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Extract 'I felt a kind of bereavement for the Mayo of my youth and my stories'

Author Colin Barrett shares his thoughts on living in Canada and returning to Mayo having written about the past.

IN THE SUMMER of 2023, I returned to Ireland with my family after six years living in Toronto. It was a strange span of time to spend abroad.

Abroad. Even when I was there, I thought of there – Toronto — as ‘abroad.’ It was a distinction that never quite receded.

In many senses those six years were a long and defining period of my life; one of my kids was born there and it is where both my kids grew up, turning from babies to toddlers to school-going children. Toronto is the place I’ll think of when, in the future when they are not so little, I think back on the earliest, formative years of their lives.

And yet precisely because my time there is over, has been definitively concluded, because Toronto is now sealed into a capsule slid irretrievably in the past, it feels, already, like a remote and in some way insubstantial, unreal experience, something I can no longer touch or taste or feel.

This intangibility with which I am afflicted, already, whenever I think of Toronto reveals to me an important aspect of how memory — or my memory at any rate — operates. There is a palpable, material element required by my mind; some sort of concrete aspect needs to be triggered to activate the associations stored within me.

When a place is put out of my mind, it is, for large stretches of time, functionally as if I was never there.

But give me a tangible prompt, return me to some past place, and all my senses fire back up in a vortex of associations. Textures, tastes, feelings and moods come back. Some of the strongest, sensorial intoxicating experiences I have had involved (re)visiting a place I have not been to for a while. You have to go back to a place, I realise, not just to experience that place afresh, how it is now, but also in order to more richly recall how it once was.

The west

I’m a writer. I have written two short story collections, Young Skins and Homesickness and have just published a novel, Wild Houses. The vast majority of these books are set in and around the west of Ireland, and Mayo in particular, where I grew up, among communities that in many ways resemble the ones I grew up in.

While none of them were written in Mayo, they were written in proximity to it. I left Mayo at 17 to go to college at UCD and stayed on thereafter. Dublin was where I lived for over 14 years before we left for Toronto (and Dublin is where I live now.) But throughout the writing of Young Skins in particular, and many of the stories in Homesickness, I was able to get back to Mayo pretty much whenever I wanted.

aj0950-europe-irl-republic-of-ireland-ireland-eire-county-mayo-image-shot-1999-exact-date-unknown Mayo countryside. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The way I thought about it was – any day I woke up, if I needed to, I could be in Mayo that same day. And while often weeks went by without me going there, the spectre of that proximity was reassuring. It was almost as if I was there and not there at the same time. I would see friends, family, revisit the places of my childhood, the whitewashed stone bungalows of the ancient bachelor farmers lining the lake road, the lake itself, cresting the last rise before it came into view beneath you, its surface as solidly jagged as slate, all these marks of my earliest memories.

Whenever I needed, I could, as it were, become reinfused with Mayo, as if I was taking an inoculating shot of the place, cycling it back into my blood, my circulatory system. Often I wondered if, creatively, I didn’t just benefit from this, but in fact needed this, if this closeness to Mayo was what made me a writer at all.

So there was, in the back of my mind, a degree of creative trepidation when we left Ireland. The connection I had would necessarily thin. I would have to learn to ration my returns home, to Mayo. The first couple of years it was manageable. Between family visits and professional obligations, I would often get back every few months. Then the pandemic happened, and I spent the longest time I ever had, well over two years, without being in Ireland.

Wild Houses Colin Barrett Jacket

And somewhere in there, in the tense eventlessness of pandemic time, I was visited on more than a few restless nights by a feeling I can only compare to bereavement. Bereavement not for Ireland or Mayo – I knew we would eventually get back there, and get back for good – but for the Ireland, the Mayo I was writing about.

The thread of continuity had been broken – and that Mayo, the Mayo of my childhood, was finally sealed in its own capsule and slid irretrievably into the past.

And yet I did keep writing, into and through the pandemic. I finished the second and third books. For the first time in my creative life, I had to dive deep into the intangibility of pure memory. And what I found down there is that everything does go away, slides into the past, but not totally, not entirely irretrievably. The work got done.

And as I found out when I came back to Ireland, Mayo is still here. Not the exact version of it that seemed, in childhood, to have risen out of some part of eternity, when it seemed as if everything – the people and the houses, the corner shops and stray cats and the power lines cutting across the fields, the lake – was the way it would always be, but a Mayo I would have to get to know again, even those parts of it that have remained the same. Everything flows, away and forward. And all writing, all stories, in the end, become elegies.

‘Wild Houses’ by Colin Barrett is published by Jonathan Cape and is available in shops and online now.

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