|In early evening, along the Liffey where the leaving ships once docked.|
on the edge of sleep,
I can see the shore of Dublin Bay.
Its rocky sweep and its granite pier.
Is this, I say
how they must have seen it,
backing out on the mailboat at twilight,
on everything they had to leave?
And would love forever?
I imagine myself
at the landward rail of that boat
searching for the last sight of a hand.
I see myself
on the underworld side of that water,
the darkness coming in fast, saying
all the names I know for a lost land:
Ireland. Absence. Daughter.
from 'The Lost Land' by Eavan Boland
For many who write the history of their Irish ancestors, the story is one of Ireland as a leaving place. As in Eavan Boland’s ‘The Lost Land’, and a number of other poems authored by her, Ireland is that place of one last look for a waving hand upon the pier, one last glimpse of a land fading from view, one last goodbye to a son or a daughter or an entire family who moved away from Ireland’s shores.
Although the spirit of the place is forever written on their bones, for my father, my mother and my brother, Ireland was a leaving place. However, for most members on both sides of our family tree, no matter what the pull, no matter how seductive the promises made by the lands ‘over there’, Ireland was not a place to leave behind. It was a place to stay and make a life. It is certain that in staying some suffered a life of hardship and ruin, others died on famine roads and in workhouses, but they also lived. By God, they lived.
Why did they stay?
What is it that kept them in Ireland?
Why did they not cut and run like those who saw a better life waiting for them on foreign shores?
It is not enough to say they were bound to Ireland because of family connections, or they could not travel because money was an issue, given that assisted passage was in place early on after the inception of Irish Poor Law, or even that they were ensnared by the beauty of the place. Of course, we cannot point to a single reason for all of those who made the choice to stay, but for many there was something more than the obvious concerns. Ireland had forever entangled them in the history of the land, and she would not release her grip.
In the west of Ireland, in the counties of Mayo and Galway and Roscommon, in the annals of history my father's family name goes back to the 8th century. Down through history many of those bearing the Geraghty surname left Ireland behind, but many also stayed.
In my dad's family of origin, he along with all of his siblings emigrated away from Ireland; all sought a better life on foreign shores. His elder brother Patrick left for Canada and then left Canada for the United States, his brothers Enda and Declan chose England, as did his sisters Mary and Kathleen, and his brother John found a better life in Australia. Was it only the siren song of fortune's call that drew them away from Ireland's shores, or something more? In moving toward a better life were not they also moving away from a life best forgotten?
Perhaps the draw to leave came because over time the tales from overseas grew better, the siren's song hummed louder and sweeter, drowning out the thump of the Bodhrán drum and the trill of the tin whistle. For some the chasm between life as it was in Ireland and the promise of life as it could be in another land grew ever wider, and only emigration could fill it.
In the generation before that of my father and his siblings, the generation of my paternal grandfather John Geraghty, John and all of his siblings, save one, stayed in Ireland. John's eldest brother Thomas worked for Guinness Brewery. His brother Michael became a priest and then a Canon in the Roman Catholic Church, and his brother Patrick became a professor at University College Cork. John's brother George worked for Bord na Móna, the company that harvests peat, a fuel once widely used for home heating, and his brother Austin worked for the ESB, the Electricity Supply Board. Neither of John's sisters Margaret and Catherine ever married, living out their lives together in Dublin City. Only their sister Maria Helen emigrated, leaving Ireland on her own in the Autumn of 1909 to join her cousin Norah, Mrs. P.J. Moran, in Cleveland, Ohio, United States.
John's father, my great-grandfather Patrick Geraghty, had migrated within the country, moving with his wife and baby son Thomas from Lecanvey, Murrisk, County Mayo, to Dublin City, County Dublin. In Dublin City, Patrick found work, and over the following ten years Margaret birthed the other eight of their nine children. They lived there and they died there.
|In Murrisk, County Mayo, looking northeast away from Clew Bay.|
Most of my mother's family chose to remain in Ireland. Going back generations, there does not appear to have ever been enough of a trauma to push them out. They survived all of the famine periods which plagued Ireland — Bliain an Áir: the famine of 1740-41, An Gorta Mór: the famine of 1845-52, and An Gorta Beag: the famine of 1879 — as well as years of food shortages into the early 20th century.
Around the turn of the century, my maternal great-grandfather Thomas Fitzpatrick left Ireland for a time, moving to Liverpool with his wife Mary, daughter Mary Angela and son Joseph. Although their time away in Liverpool lasted for a period of about seven years, and saw the births of two sons and the sudden death of Joseph, it was not permanent.
What was it that drove Thomas and Mary back to Dublin, to begin all over again? In Liverpool, there had been an ever present lack of work for Thomas, they had moved numerous times, always to less than ideal accommodations, and they were isolated from family in Ireland. On top of all of the hardships they faced, could it be that they also simply missed home?
My mother once told me that she spent their first two years away from Ireland crying, longing to return home. She missed Ireland and her family. She missed picnics at Sandymount and Howth, the fresh sea air, and the swans on the River Dodder, and she missed her dad so very much. An image of the last time she saw him was forever fixed in her heart and mind. From the deck of the Carinthia she had spotted him in the large crowd below on the pier at Liverpool. He had doffed his fedora, and his shock of white hair stood out in the sea of grey overcoats. He seemed so very small and fragile. She would never see him again.
It is not, I submit, only the purview of the romantics to believe there is an almost magnetizing energy in Irish blood that binds some to the land. Although I was born in Canada, I have no Canadian ancestors. It is Irish blood that flows in my veins, and it is that blood connection which creates the longing that sends me back to Ireland time and again, in every season of the year. Although I am a family historian, I am also an historian by profession, and it is Irish history that drives my work. Hovering over all of it are the ever present questions, the search for understanding, the need to ask: Why?
|In the mid-morning light, Clew Bay at low tide, Murrisk, County Mayo.|