Hireth: longing, yearning, nostalgia (Cornish)
My Cornish heritage is very important to me. I am very proud of the fact that I can trace my family tree back to 1550. All in Cornwall, mostly farmers. Recently I have been thinking about our ‘connection to place’. That undefinable feeling of belonging to somewhere. A special bond that never leaves you, even after years of absence.
It won’t surprise you that I feel like that about Cornwall and more than that, the family farm where not only I but generations of my family grew up.
- My grandmother & great-grandmother outside the farmhouse c1900
I do realise however that not everyone feels like that about a place, which is after all just dirt and stone. Isn’t family all you need to feel ‘at home’?
Perhaps so, but so many people have that one place where their heart belongs and where I wonder does that feeling come from? Is it the memories of a happy childhood that creates that bond or sense of belonging? Is it something in your bones, your genetic make-up? Your DNA?
Cornwall Across the Globe
Back in the 18th and 19th centuries immigrants to the new countries being colonised around the globe took not only their languages and luggage with them. They took a little bit of home in their hearts too. That is why there is for example a Falmouth in 5 US states as well as Canada, Tasmania, Zimbabwe and Jamaica.
It is possible to develop those feelings though? Can you feel connected to somewhere you only know briefly?
I have left my family home on many occasions, sometimes for long periods of time, even years.
But when I returned it was never landing in Heathrow airport that was important to me. It was crossing the Tamar river. I still get that same joyous feeling of relief every time I do it.
But some people do loose their homes and homelands forever. You would think in this, the most globalised period of our human history, that it wouldn’t matter quite as much. But to many a forced separation can be very painful. Something from which they never recover.
The Loss of Place
There is a Welsh word, hiraeth, which means a homesickness for somewhere to which you can never return. A grief for a lost place.
The history of the village of Tyneham illustrates the effect a permanent and forced parting or dislocation of people for their home can have. Just before Christmas in 1943 the villagers were given an order to leave their homes. They were assured that this would be temporary while the MOD used the area for training. The villagers left believing that they were making an essential contribution to the war effort. And that they would one day return.
Evelyn Bond, one of the older residents, even pinned a note to the church door asking that the village be treated “with care” as she added “we shall one day return”.
They were never allowed back. Many died in what they felt was a kind of exile. In 1974 John Gould, who had been born in the village, wrote to Harold Wilson. Despite having lived away from Tyneham for more than 30 years he begged the then Prime Minister to allowed him to return or at least to be buried there when his time came.
Gould said “I have always wanted to return . . . Tyneham to me is the most beautiful place in the world . . . most of all I want to go home”.
- Cottages, Tyneham village
Part of Gould’s plea was that all his memories were there. And all his friends and relations were buried in the churchyard. Something hard to describe was pulling on him to return. Not just to the bricks and mortar of his childhood home but to the earth of the place.
Another group of dispossessed people are the Chagossians who were forced to leave Diego Garcia when the British took over the island in 1967. Some 50 years later they are still fighting to return to what they call “our motherland”. They even have a special world to describe the pain they feel from this separation. They call it “sagren”, the feeling of deep sorrow caused by being apart from their home.
Many languages have a word which goes some way towards describing that feeling. “Querencia” is a word originating in Spanish, it means a place from which one draws one’s strength and a place where you are your most authentic self.
A yearning for something lost
The Cornish word “hireth” is closely connected to the Welsh but somehow deeper, it is something in your bones, a longing, a yearning for something lost. On a personal level my family have lived in this same house for generations and perhaps that is the source of the connection I feel to it. The hopes, dreams, tears and happiness of my genetic history are imbedded in the dirt and granite walls. The fields hum with my father’s, grandfathers and great-grandfather’s sweat. My great-great-grandfather looked out on the same view as I do now writing this and we remember him fondly for installing the inside toilet! Their processions and their stories surround me.
So what are the magical ingredients that combine to produce that wonderful sense of belonging? Is it just a bundle of happy childhood memories perhaps with a large splash of collective history thrown in? The dictionary describes ‘belonging’ as “to be connected with, native to or resident of” and perhaps it is that simple, feeling completely at home because it is the place that you know best. The place that you were conceived, born and raised.
Beneath the long barn in the farm yard there is our dark and dirty tool shed. It is full of the “what ifs” and “it might come in handy one days” of farming. On the back of the door there hangs an overcoat. Once pale green, or perhaps always light brown, it has been there for all of my life. It has never moved, the sagging shoulders have a thick layer of dark dust settled on them as do the drapes of the material and the top edges of the pockets.
Perhaps it was hung there after getting wet in a sudden shower or because the day turned out to be too hot for an overcoat. Perhaps it was always a little too small or just never quite comfortable, whatever the reason that coat was hung on the hook on the back of that door and it has never been moved since. The years, decades have swung by and there it has hung, summer and winter, my grandfather’s old overcoat. It, like so much that surrounds me, is a constant and there is a profound comfort in that. My life is built on and around the lives of my ancestors. In some cases it is as if they just hung up their coat and stepped outside for a moment.
“A sense of place results gradually and unconsciously from inhabiting landscape over time, becoming familiar with its physical properties, accruing history within its confines”.
It has been said by psychologists that a special bond develops between a child and their childhood environment, that this “childhood landscape” forms part of a person’s identity. That the place is part of you and you are a part of it.
Recent years have not only seen unprecedented voluntary movements of people around our planet but also mass migration due to economic deprivation and the escalation of violent conflicts. I wonder if the word “home” will take on more or less significance for those displaced people.