enough to put one off any notion of an annual return home.

Now, air fares have never been cheaper, and planes are faster and more frequent.

But, more tellingly, technology has made the world a much smaller place. We have e-mail and texting and Skype and Facebook and Twitter and now Viber, a nifty little app whereby my son and I can chat to each other to our hearts' content, three thousand miles apart and buckshee.

Not that he will want to, for he'll be too busy with his new life, amassing a small fortune in the process - or so his mother hopes, so he can bring her over for shopping trips.

When I, because I couldn't get the opportunities I wanted here, went off to Africa as a young man, my only means of communication with the family back home was the rambling reams of A4 pages I typed off religiously every week on my sturdy old Remington typewriter.

All of which reminds me of the story of Ghana on the day it was granted independence, the first of the 53 African states to do so. A young Richard Nixon, long before Watergate, was among the US representatives in the football stadium that day when the then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made a speech welcoming Ghana's move to independence.

There was tumultuous applause from the gathered dignitaries, among them many, many returned migrants who had been educated abroad and had come back home to run things.

Nixon turned to a young black man nearby, dressed in an immaculate tailored suit, and poking him said: "You must be a very proud man today.''

To which the young man replied: "I wouldn't know sir. I'm from Alabama.''

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