Why I’m mov­ing to Done­gal af­ter 30 years in Canada

I felt like a tourist on a re­cent visit. I hope a one-year stay will tell me if Ire­land is still home

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Grace Gerry

Last spring I left Canada to re­turn to Done­gal for four months to an­swer the ques­tion: where is home and where do I be­long?

Even though it had been 30 years since I left, I still think of Ire­land as home. But Canada is also home, and since I be­came a Cana­dian cit­i­zen and have two pass­ports, I have felt torn be­tween two lovers. I hoped this visit would set­tle the ques­tion of my true love.

I was cu­ri­ous and ex­cited. I knew what it was like to go home for a two-week binge of fam­ily and friends, book­ended by the joy of ar­rival and the pain of departure. But this time was dif­fer­ent; I had time to ex­plore.

Liam Nee­son once said he missed Ire­land most when he was there. I know what he means. I too ap­pre­ci­ate the or­di­nary plea­sures and de­lights that lo­cals might take for granted, like the fa­mil­iar ring of the Done­gal ac­cent. I love the nov­elty of go­ing for a spon­ta­neous cof­fee or lunch with old friends, sim­ple plea­sures not pos­si­ble when you live on an­other con­ti­nent.

I drank in the rhythms of Done­gal, the damp At­lantic air, the inky blue hills, the jokes, the laughs and the end­less cups of tea. As I slowed down and set­tled in, an un­ex­pected joy stole over me, and my bones re­laxed. I had for­got­ten how con­nected the com­mu­nity in Done­gal was, even though I had grown up in a fam­ily pub where lo­cals gath­ered. It sur­prised me ev­ery time I met some­one new.

The first thing they asked was who I was and who my fam­ily were. Once sat­is­fied they could pin­point me on their com­mu­nity map, they’d say “Sure I knew your mother and fa­ther well”, “Isn’t it your sis­ter who plays the golf?” or “Ah sure ev­ery­body knows your brother”. It was both un­nerv­ing and en­dear­ing, that I still be­longed no mat­ter how far I’d trav­elled, or how long I’d been gone.


It was this kind of con­nec­tion that in­spired me to build a com­mu­nity on Van­cou­ver Is­land in Canada where I now live. I pre­vi­ously wrote for Ir­ish Times Abroad about a pop­u­lar “soup for neigh­bours” event my hus­band and I have hosted at our house ev­ery De­cem­ber for the past 12 years, which 40 or more at­tend.

Al­though I had hoped events like this would cre­ate the kind of com­mu­nity I grew up in, it’s not the same. I know 100 of my neigh­bours by name, but peo­ple are re­served. While they help out if asked, it is rare we are in­vited into a neigh­bour’s house.

In con­trast, my fam­ily is part of our Done­gal com­mu­nity for gen­er­a­tions. In times of trou­ble, the power and depth of that c o mmu­nity e merg e s . When my 90- year- old aunt died a few years ago, friends and neigh­bours took over our kitchen for the two days of her wake, and made sand­wiches, tea and cake for the hun­dreds who vis­ited to pay their re­spects.

I had for­got­ten too how friendly Done­gal is, even to strangers. When I ran out of petrol, a man gave me a lift to my car and helped fill it up. When my Cana­dian bank card wouldn’t work in a su­per­mar­ket, a cashier I’d never met of­fered to pay the ¤1.50 for my yo­gurt out of her own money.

And when I needed a piano to prac­tise on, a ho­tel man­ager of­fered one any time the room was free, all with the ubiq­ui­tous Done­gal phrase, “no bother”.

But I also missed as­pects of Vic­to­ria. I longed for sunny sum­mers I had taken for granted, when faced with the soggy days of July. I missed pick­ing straw­ber­ries and rasp­ber­ries for break­fast from our back gar­den, and won­dered why more peo­ple didn’t grow fruit and veg­eta­bles in Done­gal. I missed the con­ve­nience of see­ing my doc­tor with­out hav­ing to pay.

It felt strange to dis­cover I had to as­sim­i­late to the way things were done in Ire­land, even though I had grown up there. When my sis­ter said “You’d never say that or do that here”, I felt like a tourist.

But I dis­cov­ered what peo­ple thought didn’t seem to mat­ter any­more. I felt im­mune. Hav­ing lived in other cul­tures for 30 years, I was fi­nally free to be my­self.

I re­turned to Canada in late July, ea­ger to leave the rain be­hind and en­joy the sunny sum­mer in Vic­to­ria. I looked for­ward to eat­ing berries from the gar­den and was grate­ful for the 600lb of pro­duce my hus­band had har­vested, much of it in the freezer for the win­ter.

As I stepped back into the fa­mil­iar pat­terns of my life in Canada, the ques­tion re­mained: where is home, and where do I be­long?

My time in Done­gal was both sat­is­fy­ing and un­set­tling and made me cu­ri­ous for more. I de­cided to come back again this spring with my Cana­dian hus­band, spend a year in Ire­land and see how that feels.

There may not be an easy an­swer to my ques­tions. But I need to find out.

I had for­got­ten how friendly Done­gal is, even to strangers


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