Belfast Telegraph

How global travel and work are robbing us of our sense of where we really belong

By Mary Kenny

'Are oo from Cork?" "I am, are oo?" went the mocking jest: Corkonians have a great reputation for being solidly rooted in their native city, and fiercely defensive of it. Good for them. Their sense of attachment may well stand to them in the brave new world we are entering, in which, it is claimed, some people are 'citizens of somewhere' and some are 'citizens of anywhere' - or nowhere.

One group are the cosmopolitan and international, the rootless globalists who are as much at home in Berlin or in Boston, who identify with their own class in California or Singapore rather than their compatriots in Ballydehob or Burnley. These 'anywhere' folk move around effortlessly - Tuscany, Los Angeles, Sydney, Davos. The UK's former chancellor George Osborne might be an example of this cosmopolitan clan: a Westminster MP for Tatton in Cheshire, the newly appointed editor of the London Evening Standard, an adviser to an American management fund, BlackRock (annual remuneration: €750,000 for a part-time post), and an international speaker. Many politicians and ex-politicians are part of the 'anywhere' tribe, as are financiers like George Soros, or philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates, or celebrities like George and Amal Clooney.

Yet, the 'anywheres' are not necessarily all rich or super-rich. They can be just highly mobile individuals.

By contrast the 'somewhere' people are, like Yeats' wish for his daughter, "rooted in one dear perpetual place." They stay in and around the locality in which they were born. They are attached to their locality's culture, language (or dialect) and traditions. Yes, they tend to be more conservative in their values, and place more emphasis on community, family ties, national identity and faith practice. The 'anywheres' value free movement of people, tariff-free trade and, above all, autonomy - 'personal choice' comes high on their list of priorities. While the 'somewheres' don't always benefit from free movement of people - indeed, their wages may well be depressed by migration - and their sense of 'autonomy' is much more contextualised within a network of family, community and obligations.

The 'anywheres' and the 'somewheres' are categories conceived by the sometime left-liberal British social analyst David Goodhart, who put some hard thinking into why so many of the English and Welsh voted for Brexit, and so many Americans voted for Trump. We should beware that 'cosmopolitan' has sometimes been disparaging: in Stalin's time, 'rootless cosmopolitan' was anti-Semitic code for 'Jewish'. Goodhart's theory is simply that because of wider education, travel opportunities, the internet and globalisation, the percentage of 'anywheres' has risen to about 25% of many populations, who feel differently from the rest of the population.

In the Republic of Ireland, the analysis might be more complex, because of the long tradition of the Irish diaspora forming an international version of Irishness - today, about 17% of Irish-born people live outside of Ireland, and may soon qualify for voting rights within Ireland. There has traditionally been a strong connection between the globalised Irish and the sense of rootedness in Irish localities. Think of all those yearning old exiles' songs. "My feet are here on Broadway/This blessed harvest morn/But oh, the ache that's in my heart/For the spot where I was born!"

And yet, that sense of rootedness may be weaker than before - instead of singing those sad old exile songs, the Irish ex-pat today is as likely to be strumming along to Bruce Springsteen or any global rock star whose appeal is identical, whether in Mayo or Murmansk.

In London, there used to be an Irish county association representing every Irish county, so that Corkonians, Galwegians or Donegalites could congregate, sharing that sense of home. But in recent years, these associations have declined. Though there still remains - maybe largely thanks to the GAA - a recognisable county identity in Ireland in a way that hasn't existed in England for generations.

Ask an Irish person where they're from and they'll still usually respond, say, "from Tralee in Co Kerry." Ask an English person where they're from and they'll often reply "about halfway down the A3." Where the heck is that? Locations are now more identified by postcodes than counties - much of Shakespeare's Warwickshire is now defined by CV codes, meaning industrial Coventry. Letters were once franked by the post office identifying the place of origin, but no more.

In an ideal world, we should be able to be both rooted in our "dear perpetual place" and, at the same time, aware of a universalism. The Catholic Church was once active about doing both: upholding devotion to local saints, while urging the faithful to support a village in Peru.

The decline of rural Ireland - it's catastrophic if those 200 rural post offices are closed rather than adapted for wider service - and the disproportionate expansion of a sprawling, more anonymous Dublin is the kind of trend that erodes the rootedness which gives people that sense of "security and continuity" that David Goodhart believes most of us need.

Sandymount in Dublin is my own 'somewhere', but I like to remain open to 'anywhere' as well.

Belfast Telegraph


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