This week my adored nephew flew in from Canada to catch up with all his relatives.
Those who have family living abroad will understand our excitement when he said he was planning a trip. Windows were cleaned, gardens tidied and plans for his visit drawn up.
He arrived on a wonderfully sunny day – autumn at its most perfect – and somehow our family seemed complete.
There he was, those magnificent grey/blue eyes inherited from our brother Nick, his father, the same colouring, that wonderful smile we remembered so well.
Nick died unexpectedly in February two years ago, aged just 69. That lump came into the throat; for a moment it was was him standing there. Even the voice was the same and, we soon realised, the mannerisms too.
The day in 1967 my brother left to live in Canada was one I’ll never forget. I had been at work, and when I came home he was gone. I hadn’t been able to say goodbye. He made frequent visits home so his loss wasn’t so bad.
His unexpected death though was a blow to us all. But he had left behind a niece and three nephews and their mum, our sister-in-law.
Ours is a typical story of so many Ulster families where sons and daughters left these shores for a better, different life. Nick became a successful businessman, something of a legend too. His eldest son is carrying on the tradition of coming to see us, while some of us have visited the family over the years in Canada.
Thankfully it’s so much easier to keep in touch now with the internet. We can see the `missing’ members of our family growing up without actually living there. But a visit home from the son of an émigré is so special. It grounds us, reminds us of our childhood and growing up. We reminisce and become sentimental reaching into the roots of our lives for reassurance of who we are.
There is a family tree on my mother’s side which goes back several generations and from that we can see that wanderlust runs through it. America, Canada, New Zealand, all these countries have at times past become home to our ancestors. Recently the New Zealand-ers popped up, people we didn’t know much about. They had left Ireland in the 1800s. Two of the current generation came to visit last year and we were stunned at how alike one was to our uncle, my mother’s brother who died three decades ago.
Nature, in its own way, reminds us of that unbroken thread of genes which passes through generations. Our New Zealand relative was a total stranger to us, and yet he wasn’t. It was as though he had always been with us. He had no idea of the likeness between him and our uncle. I know it touched him deeply.
Three decades of Troubles here, followed by the recession have forced many of our young people out of this country. At one point they were leaving at a rate of 3,000 a year. I believe that has slowed down though the Brexit situation is making some of our young generation nervous about their economic future here.
However, there has always been a tradition of emigration from Ireland, north and south. It’s in our DNA and when I see the success my brother made of his life – he went to Canada with scarcely a penny to his name – I marvel at the ability some have to try that bit harder in a different place. His son returns to us because he knows his father did love those he left behind. The bond thankfully is unbroken.