Jennifer O’Connell wrote a thought provoking article on Sat 14, 2019 in the Irish Times. In it she explored living abroad for Christmas and the efforts to recreate an atmosphere of home. I remember my grandmother’s stories of life in Tully, North Queensland and her dreams of going back Ireland – the sadness and loneliness of the poems and songs of emigration. Now we have a generation of adventurers living the dream abroad.
But interestingly O’Connell’s comments that homesickness isn’t really about place that particularly fascinated me. It’s about experiences. It’s a longing for memories of another time, memories that don’t yet exist, and now won’t ever exist. And this happens to everyone. You move away from home, your children move away from you, families have to organise around new families. But for a few days everyone tries to recreate the christmases of childhood. Sometimes we have to have Christmas a week early/late to facilitate this call of our past.
Jennifer discovered recently that the Welsh and the Portuguese have uniquely beautiful words for this. The Welsh call it “hiraeth”.
It’s rare to come across anything poetic on Wikipedia, but here is the definition it offers of hiraeth: “missing a time, an era, or a person – including homesickness for what may not exist any longer . . . the bittersweet memory of missing something or someone, while being grateful [for] their existence . . . a longing for a homeland, potentially of your ancestors, where you may have never been.”
The Portuguese word “saudade” is similar. It means, I think, the presence of absence; a longing for someone or something that you know you can never experience again. It’s not an entirely bereft kind of longing, because it’s a longing for something that was once yours.
Home is more than a place; it’s a story we tell ourselves; it’s people, sensations, memories and feelings.