Emigration through the ages

 In History

Joe is a friend of this writer and we meet on a weekly basis for a chat and a sing song. This is like it must have been for Joe when he worked in England all those years ago. He would have a sleep on Sunday morning and then rise to prepare for the day of recreation by listening to his Jim Reeves Records and then off to the Crown or wherever for the afternoon, it was a special time for him and he in exile due to no fault of his own it was just the way things were back in the 1950’as and 1960’s.

The emigrant is a person well known to Irish society down through the generations so much so that nowadays we talk about generation emigration and between 1946 and 1971 the national population declined considerably and many of these people ended up in the major industrial cities of the United Kingdom both in England and Scotland and in the United States and this goes on today as they leave for Australia and Canada. It has been the failure of government from one generation to the next that they cannot provide sufficient employment for its people.

It was be home from home because apart from the Celtic Tiger era when some people returned to avail of the building boom the flow has been in the outwards direction and this started during and after the Great Famine and would reach its peak in the 1950’s when some 500,000 left the country and the population was at an all-time low in 1961 and this would continue into the next decade so much for the rising tide that lifted all boats

The person leaving home would get on at the local station and in former years there was hardly a town here that was not connected to a rail line in the thick network of iron roads. They would change at the nearest mainline junction if they were from this part of the world and then onward into Heuston and Westland Row or Amiens Street depending on which part of the country they came from and on for the mail or cattle boat at the north Wall or Dun Laoighre and the famous or infamous Princess Maude depending on your point of view would carry them to Holyhead and the onward train to Leeds, Manchester, London or Birmingham. This has been well documented by Seamas Dunleavy from Charlestown for example in his memoir Finally Meeting the Princess Maude. John B. Keane depicted the scene quite well in his play Many Young Men of Twenty or indeed in the writings of Donall Mac Amhlaidh.

The emigrant experience is well captured in the story by George Moore Homesickness it is called when the main character wishes to return to Ireland and in the end he does but no sooner is her there than he longs for his life in America and he leaves to return there, there is a certain element of that in Colm Tobin’s book and in the John Crowley dramatic adaptation that makes the film and the learning about the emigrant life more compelling. I refer here to the film Brooklyn starring Saoirse Ronan.

The Irish centre club was and remains central to the Irish emigrant experience and this is where they could feel close to home and look at the dance hall scene in the film Brooklyn for example to see how this work and how the odd non – national joined in the fun too! Places like ST. Joseph’s hall echoes of home held ceilithe under the watchful eye of the Parish priest and the committee of experienced émigrés who helped to keep an eye on the new arrivals and keep them in line.

But this was not that simple and the pub often played a part leading to differing fortunes some making it big in the world as contractors and in farming the indoor world of work but others ended up alone with very little and became characters in their own life time travelling from town with the work gangs but some later returned home and settled back in Ireland the Safe Home programme was instrumental and continues to lend a helping hand in this process. Kevin Prendergast’s Cottage by the Sea comes to mind.

The next generation of emigrant children kept the Irish traditions alive and became successful in their chosen field thanks to a third level education and this is borne out by the fine music sessions that one can hear in places like The White Stag in Leeds.

There were the seasonal labourers too who went over to work on the farms in the Spring, Summer and Autumn and then came home for the Winter and of course there were the many people who left for America and never came back and hence the tradition of the American Wake a party for the person going away and due to the distance it was highly likely that people would not return, but by the same token there were many parties in the town lands when the emigrants returned for holidays and they called these occasions balls.

Yes indeed the emigrant longs for home but finds a home away from home and this is how it has been down through the ages. Emigration continues today and will remain with us for some time to come as the economy must dictate. Another sobering thought is the number of people who for one reason or another never returned to Ireland and they must be considered the lost generation – many of them were educated and talented people who could not find employment here and due to the brain drain they were forced to develop their potential elsewhere.

Written by James Reddiough (Copyright 2017)



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