By Mike Faricy
With the destruction of the Irish economy the cancer that is emigration has returned to Ireland with a vengeance. As an American I’d never really considered the issue from the Irish side of the equation. Like many Americans, my family were famine people of the 1840’s. Emigrate? They were lucky to get out alive. Those people didn’t emigrate, they fled famine, poverty and penal laws which robbed them of land ownership and any chance of a future. Family history has it that some of them entered the US illegally and at least one appears to have been indentured. Eventually they ended up in Minnesota, homesteaded, raised a large family in a community of other Irish refugees. After hanging on through frozen winters, scorching summers, the Dakota uprising and trials I’ll never know, they died, wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, owning 160 acres of farmland, parents of a well fed family who could read, write and looked at a future with potential.
Back in Ireland there came to be a tradition of the American wake. The good-bye as communities bid tearful farewell to sons and daughters never to be seen again. “You know,” an Irish friend once told me, “the farm usually went to the oldest son and then the others stayed on to work for him or had to leave.” I replied that I did know that, because in a way, I came from a nation of second sons and daughters.
The more things change the more they stay the same. Today’s émigrés depart, though they can return anytime, but really only for a visit. There are no jobs here at the moment, and the moment looks to be long, possibly a generation. Ireland is losing 1000 people per week, 50,000 annually. Mostly young twenty and thirty-types. Sons and daughters, educated, skilled in trades, the cream of the crop as it were. The sort of young people who can and will make a difference, wherever they go. But they can’t remain in Ireland, the economy is devastated and there is nothing for them here. You see them on any day in the Dublin airport, hugging, crying, waving good-bye. Mothers biting their lips, fathers with clenched jaws.
The American wakes are back, called just that, although the destinations are not just the US or Canada, but Australia, New Zealand, London, Singapore, China, Mexico, anywhere there’s work and a future. I saw it close at hand over Christmas with my own step daughter. She has advanced education, speaks four languages fluently and now lives in Mexico. She’s been in international marketing for close to five years. She and her mother hug one another on the couch in St. Paul the night before she flew back to Mexico City. Tears. Back in Ireland, an island that desperately needs an export economy, there isn’t a job for her. My wife will never be able to swing by on a Wednesday evening and see grandchildren for an hour. Her daughter will never be able to call on a Saturday and ask her to mind the kids while she runs errands or just takes a break. They’ll never be able to consult one another on the new paint color or grab lunch, or a glass of wine or a thousand other things that so many of us take for granted. There is a finality with emigration that doesn’t come with the move to Chicago or Seattle.
In the 1950’s my wife’s aunt Eileen emigrated across the Irish Sea to England and met her husband John, another Irish émigré. They raised two sons, now with families of their own in England. John recently passed away and the world is just a bit less bright. I’ll close with some lines from his funeral service.
‘There seemed to be a lost generation… at the dances in North Leitrim in the early Fifties. Everybody was either old or very young. There were no twenty or thirty-year-olds. As soon as they reached adulthood, it seemed, they were away, to England mostly… When my uncle in New York was old and wandering in his mind he kept asking to be taken to the Yellow River, a stream that flowed near his old home in a desolate part of North Leitrim… The Yellow River still flows down near Killavoggy chapel. The houses of my uncle and great-uncle are ruined and empty now, only inhabited by their ghosts.’
‘Barefoot in Mullyneeny’ Bryan Gallagher