I wasn’t eighteen when I decided to leave. I left three months after my birthday. I was terrified. I was just dying to get out. The “where” was France, Toulouse. I thought I knew it or at least I knew some people there. The “why” was more difficult. The last twenty years have been spent building a bridge between that “why” and that “I”.
‘Raised for the boats’ is an Irish expression that’s where I come from. I have never considered myself a refugee but I am a migrant. The idea of leaving your home to go live somewhere else was always there: my mother had lived in New York and Santa Barbara, my father, London, two of my uncles were in America. US citizenship or the lack of it was my mother’s greatest regret, she used to tell me ‘if you want to be who you are, you have to go elsewhere’. This was the slogan spray painted on the back wall of my mind during those teenage years in 90’s Dublin as History came to an end and the question of who we are sought a new context beyond the cold war.
With those words you might think I now know “who” and “where” I am. I was eighteen, educated, with a bad haircut, combats, leather jacket and an ‘all you can use’ supply of horny teenage testosterone. That ‘I’ was incapable of articulating any kind of coherent desire, but art school in Toulouse sounded better than anything in Dublin. I have tried to talk to people, prepare them for that moment and for them to better understand what is happening before they actually leave. As that moment is the end of childhood. There’s no one coming to the rescue! The only thread that I have found is the courage or fool hardiness to forsake the devil you know for the devil you don’t.
What is normal? A question that reveals who I am and how I contextualise myself. Migration more than anything will pull this out of you. It’s not simply an abstract, political, religious or social question, it gets you in the gut. For me, that me that I have become who is ‘oh so French’, who eats three times a day and can’t help looking at people who describe eating as putting something in your mouth and chewing, with a special type of scorn reserved for collaborators (un faux ami, if ever there was one), those people who provided services for the Gestapo or the SS or the Wehrmacht, those who were either too valuable, too well connected or too stupid to have been hung for working with the Nazis, well ‘coming home to Ireland’ leads to mixed emotions when it comes to food. Two days of their grub is fine: Fish’n Chips, shepherd’s pie, bacon and cabbage, roast beef, potatoes conjugated like irregular verbs and of course the new Ireland’s beef stroganoff, carbonara or korma. Beyond that, my body revolts, more than a question of sensibilités, it screams for laxatives as I feel like I am trying to push out a sod of turf and the smell of defrosted freezer with a dead cat. Food isn’t food as your pores will tell you after a week in foreign country with a foreign menu, as your own body begins to smell like the other.
At the beginning in France, I remember food being difficult, I remember bringing food back with me and as the years passed the direction in which the food travelled changed. Never underestimate the pleasure a potato can procure in an Irishman. That relationship between the “I” and the place, the subject and the context is fundamental to the idea of what is normal. That normal is like your mother right there and always right. When you migrate, mother loses her omnipotence and what is normal becomes an intimate relationship. A relationship full of non-dit (mais tout compris), with the fights, the complicity, the support, the expectation, the betrayal, the negotiations, the loneliness, the stories and possibly that feeling of being trapped. I think I am still a migrant because I have never transferred that normal to a place, to a context but have kept it within me.
Chad Keveny is a painter from Ireland who has spent many years in France and elsewhere. His paintings go from portraits to landscapes with outings into abstraction both on canvas and in sketchpads. The paintings become the props for the dandy character of the artist, to express his vision.