Photo by Wilfred Judd Window of an abandoned cottage. Click on
the image for a larger view.
Dhuibhne – I grew up Ireland in a red-brick house in
a Dublin suburb, a semidetached building with a garage at the
side. Like many Dubliners at the time, my family didn't own a
car. So the garage became a repository for tools, bikes and
the lawnmower, and for the huge pile of coal that was heaved
up our drive in sacks each year by a grimy, cheerful coalman.
It also held several pieces of furniture that had travelled
to Dublin by train and been manhandled up the same driveway
soon after my grandparents died. Chairs, boxes, and a big
mahogany wardrobe stood there for most of my childhood,
waiting for the new home that was never found for them.
Looking back now, I can hardly distinguish one piece from
another. Except the American Trunk.
As a child, it fascinated me. It was a solid, wooden box,
sheathed in leather, ribbed with timber strips, and fastened
by a tarnished brass lock. I didn't know what was in it
because I never saw it open. But I knew its story. Once, long
before I was born, it had left the old house in Galway on a
horse-drawn cart and travelled with my great-aunt Brida to a
big ship and away across the ocean to a place called Ellis
Island. And then on to her new life, working a sewing machine
in a city called New York.
Brida made that journey alone while she was still in her
teens. Her family spoke English at home so she didn't know the
particular fear of rejection that haunted many of the
Irish-speaking immigrants that shuffled towards the high,
polished desks in the reception hall at Ellis Island. But,
like millions of others that made it through the testing
immigration process, she coped with culture-shock, loneliness
and uncertainty, worked
Wikipediacommons The main reception building at Ellis
Island. Click on the image for a larger view.
long hours for small pay, and
saved enough to send 'the price of the passage' to the family
members that came after her.
Every household in Ireland has its memories of partings and
tears, and of deserted farms and businesses with no-one left
to work them. And many have stories of how rustling dollars in
foreign envelopes made the difference between hunger and
starvation to the people left behind. Where I live now in
Corca Dhuibhne, Ireland's Dingle peninsula, whole villages
were abandoned during successive years of famine in the second
half of the nineteenth century. And the steady waves of
emigration continued through the early twentieth century,
fuelled by poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunity at
The older people here can remember aunts and uncles setting
out for America alone, aged 14 or 15. Some spoke
very little English. Some had never been farther from home
than Dingle town. At the extreme end of the peninsula there's a place called Dún
Chaoin. It's the last fishing village in mainland western
Europe, reached by a high pass over the mountains, called the
Clasach. And at the top of the Clasach is a place that's still
known as "The Place of Goodbyes."
A last look down on their homes
Photo by Wilfred Judd One of the many abandoned cottages
that dot the west of Ireland. Click on the image for a
Year after year, carrying bags and bundles, with their
tickets or the money for their passage carefully hidden in
their clothes, the boys and girls from Dún Chaoin and the
offshore Blasket island would climb the steep, rocky track to
the Clasach. The night before, they'd danced and sung in one
of the neighbor's houses, at gatherings they called 'American
Wakes.' Traditionally when someone died here, the body was
laid out in the house, and neighbors would pass the night with
the family till the coffin was buried next day. These
gatherings, full of prayers and music, were called wakes. But
at American Wakes there were no coffins. They were held the
night before emigrants left home, by families who never
expected to see them, or even hear their voices, again.
At The Place of Goodbyes the emigrants from Dún Chaoin and
the island would stop for a last look down on their homes and
a last word with their families and neighbours. Then they'd
turn their backs to the life they'd known, and their faces to
All over Ireland those places of goodbyes are still
remembered. The old and the very young, the sick and the weak
turned back. And on foot, or by train, the young and the
strong made their way to the coastal ports. Some left their
ships in England -- sometimes cheated by officials who took
the price of an ocean crossing and told them in Liverpool that
they'd already reached America. Others traveled on across the
Atlantic, to Boston, Chicago and New York or, farther still,
to Canada. But mostly, if they came from the islands and
villages west of Dingle, their journey's end was Springfield,
Massachusetts. My neighbors here have relatives there today.
Photo by Wilfred Judd The view from "The Place of Goodbyes"
out to the Blasket Islands. Click on the image for a
films or television to show them what to expect, the contrast
between their homes and the places these early emigrants came
to was unimaginable. Some didn't survive the uprooting. But
others found new lives. Now, in the twenty-first century, many
of their descendants speak Irish, quote the same proverbs,
tell the same stories, and play the same music that's still
heard here in Corca Dhuibhne. And every year families come
back across the ocean to visit the places they still call
I don't know how long my Great-aunt Brida spent in New
York, and I think she may have gone there more than once. But
in the end she came home to stay. I remember her visiting us
in the 1960s in our redbrick Dublin semi, in a felt hat and
buttoned shoes, with a fox fur round her neck and six sticks
of twisted barley-sugar in her black, leather handbag. And
there was a watch in a box in my mother's room when I was a
child. It was silver with a white face enameled with blue
flowers. She told me it came from Boston so perhaps Brida went
there as well, and brought it home with her. Or perhaps it
crossed the Atlantic in some other trunk, brought home as a
present that the donor could ill-afford. Many emigrants
scrimped and saved for months in cheap lodging houses to bring
presents for everyone on their brief visits home. Having set
sail with such high hopes, it was hard to admit that the new
streets they now lived on weren't really paved with gold.
Postscript: In 2012, in the face of
global recession, another generation of Irish people
faces poverty and unemployment here at home. People are
making for the ports again, and the effect is palpable.
In small communities the loss of five or six young men
or women makes a real difference, and when even one
family emigrates the balance of life is changed. In
Corca Dhuibhne, where American Wakes are now being held
again, there's anger and frustration among small
business people, farmers, and fishermen whose dreams of
raising their families here have crashed. It seems like
everything's come full circle and nothing's really
Yet in some ways things are very different. Today's
emigrants know more about where they're going and what
to expect when they get there. Few families fear that a
son or daughter leaving for Australia or America will
never be seen again. Skype, texting and the internet
allow constant communication between those who go and
those left behind. But who knows what'll happen next? I
left Ireland for London myself in the 1970s and now I
live both here and there. Perhaps more people will do
the same thing. Perhaps the ease with which emigrants
can keep in touch these days will make it harder than
ever not to come back. Or maybe it'll make it easier.
Only time will tell.
Photo by Wilf Judd
Born in Dublin, Ireland, Felicity Hayes-McCoy is a professional writer working in print, broadcast and digital media. She lives and works in a stone cottage in Corca Dhuibhne, Ireland's Dingle peninsula, and in an inner-city, former factory building in London, England, and blogs about life in both places at www.felicityhayesmccoy.co.uk. Felicity's memoir "The House on an Irish Hillside" will be published by Hodder & Stoughton UK, and Hachette Ireland in June 2012.
This feature was edited by Gerry
Regan and produced by Joe Gannon.