Leavings and returns occupy a large place within the Irish psyche, and by extension, creative works by Irish creators. As a country that has experienced an influx of people from foreign nations in its early history as well as waves of emigration, this is no surprise. To this day the Irish diaspora maintains a strong link to the country; the first American movie to be filmed on location abroad was Kalem’s The Lad from Old Ireland in 1910 and was a great success with Irish immigrants in America, leading to further productions such as The Colleen Bawn in 1911. As a result of this sense of movement, the concept of leaving and returning is ingrained within Irish culture and identity — it is considered normal for Irish people to move abroad to seek work and success (America and Australia seem to be especially popular). But it is possible to open up this subject beyond this simplistic view. What does it mean to leave? What does it mean to return? What are the boundaries that dictate what these even are? For the purpose of this essay, we will take a look at two texts: Foster by Claire Keegan, and The Green Road by Anne Enright. These texts take different approaches to the topic at hand, providing insight into various approaches to this most complex of concerns.
At just 88 pages in is printed form, Claire Keegan’s Foster is a read whose slimness belies its thematic density and potential for close reading. At its core it is a story about new beginnings, particularly for the three main characters, the young girl and the Kinsellas. The narrator (referred to from hereon as “the girl”) leaves her home with no idea of when she will return, or even where she is going. It is possible to relate this sense of an unknown future to the emigrants who left to seek a better life in America. The greatest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown, but thankfully, the girl begins to blossom in the care of the Kinsellas. This leaving allows her to grow as a person and experience true parental kindness, something her biological parents could not give her. Given that the story is from the girl’s point of view, the reader doesn’t get a great sense of just why this is, but it is easy to assume that the parents are simply too busy with their other children to provide them with the individual care and attention that they need. Regardless of the reason, the girl comes out of her shell and embraces her new position as the child of the house.
The fostering of the child by the Kinsellas is seen by her parents as a necessity. Kiberd notes that it was common among poor people, when “another child was born to a hungry family or to an exhausted mother” (Kiberd)¹ an older child would be sent to live with relatives. The arrangement could be temporary or permanent, as the situation warranted. The child’s mother certainly falls into the category of being exhausted.
What at first seems an act of kindness on the Kinsella’s part, taking care of the girl while her mother has another child, soon shows itself to be a second chance for them. Following the loss of their own child, the arrival of the girl brings new hope to the pair. It is a chance for them to right the wrongs of their past and provide a child with the love that went unshared in the wake of their tragedy. The girl is a form of a changeling, taking the place of the deceased boy. This extends to an almost sinister level when it is revealed that the Kinsella’s dressed the girl in their dead son’s clothes. This revelation is the turning point of the story and it comes out of the blue, via a gossip at a funeral: “Flattering, is it? Well. […] I suppose it is, after living in the dead’s clothes all this time” (Keegan)². Such a distinctly Gothic flourish could derail the realism of the story, but in Keegan’s hands it adds an uncomfortable layer of meaning to earlier details. It is strange, but not without reason. The clothes are the last link that they have to their son and seeing them being worn, being filled and moving about affords them time before they buy new clothes for her and the boy’s clothes are let fall still again. But this time there will still be a child in the house after the clothes are left unused. This time the child will not have left them. It is a cathartic experiment for the Kinsellas, one that helps them accept the past but finally let it be rest. The arrival of the girl allows them to fully process the leaving of their son.
Foster is a book about arrivals, the arrival of the girl and the arrival of hope. In the final chapters of the book a letter comes to say that the girl has a new baby brother and will be returning home before school starts. She has not given thought to how fragile her newfound life is and neither have her foster parents. Over the course of the summer, the Kinsellas and the girl have fashioned an idyll on their farm, both parties creating their own version of what they want their family to be.
Keegan gives careful attention to the first trip to the well early in the novel, the present tense narration providing the scene with much of its power. Given that her son drowned in a slurry tank, it is reasonable to draw parallels between the two locations. In this situation, the well stands in for the tank, the water for the slurry. Water is associated with purity and goodness in many cultures and beliefs — the use of holy water in Christian services being an example. The girl sees herself in the reflection not as she views herself, but a new form of herself: “I see myself not as I was when I arrived, looking like a tinker’s child, but as I am now, clean, in different clothes, with the woman behind me.” (Keegan)
This is the arrival of hope for the girl and Edna as they can both seem themselves in a new light. The dirt and grime are replaced by cleanliness, the grimness of the boy’s death is replaced by the well water. This is inverted when the girl goes to the well alone. The water takes on a sinister nature, surrounded as it is by dark mud. Edna’s pure moment she shared with the girl is being encroached upon by the dark memories of her past, implying that she may never be truly able to move on. The placement of this moment is interesting, coming as it does after the girl is summoned back home. Just as their own child “left” them, so too is the girl leaving them.
The final pages of Keegan’s book are the most poignant and beautiful. The girl chases after the people she views as her parents because she cannot bear the thoughts being them leaving her. This is an emotion she didn’t feel when she was dropped off at the beginning, and it is clever of Keegan to include this juxtaposition. It shows just how the arrival at the opening affected the lives of all involved, to the point that her own family is strange to the girl.
“I do not hesitate but keep on running towards him and by the time I reach him the gate is open and I am smack against him and lifted into his arms. For a long stretch, he holds me tight. […] When I finally open my eyes and look over his shoulder, it is my father I see, coming along strong and steady, his walking stick in his hand. I […] listen to the woman who seems, in her throat, to be taking it in turns, sobbing and crying, as though she is crying not for one now, but for two. I daren’t keep my eyes open and yet I do, staring up the lane, past Kinsella’s shoulder, seeing what he can’t.” (87–88)
Mrs. Kinsella cries because this is the second child that has left them, but the only one to return. This return is all too brief and reminds them of their loss. When they return the girl to their parents it is a mutual arrangement, however sad it may be. But to have her return to them of her own free will only to be taken away again is heart-breaking. What Kinsella can’t see that his wife does is reality threatening their fantasy of having their child back. He is living in this moment while Edna sobs for the collapsing of their self-fashioned family. The girl even calls Mr. Kinsella “Daddy,” showing that she has spiritually left her biological family for an emotional one.
In Foster, leavings and arrivals influence the entire story and the characters themselves. The girl is scared to leave her own family, while her arrival at the farmhouse brings growth to the trio. This is flipped in the ending as the girl dreads leaving the Kinsellas and her arrival back home threatens to undo all the development she has undergone throughout the summer. In this work, Claire Keegan paints the positive and negative sides of both arrivals and leavings with consummate skill, as well as how they can psychologically affect people.
Anne Enright has been the recipient of several literary awards and honours and as such is one of the best known and respected contemporary Irish writers. The Green Road deals, as most of her writings do, with the ordinary Irish people that one finds throughout the country. An examination of how a family may be dysfunctional through no explicit fault of any particular individual, it touches largely on themes of relations. It is through the family’s relations that we get a sense of the importance of leavings and returns in this novel, specifically Dan’s relationship with the rest of his family and Irish society at large.
Dan’s early life up until the chapter dedicated to him in which we meet him in New York in 1991 takes place at a time when being gay was illegal in Ireland. The timing of his chapter in 1991 places it during the AIDS crisis in America and two years before homosexuality would be decriminalised in his home country. Dan’s emigration was not a leaving of financial necessity as in Foster, but of a far more personal nature, tinged by cultural views. The author of this essay is reminded of Dairne in the play Rathmines Road by Deirdre Kinahan. Dairne (played by Rebecca Root in the original production at the Abbey Theatre) is a transgender woman who left Ireland because she could not see herself surviving long if she stayed. She left Ireland because: “People like me just went away” (Kinahan)³. As a whole, Irish people tended to (and to a degree still tend to) push things they preferred not to deal with under the carpet.
This past is in contrast to the current climate in that Ireland is now a largely liberal country with what is considered one of the most liberal attitudes towards LGBT people in the world. This is a transformation from overwhelmingly conservative to overwhelmingly liberal views is remarkable in that it occurred practically in the space of a single generation. Despite this, traces of the “othering” of queer people do still exist. In a letter to her son, Rosaleen attempts to overcome this and ensures Dan that she loves him as she always has and misses him. She drives this point home (almost to excess, threatening to spoil the message) by literally underlining her point:
“My darling Dan,
I think of you often, and just as often I smile. I miss your old chat.
All my love,
Your fond and foolish Mother,
This shows a woman who loves her son but still struggles to balance her love for him with her ingrained views of homosexuality; it feels as though she is trying to convince herself that she does not care about his sexuality. As well-intentioned as her letter may be, it comes across rather flat. The fact that she signs off with her actual name as opposed to ending the letter at “Mother” speaks volumes to the distance she can’t help but feel, even as she tries to bridge it. It is this uncertainty that Dan emigrates to escape from, for even the people who love him find difficulty with his predilection. Dan must leave home for him to find who he is.
Upon his return to Shannon airport in the second part of the novel, Constance notes how he carries himself: “And there was Dan — she knew him immediately […] A gay man, as anyone might be able to discern. He checked the faces in the welcoming crowd with nervous impeccability. ‘Hell-oooo!’ Dan threw out his hands, towards her, and stepped out from behind his luggage. More camp than she remembered. Every time a little more. It came up through him with age” (Enright). Constance sees her brother almost as a stranger but still feels a familial love for him. However, she cannot help but subconsciously associate how Dan acts with his sexuality. Though he is the same person she grew up with, his natural behavioural quirks are so associated with being gay that she cannot help but link him almost solely with being gay.
His identity is so wrapped up with his sexuality due to a pervading view of the gay man as the other in Irish society that she herself feels every glance from people around as much as she tries to move past it: “I don’t care!!! she wanted to say. I don’t care who you sleep with or what you do! Even though she did care. She checked the eyes of everyone who looked at him from the oncoming crowd.” (Enright). Though this section of the novel takes place twelve years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the old prejudices die hard. Constance scans the oncoming crowd, watching them for any reaction to her gay brother so that she can condemn them, while also calming her own shame at not being able to see him as her brother alone, but viewing him through the filter of his sexuality. Dan had to leave Ireland not because he wanted to but to find somewhere he felt more accepted, lending his emigration and subsequent return a far deeper significance that that of someone moving to Australia for work. Similar to Foster, he develops as a person once he has left, despite his ending up not believing in “romantic love” (Enright).
Dan is scared of returning home, scared that somehow the life he has made will fall away from him and he will be transported back to “1983, with a white sliced pan on the table and the Eurovision Song Contest on TV” (Enright) and will never find his way back to Ludo. He makes the journey to sort out his past, but he worries that once he faces it he will never be able to look away again. Dan does not want his two lives to have any crossover; there is the person he was in Ireland, and the person he became in America. The colliding of these worlds threatens the existence of both, and where would that leave Dan afterwards other than feeling more isolated than ever.
Dan’s return to Ireland may be hitting a sore spot for Constance herself, given that he managed to leave the country and build his own life, while she remained behind, falling into the domestic roles of mother and wife. Her and Dan have a thread in common in that they both experience concerns surrounding health that force them to face their own mortality, but that is largely where their connections end. While there is no shame in Constance’s life, the reader feels that she regrets not being able to travel as much as she’d like and on a certain level resents her brother’s life, despite his having lived through the height of the AIDS epidemic. At least he got to leave Ireland. His return reopens these slight wounds and makes them sting all the more, leading to an awkward drive home from the airport.
The concepts of leaving and returning are treated with more ambivalence in this text than in Foster. While Keegan’s work is complex in its subtext, it shows leaving certain situations to be not only beneficial but necessary, thereby painting it in a more positive light. Enright however, shows leaving to be more than this — the choice Dan has to make is necessary for him but it involves leaving behind his family and his own country and fleeing to a place that may not be more welcoming, but at least there are more people like him and he won’t have to face his family. It is therefore all the more unfortunate when he is made to live through the AIDS crisis, watching as his community is diminished and ravaged while those in power look on with disdain for the disease, but apathy for those who suffer. The reader sometimes gets the sense that while Dan can be emotionally distant, he may see this life as better than languishing alone back home. But is it better for Dan to leave his past alone, or return home to face it? In his mind he is stuck firmly between a rock and a hard place, his leaving having allowed him space to grow, but returning home may let him become who he is meant to be.
Two common themes running through these texts is that of preservation and that of growth. The girl leaves her family and discovers herself and Dan leaves Ireland to live his own life. The endgame for each of these characters’ arcs is that they can find and then preserve their true selves. The view of leavings in these works is that they can be uncomfortable or even terrifying, but they can be necessary. The socio-political reasons for their decisions vary, but the choice to leave is one that is not undertaken lightly but in all seriousness for the betterment of the self. Returns can be difficult as they force us to face both our own past and who we used to be as well the places and the people we left behind.
 Kiberd, Declan. After Ireland: Writing the Nation from Beckett to the Present. Head of Zeus, London, 2017.
 Keegan, Claire. Foster. Faber & Faber, London, 2010.
 Kinahan, Deirdre. Rathmines Road. Nick Hern Books Limited, London, 2018.
 Enright, Anne. The Green Road. Vintage Books, London, 2016.