|Photo by Wilfred Judd
Window of an abandoned cottage.
Corca Dhuibhne – I grew up Ireland in a red-brick house in a Dublin suburb, a semidetached building with a garage at the side. Like many Dubliners at the time, my family didn't own a car. So the garage became a repository for tools, bikes and the lawnmower, and for the huge pile of coal that was heaved up our drive in sacks each year by a grimy, cheerful coalman.
It also held several pieces of furniture that had travelled to Dublin by train and been manhandled up the same driveway soon after my grandparents died. Chairs, boxes, and a big mahogany wardrobe stood there for most of my childhood, waiting for the new home that was never found for them. Looking back now, I can hardly distinguish one piece from another. Except the American Trunk.
As a child, it fascinated me. It was a solid, wooden box, sheathed in leather, ribbed with timber strips, and fastened by a tarnished brass lock. I didn't know what was in it because I never saw it open. But I knew its story. Once, long before I was born, it had left the old house in Galway on a horse-drawn cart and travelled with my great-aunt Brida to a big ship and away across the ocean to a place called Ellis Island. And then on to her new life, working a sewing machine in a city called New York.
The main reception building at Ellis Island.
Brida made that journey alone while she was still in her teens. Her family spoke English at home so she didn't know the particular fear of rejection that haunted many of the Irish-speaking immigrants that shuffled towards the high, polished desks in the reception hall at Ellis Island. But, like millions of others that made it through the testing immigration process, she coped with culture-shock, loneliness and uncertainty, worked long hours for small pay, and saved enough to send 'the price of the passage' to the family members that came after her.
Every household in Ireland has its memories of partings and tears, and of deserted farms and businesses with no-one left to work them. And many have stories of how rustling dollars in foreign envelopes made the difference between hunger and starvation to the people left behind. Where I live now in Corca Dhuibhne, Ireland's Dingle peninsula, whole villages were abandoned during successive years of famine in the second half of the nineteenth century. And the steady waves of emigration continued through the early twentieth century, fuelled by poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunity at home.
The older people here can remember aunts and uncles setting out for America alone, aged 14 or 15. Some spoke very little English. Some had never been farther from home than Dingle town. At the extreme end of the peninsula there's a place called Dún Chaoin. It's the last fishing village in mainland western Europe, reached by a high pass over the mountains, called the Clasach. And at the top of the Clasach is a place that's still known as "The Place of Goodbyes."
|Photo by Wilfred Judd
One of the many abandoned cottages that dot the west of Ireland.
Year after year, carrying bags and bundles, with their tickets or the money for their passage carefully hidden in their clothes, the boys and girls from Dún Chaoin and the offshore Blasket island would climb the steep, rocky track to the Clasach. The night before, they'd danced and sung in one of the neighbor's houses, at gatherings they called 'American Wakes.' Traditionally when someone died here, the body was laid out in the house, and neighbors would pass the night with the family till the coffin was buried next day. These gatherings, full of prayers and music, were called wakes. But at American Wakes there were no coffins. They were held the night before emigrants left home, by families who never expected to see them, or even hear their voices, again.
At The Place of Goodbyes the emigrants from Dún Chaoin and the island would stop for a last look down on their homes and a last word with their families and neighbours. Then they'd turn their backs to the life they'd known, and their faces to another world.
All over Ireland those places of goodbyes are still remembered. The old and the very young, the sick and the weak turned back. And on foot, or by train, the young and the strong made their way to the coastal ports. Some left their ships in England -- sometimes cheated by officials who took the price of an ocean crossing and told them in Liverpool that they'd already reached America. Others traveled on across the Atlantic, to Boston, Chicago and New York or, farther still, to Canada. But mostly, if they came from the islands and villages west of Dingle, their journey's end was Springfield, Massachusetts. My neighbors here have relatives there today.
|Photo by Wilfred Judd
The view from "The Place of Goodbyes" out to the Blasket Islands. Click on the image for a larger view.
With no films or television to show them what to expect, the contrast between their homes and the places these early emigrants came to was unimaginable. Some didn't survive the uprooting. But others found new lives. Now, in the twenty-first century, many of their descendants speak Irish, quote the same proverbs, tell the same stories, and play the same music that's still heard here in Corca Dhuibhne. And every year families come back across the ocean to visit the places they still call home.
I don't know how long my Great-aunt Brida spent in New York, and I think she may have gone there more than once. But in the end she came home to stay. I remember her visiting us in the 1960s in our redbrick Dublin semi, in a felt hat and buttoned shoes, with a fox fur round her neck and six sticks of twisted barley-sugar in her black, leather handbag. And there was a watch in a box in my mother's room when I was a child. It was silver with a white face enameled with blue flowers. She told me it came from Boston so perhaps Brida went there as well, and brought it home with her. Or perhaps it crossed the Atlantic in some other trunk, brought home as a present that the donor could ill-afford. Many emigrants scrimped and saved for months in cheap lodging houses to bring presents for everyone on their brief visits home. Having set sail with such high hopes, it was hard to admit that the new streets they now lived on weren't really paved with gold. WG
Postscript: In 2012, in the face of global recession, another generation of Irish people faces poverty and unemployment here at home. People are making for the ports again, and the effect is palpable. In small communities the loss of five or six young men or women makes a real difference, and when even one family emigrates the balance of life is changed. In Corca Dhuibhne, where American Wakes are now being held again, there's anger and frustration among small business people, farmers, and fishermen whose dreams of raising their families here have crashed. It seems like everything's come full circle and nothing's really changed.
Yet in some ways things are very different. Today's emigrants know more about where they're going and what to expect when they get there. Few families fear that a son or daughter leaving for Australia or America will never be seen again. Skype, texting and the internet allow constant communication between those who go and those left behind. But who knows what'll happen next? I left Ireland for London myself in the 1970s and now I live both here and there. Perhaps more people will do the same thing. Perhaps the ease with which emigrants can keep in touch these days will make it harder than ever not to come back. Or maybe it'll make it easier. Only time will tell.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, Felicity Hayes-McCoy is a professional writer working in print, broadcast and digital media. She lives and works in a stone cottage in Corca Dhuibhne, Ireland's Dingle peninsula, and in an inner-city, former factory building in London, England, and blogs about life in both places at www.felicityhayesmccoy.co.uk. Felicity's memoir "The House on an Irish Hillside" will be published by Hodder & Stoughton UK, and Hachette Ireland in June 2012.
This feature was edited by Gerry Regan and produced by Joe Gannon.
© 2012, Felicity Hayes-McCoy and GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.