Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Shouting stop!

Distances have shrunk, communications are far better, but the pain of parting with a child, of returning to stand silent in an empty bedroom, is just as difficult now as it was for parents in the 1950s or 1980s, writes historian and parent Ultan Cowley.

Tue, Mar 6, 2012, 12:00


Distances have shrunk, communications are far better, but the pain of parting with a child, of returning to stand silent in an empty bedroom, is just as difficult now as it was for parents in the 1950s or 1980s, writes historian and parent Ultan Cowley.

Ultan Cowley

Following the 20,000 plus turnout for last weekend’s Jobs Expo in Dublin’s RDS, the pain in the voices of people talking to Joe Duffy on Monday’s Liveline about the trauma of emigration within their families is absolutely palpable. They blame politicians and call for something to be done but, deep down, they know it is too late. What they really want from them is to share their pain. But such suffering, to be shared, first has to be experienced. And that’s not about to happen…

The Irish Establishment has never had to think about the fate of emigrants and their families nor, to be fair, is it likely that most of those confronted with the loss of their own children now have ever had to do so either. They were obviously able to remain when half a million emigrated in the 1980s. Their parents before them had probably stayed when a previous half million left in the 1950s. Emigrants’ campaigns for voting rights have never made much headway here and when the Diaspora is spoken of it is to be solicited for help rather than invited to return. Brian Lenihan Senior’s notorious remark that ‘one small island can’t support them anyway’ could actually be viewed as refreshingly honest in contrast.

This complacency of the comfortable in Irish society is nothing new.  Commenting in the Report of the Commission on Emigration in 1954 Dr. Alexis Fitzgerald wrote: ‘`In the order of values, it seems more important to preserve and improve the quality of Irish life…than it is to reduce the number of Irish emigrants…High emigration makes possible a stability of manners and customs which would otherwise be the subject of radical change’

What this meant for society was spelt out by Professor James Meenan in 1972: `Emigration has prevented the emergence of an immense surplus of labour and an inevitable driving down of all salaries and wages. It has allowed those who remain at home to enjoy a standard of living which is not justified by the volume of their production. In the short run at least, emigration has done a great deal to make life in Ireland more leisurely and less disturbed by class warfare. If it ended suddenly, that life would become much more competitive, and much less remunerative’.

The experience of those affected by emigration was traumatically different. Novelist and navvy Domhnall MacAuligh said in Northampton in 1964: ‘There was a free-ness about expatriation once; you told yourself it would be over sooner or later…But that’s no longer true; all that’s ahead of you is the time you have left on Earth – spend it here in loneliness and desolation. I came here in 1951 and I’ve never felt at home in all that time’.

Many of MacAuligh’s contemporaries were seasonal migrants labouring abroad to maintain families and holdings in rural Ireland. Their wives and children were equally marked by their dysfunctional family lives: `From childhood until well into my teenage years my father worked in England to support us. He normally came home twice a year, in summer and at Christmas…We’d look forward to all the lovely presents, but initially he was like a stranger. You had the big clean-up before he came, but we had to get to know him all over again…Seasonal migration robbed me of a father…My parents were living for nine months of every year as if they were separated. My mother reared us on her own – she had all the work to do. There were children, there were women, there were no men – they were all away’.

Ultan with his son Ben, who has a Ph.D. in computer science and is a post-doc. researcher at Aalto University Helsinki.

Many things are different now. Distances have shrunk. Communications are far better. Emigrants are more skilled and educated and cultural differences much less marked. Other than for those having responsibilities or debts the moral obligation to remit money – “goodbye, Johnny Dear, and send me all ye can”, in the words of the old song, is no longer the unreasonable burden it once was for those having no stake here and little prospect of return.

But the pain of parting with a child, of returning to stand silent in an empty bedroom, hasn’t gone away. The sense of loneliness and loss, the unreasoned urge to push one’s way back in, that overwhelms the emigrant crossing the boarding barrier dividing ‘home’ from ‘away’ – today the boarding gate, yesterday the ramp up to the boat, remains the same.

I was fifteen when I first crossed that barrier myself in 1961. My own son went through it three years ago. For our sakes and for all those others in the boarding queues I hope someone won’t have to say of us some day, as Theresa Gallagher, Director of Irish Counselling and Psychotherapy, said of the older Irish in Britain: “We are finding deep wells of sadness in ordinary human lives”.

But in the meantime don’t expect the politicians to begin to understand – or care…

Ultan Cowley is author of The Men Who Built Britain: A History of The Irish Navvy and McAlpine’s Men: Irish Stories from the Sites. For more information see

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