The Story of Irish Emigration, Part Two

mauricePicking up from last month’s column on the Irish in America, Maurice Fitzpatrick dives deeper into the Emerald Isle’s Emigration issues.

Last month this column reviewed a new study of Irish emigration today and in our history. This time I’ll explore the trauma and ambivalence that often accompanies emigration through its representation in Irish fiction, songs and drama.

While the acceleration of emigration from Ireland triggered by the Great Famine (1845-52) saw a huge transference of Irish people across the Atlantic, the events of that period were surrounded by a mysterious silence. It took several decades before writers and artists began to express themselves about it, as though the tragedy and the shock of that upheaval could not be framed within the bounds of a book or a play. Finally, something of the buried horror of Ireland’s past as a land of mass graves and paupers, damaged by enforced emigration, found articulation in Eugene O’Neill plays such as Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Liam O’Flatherty, an exile himself for most of his life, was expert in describing the devastating effect that the departure of young people from Ireland had. His short story ‘Going into Exile’, published in 1927, shows an Aran Island family during the final hours before the eldest son and daughter of the house, Michael and Mary, leave for America. In 1927 exiles never returned and in the story neither parent can quite fathom the enormity of the loss that they face. The father goes for a walk with his son but they cannot speak to each other: ‘Each hungered to embrace the other, to cry, to beat the air, to scream with an excess of sorrow. But they stood silent and sombre’. It is, however, in the quietly observed moments of the mother that the story achieves its majesty. She foresees the money that her eldest children will remit back from Boston; that her younger children, too, will be taken away from her. She feels pangs of jealousy when she beholds the youth and beauty of her daughter; she is apt to see cold pride in her daughter’s moving out to embrace life.

Still more chilling dimensions of youth going into exile are evident in John McGahern’s work. In his story, ‘Korea’, McGahern depicts a father and son in rural Ireland in the early 1950s, and we witness the father urging his son to consider leaving to seek a better life in America. However, the son overhears his father speaking to a cattle-dealer about a man named Moran whose son left Ireland and ended up fighting in the US army in Korea: ‘I heard the exact sum. They got ten thousand dollars when Luke was killed. Every American soldier’s life is insured to the tune of ten thousand dollars’. The father’s most fervid hope transpires to be that his son will be dispatched to Korea and killed for the windfall that would result from it.

Song, too, has artfully conveyed the pain of departure for Irish emigrants and the alienation from their new environment that they experience. As the writer John B. Keane was leaving his hometown of Listowel in County Kerry in the 1950s to work in London he surveyed the train platform, crowded with mothers and sweethearts waving their menfolk away—some never to be seen again. Keane began to rattle out a beat on the windowsill and sang a description of what he saw: ‘Many young men of twenty said goodbye/ All that long day/ From break of dawn until the sun was high’. Songs such as Keane’s found their counterparts in songs written from abroad. An example of such songs is the work of Ralph McTell who had, in his boyhood, been inspired by listening to the stories of an Irishman named Connaughton, his neighbour in London. It is clear in ‘From Clare to Here’ that McTell absorbed Connaughton’s stories of the Irish who felt trapped and unable to return to Ireland. In the song, the metaphoric space that grows between County Clare and the big city becomes so great that, finally, it is unbridgeable. And, if the pain of dislocation were not heart-breaking enough, McTell also wrote of ‘The old girl/ Who walks the streets of London/ Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags…Carrying her home in two carrier bags’.

One of the most notable cinematic expressions of emigration is Kings (2007), an Irish-language film adapted from a play, The Kings of Kilburn High Road, by Jimmy Murphy. The film shows a group of friends from Irish-speaking Connemara who go to London to work on building sites in the 1970s. Fast forward to the present day: one of the friends has made good as a businessman, but has grown estranged from the group; the others have threaded water and drank their fill; one drank far too much, and finally killed himself. The story climaxes when the men gather round to wake the dead man and the businessman reverts to the English language to denounce his ne’er-do-well friends; they counter with barbs about ‘Paddy Englishman’ who forsook his friends and repudiated his language.

But the emigrant’s experience of loss is arguably best suited to dramatic art. Brian Friel’s first major drama, Philadelphia, Here I Come! deftly juxtaposes the bleakness of life rural Donegal with the oppourtunity that America presents: the temptation of material wealth side by side with the searing loss of friends and family. If Philadelphia is Friel’s great play of departure, then his Faith Healer is its counterpart, a play that faces the inability to return. In Faith Healer, the protagonist, Frank Hardy, returns to Ireland and undertakes to heal a cripple. He does so in the full knowledge that he will be unable to perform the act, and also that he may be killed for failing to do so. The magic cannot work, the magician is bogus and the audience despises him. Yet Hardy gives himself over to the task. Is there something all emigrants can learn from that parable?

~ Maurice Fitzpatrick, February 2014