Sunday, February 25, 2018

'Ireland is not a leaving place': For ancestors who stayed

In early evening, along the Liffey where the leaving ships once docked.
At night,
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,

shadows falling
on everything they had to leave?
And would love forever?
And then

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.

However, for most members on both sides of my family tree, the story was quite a different one. 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 hardship and ruin, still 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.

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. In fact, 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 Leckanvy, 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 ever have 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 four 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 am the daughter of my Irish mother and father. I have no Canadian ancestors. It is Irish blood that flows in my veins, and it is that blood connection which has created in me a deep and abiding love for Ireland, and a 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.
(This post originally appeared in November of 2014)


  1. Wonderful post. I have often read about those who left but never about those who stayed.

    1. Thanks very much Colleen! I really appreciate your comments.


  2. I agree with Colleen. Wonderful images and an interesting perspective since we don't usually think about those who stayed. Catherine

    1. Thanks very much for your comments, Catherine! I really appreciate receiving them. I tend to think a lot about those who stayed since they comprise most of my family.


  3. "Forever entangled..."

    Jennifer, if anyone will be able to put words to the answer for your question "Why," it would be you. I certainly can sense there is something more to it than the guesses you've reviewed. My husband and I just returned from three weeks in Ireland, partly to visit our daughter who is, this semester, attending UCC--she absolutely loves it there and is hoping to find a way to return to Ireland for her graduate work--and partly to research my husband's Irish roots.

    It was during our trip to a small village in the northern part of County Tipperary, surveying the view from the top of the highest hill in the area where some of my husband's ancestors once lived, that I began to understand why it is that the Irish immigrants always seemed to mourn their homeland more than any other people groups I've studied. There are melodies carrying their laments over their never-to-be-seen homeland. I really believe many of these immigrants hoped they would never have to take their alien status as a permanent solution.

    It took the chance to actually be on the ground, meeting the people, talking with them, seeing their surroundings to allow me to feel this. This may sound like a romanticized notion, Jennifer, but I've looked into the "Irish Eyes" of strangers who carried our surnames and thought instantly of those lyrics about when they "are smiling..." There was even something about the accents--particularly on the west side of the country--that had a smile to it. That intangible something is likely part of the DNA of why the Irish couldn't bear the inevitable decision to leave their homeland.

    While you may feel that draw back to your family's homeland because, well, you have family there, I certainly don't have any there, myself, and yet I felt it. Yes, my husband can count the Irish among his roots, but those he calls "family" left Ireland, mostly, in the 1850s--far too weak a link to call family the reason he feels a connection to the land. There must be an unnameable something else about the place and its people. Whether you or I ever reach a full understanding of that "something's" composition doesn't negate the fact that it is undeniably there.

  4. Thanks very much for your comments, Jackie. I really appreciate receiving them.

    As I have said, I do not believe there is one single reason that we can point to as ‘the’ reason why many Irish stayed. Also, I am not sure I will ever have a satisfactory answer, since it seems to me there is something intangible and inexplicable which underlies the reasons why many stayed.

    One of my aunts once told me that since I didn’t grow up in Ireland I would never truly understand why the Irish who stayed did so, because those of us in North America tend to romanticize the place and the lives of the Irish. She said, based on her experience growing up in Ireland, it was her belief that the Irish who stayed did so because they were angry, angry at those who colonized the land, angry at themselves for being held under the rule of others, and in some ways angry at the world for perceiving them in a very fixed way. Staying was a way of standing their ground, owning their history, claiming the land as their own. Also, she believed that some Irish are hamstrung by the past, and the discontent it created, leading them to be unable to take hold of opportunity without leaving the land. For them, happiness was/is only found through emigrating away from Ireland.

    Another aunt takes a far more pragmatic approach and sees the Irish staying as a way of just ‘getting on’, of not focussing on the past, of simply living life as it has been handed to them. After spending as much time as I have in Ireland, I have come to see merit in both positions, as well as those of others. For some — and it also crosses generations — it seems that beneath the surface of those ‘smiling eyes’ there is the ever present hum of discontent. Still in all, it appears that at times they are able to set aside that discontent and truly enjoy life.


  5. Jenn, I’m surprised your aunt would have said you wouldn't understand since you’ve been to Ireland so many times and spent so much time there, not just a short vacation. I think it is possible for someone like you to understand why they stayed because I think you don't wear rose coloured glasses.

    1. Thanks very much for your comments Charlotte. I really appreciate them.

      It’s true I travel to Ireland a lot and have spent a lot of time there, but I do understand my aunt’s position. Ever since the very first time I travelled home to Ireland with my parents when I was a child, I have always felt the difference, no matter how slight. Although my upbringing was very much as it might have been had my parents stayed, i.e. strict Irish Roman Catholic, I have always sensed the sort of ‘otherness’ my aunt has in mind, and that is, the idea of a person’s understanding being shaped to some extent by the land in which they were raised.

      Quite a few years ago, in 2003, I discussed this very issue with an Irish-born historian at an Irish history conference. She suggested that my upbringing might have been more strict, more Roman Catholic, almost more Irish, if that makes sense, because by being in the Diaspora my parents did not want us to forget where our family came from. She pointed out that such an upbringing in itself is problematic because my parents had a particular idea of ‘Irishness' in mind. I was always made aware of my parents’ desire to have us put our best foot forward as an Irish family, so that we would not be treated like stereotypes.



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Cheers, Jennifer

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