From Mullingar to Melbourne in 1983
Emigrants never forget the date or day they leave home, writes Philip Lynch
I left Ireland on June 17th 1983. Emigrants don’t forget the date or day. I was 22 years old and my leaving left my mother grief-stricken. Her distress aside, my decision to go was an easy one.
I wasn’t the first to leave. I knew I wouldn’t be the last. Two of my sisters were already over in London, and one of my brothers was a barman in New York. There would be six more still at home after I’d gone.
Disenchanted and now, I realise, probably a little depressed, I’d wanted a fresh start after my breviary days ended badly. I’d managed to get work for a while in a local piggery but I knew there had to be more to life than power hosing filthy pig pens.
On that beautiful sunny still morning (it wouldn’t for another seven weeks) when I left the old man was waiting outside in the car. Ever frugal and mindful of the price of petrol, he was also taking a trailer load of wool to town. So I stumbled away from my mother’s grief and loaded my rucksack into the back seat, and I was on my way.
Our car, an old Opel Rekord station-wagon, unkindly dubbed the Black Maria by my schoolmates, had no seatbelts or radio so we sat mostly in silence all the way to the train station in Mullingar. If anything was said, I can’t remember. My father was a great man to talk – to others.
I took off with all my savings – five hundred quid – but I still had to fork out for the airfare when I got to London. Like hundreds of thousands before me I’d catch the ferry from Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead and the train to London. During the week I spent with my sisters in the East End, I got a cheap one way flight to Melbourne. It was my first time ever on a plane, and the flight was long and mind numbing. For some reason the plane spent almost as much time on tarmacs than it did in the air, but I was excited to be finally on my way.
It was only when dozens of Australian holidaymakers boarded at the stopover in Bali that the enormity of my decision started to sink in, and I was filled with dread and uncertainty. Sunburnt and clad in beach gear, their noisy, exuberant conversations filled the plane. I was confused about their accents. At first I thought they were American. But of course they were Aussies. All of a sudden Melbourne was no longer an obscure concept. We’d be there in a matter of hours. I had no job lined up, just a place to stay for a while. Had I made a terrible mistake? But I had made my decision. There would be no going back.
There was a subdued atmosphere at Tullamarine airport in Melbourne when I got through customs that winter morning. I didn’t know what to expect. I reclaimed my rucksack from the carousel and headed for the exit. A soldier in uniform, complete with the slouch hat, ate a sausage roll in the airport cafe. Jet-lagged travellers shuffled about silently with their luggage. Outside the morning was damp, still and surprisingly chilly. Cab drivers sat silently waiting. My driver, Greek, I think, drove in silence to the address in the northern suburbs that I handed him on a piece of paper.
Within days I found work as a cleaner at a hospital in Coburg, an inner northern suburb of Melbourne. The seven o’clock start was a shock. But I soon got used to it and the early finish was something to behold. I cleaned bathrooms, dusted and vacuumed. I changed the water in vases of flowers on bedside lockers, learned to look busy when I wasn’t. I tried not to be appalled by the sickly looking patients, who it seemed, never got well enough to be discharged home.
At lunch time, at the cleaner’s table, I sat with the dozen or more middle-aged Greek, Italian and Yugoslavian women in the dining room and I ate my sandwiches as they chatted away in the languages I didn’t understand. As the solitary male cleaner, they regarded me as something of a curiosity, a novelty. I soon came to recognise the sickly pallor of cancer and the defeated look of the dying. The doctors with their dangling stethoscopes didn’t seem able to make much of a difference. In such an environment the strident tones of talk-back radio hosts blaring from bedside transistors seemed ludicrous and absurd. There could be no certainty in life, I told myself, and no one should dare speak with such arrogance and certainty.
On Sundays, my day off, I wandered around the city centre, killing time. I didn’t know anyone. In the 1980s Melbourne shut up shop on Sundays. Hardly anywhere was open. These were the days before the café culture, before our obsession with caffeine took off: before Southbank along the Yarra river was redeveloped. Before “tourist precinct” became part of our vocabulary, before the casino was built. I was struck by the anonymity of the city, by the ordered grid-like straightness of the streets in the CBD; the novelty of the trams and, when summer arrived, the unbearable heat that lasted through the night, and the fascination with Aussie Rules football. Despite the strangeness of it all, it was a welcome change from the relentless curiosity that had marked my life in rural Ireland.
I wrote home every couple of months. My parents didn’t yet have a telephone so we made do with aerograms. In her neat looping handwriting, my mother told me the news: who’d died, who’d got done for drink-driving, but mainly she wrote about the weather, the water-logged fields, and poor cattle prices but never anything about herself or the old man.
I returned to visit at intervals of roughly five years. Each time, fewer of my brothers and sisters remained at home; with empty bedrooms gradually outnumbering the occupied ones, until finally, it was just my brother on the farm, with the house and his opinions all to himself. Each time I left again, I wondered if it would be the last time I’d farewell my parents.
As the spectre of mass emigration and spiralling unemployment casts its pall over Ireland again, that morning in June remains fresh in my memory. I don’t know if the old man sold the wool that day and if he did if he was satisfied with the price. My mother never made any mention of the events of that day.
But I still sometimes picture the old man driving home from Mullingar on that June day, alone in the silent radio-less Black Maria with the trailer empty and rattling along behind him; on past the Crooked Wood, and on through Castlepollard.
I’ve wondered what he might have said to my mother when he got home. Would he have held her in a comforting embrace? Or did they sit in silence and drink tea at the kitchen table? Or did he simply change out of his good clothes and head off to the haggard?
They’re gone now. And there are no more Christmas phone calls to make or birthday cards to send. All I could do was go back there for their funerals to shake hands with relatives and strangers and help carry their coffins. It wasn’t much, I know, but like Brendan Behan in The Confirmation Suit, I thought it was the very least I could do.
Philip is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read previous pieces by him about visiting Belfast after a long time away, his relationship with his ageing parents, about his dwindling connection to Ireland, and the complications of leaving and staying away.