Back for the Gathering: homecoming tales
Five Irish people who have emigrated over the past seven decades explain what coming home for the Gathering has meant to them
Margaret (Mary) Mackay (54) moved to Texas in 1987 after she was made redundant from Bank of Ireland. She now lives in Pensylvania where she works as a petsitter. She visited Dublin for four days in March with her son Garrett (13).
We were so interested in this Gathering idea of bringing everyone back home, we went back in March just before Paddy’s Day to spend four days in Dublin as tourists. I try to go back to Ireland every year or two for a visit, but we wouldn’t know the centre of Dublin that well.
Arriving into Dublin Airport was breathtaking, it was gorgeous the way they had the whole place done up with all the balloons and the welcome signs. There was a really vibrant feeling with everyone getting off the plane to come home, being met by people waiting at the gate for them.
At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking about the young people who might be leaving from the departure gates, just like we did in the 80s. Most will probably never return to live.
We went to places like Kilmainham Gaol, which was totally fascinating. We couldn’t get over how cosmopolitain the city had become, with all the new buildings and the Luas. I was also struck by the number of older people around too. They seemed to considerably outnumber younger people, maybe because a lot of them have left.
We didn’t come back for any specific Gathering event, but still felt we were part of it. Particularly with the economy the way it is, we wanted to do our little bit to bring some money into the country. I’m following it all on Facebook and some of the events look really fantastic, this year is a great time to visit Ireland. We’re planning to come back again in the fall for six days and stay in a cottage.
I found it particularly hard to leave this time, I don’t know why.
John O’Farrell (74) emigrated to England in 1958. He visited Dublin on a four-day trip with London’s Irish Elderly Advice Network (IEAN) in March. He was accompanied by 31 other older people from rural Ireland who had left for the UK in the 1950s and 60s without having had the opportunity to see Dublin landmarks.
I had been reading about the Gathering in the Irish newspapers here in London, and thought it was a wonderful idea. Sally Mulready (IEAN director) told us at a meeting that she was taking people over to Ireland as part of it, and I decided to go.
We went to Áras an Uachtarain and met the President, and to the Dáil to meet Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore. We had a wreath-laying ceremony out in Dun Laoghaire for the Irish emigrants who haven’t returned, and had dinner at the yacht club there. We had a wonderful evening of music at Comhltas Ceoltóirí too.
I am from Co Cork and wouldn’t have known Dublin when I was young. On visits I would have flown into Shannon and gone straight to Cork. It was the first time I had ever been to some of these places, like the GPO, so it was great to see them. I would never have thought of going to these places otherwise.
Some of the people on this trip had never been back to Ireland since they left Ireland 40 or 50 years ago. It made a hell of a difference to them. Everybody enjoyed it. All the venues we went to were fantastic and we were really well looked after and made to feel really welcome. It was a great experience. It meant everything to me.
I was about 18 when I went to England. I was working at the time but everyone else was leaving so I decided to go too. We travelled on the boat with the cattle down below and the passengers on the upper deck. It was a bit rough. It is amazing how it is all done these days, I couldn’t see the young people now travelling with the cattle!
Áine Doyle (20) is spending the summer in Taipei, Taiwan tutoring SAT students. She is studying liberal arts in Brown University, Rhode Island, after spending the last two years of secondary school in Hong Kong under a scholarship from the United World Colleges programme. She visited home in Co Wexford for the Newbawn Traditions event in June.
When I was home at Christmas, Dad was talking about this idea he had that he thought would tie in nicely with the Gathering, a day celebrating the history and traditions of Newbawn, the village I come from. He was really eager that everyone would be home for it, and it was important to me to come back for something which was such a big deal to him.
It was a huge team effort, everyone in the community came together over the last six months and brought really good ideas.
It was held in Simon and Anne Ryan’s farmyard in Newbawn, one of the oldest and most beautiful farmyards in the area. During the day there were exhibitions of traditional crafts, demonstrations of old work methods, and live music, including a performance by singer-songwriter Sherry Ryan who came over specially for the event from Newfoundland in Canada, where many Newbawners would have emigrated to.
There was a lot of food, historical tours of the surrounding area, a photographic exhibition with about 300 images, and a reunion in the local school. That night there was a barn dance, which went on til the early hours of the morning.
About 2,000 turned out on the day, with people travelling from the UK, the US, and Germany.
Because I come from such a small area, these kinds of get-togethers are really important. Things are both achieved and celebrated through large gatherings. It was wonderful to see the different skills and the diversity of people who came out to help. It was also a lot of fun for everyone.
Sean Deane (71) took a boat to Australia in 1963. He is retired and lives in Sydney with his wife. He visited family in Carrig in North Tipperary for two weeks in March.
I have been back about five times since I moved to Australia but the last time was about 18 years ago. In March I came home because I had a bad dream about my sister, that she was standing at the end of my bed calling me. I said to my wife, “my sister must be sick, I want to go home to see her”. She quickly booked a plane and I came home, to find her as healthy as could be.
I hadn’t heard anything about the Gathering until my sister told me we could have got a grant for a family get-together, but I really wasn’t interested in that – I wanted to come home because I thought there was a problem.
My family put out the word that I was coming, and we filled a room in Birr with old friends, some I hadn’t seen in 50 years. Some people I wouldn’t recognise anymore, but others told me I hadn’t changed at all. We didn’t attend any of the Gathering events, but we had a lot of good family time.
The last time I was home, my nieces and nephews were all babies, but now they are grown up and some have babies of their own. It is sad to see so many young people out of work.
My sister’s husband used to drive a tourist coach, so he took me to Blarney Castle, and to the Guinness brewery. The Guinness was lovely. The weather was terribly cold.
I went to visit the place where I was born, a very old mansion where my father was a caretaker and we lived in a little flat. The young family who own it now asked me what I remembered about the place, and I was able to tell them where the old well was, which is now covered up, and where the orchard was. I could clearly remember, even though I was only six when we left.
I couldn’t believe the change in the countryside, all the trees I used to know so well were gone. I was disappointed to see all these new housing developments unfinished and locked up. That was sad.
I had a very good time. I plan to come back to Ireland again in two years’ time, and bring some Australian friends with me. We are going to plan it properly, and do some travelling around.
Cathy O’Leary (24) has lived in London for 12 months. She works in Kent as a paediatric speech and language therapist, and returned to Co Cork in May for the Courtmacsherry Lifeboat event.
When my mother and aunts became involved in organising a local event for the Gathering, I knew I wanted to be there. From humble beginnings came a major local history exhibition and weekend to commemorate the town’s Lifeboat service.
No email, letter, phone call or Skype home could pass without mention of what Mum had found in the archives and who had confirmed they were coming. I was even sent my own Gathering t-shirt and dispatched to the National Archives in London, where I feverishly researched the Royal Irish Constabulary and Irish Coastguard history of the town.
Surprises are always best. With that in mind, I played the “work is too busy to come home” card while secretly booking fights. Their shocked reaction and hugs were followed by my mother parading me down the main street, telling anyone who would listen that I had just turned up on her doorstep.
The Gathering reminded me of why I love Ireland. That weekend, in a small town touched by emigration and unemployment, people showed it will take more than a recession to keep them down. The smiling crowds of familiar and forgotten faces alike showed that we are a warm, welcoming and hospitable nation.
Villagers did their part by painting, cleaning and scrubbing to ensure their houses were up to scratch, and hours were spent rummaging in attics to find old pictures and memories to display in their windows. Community spirit and pride lives on in Ireland
The Gathering also reminded me why home will always be home, no matter how long I stay away.
This article appeared in the Life pages of The Irish Times on Friday June 28th. It did not appear online on the day due to a technical error. For more emigrant opinions on the Gathering and their plans to participate, see Gathering momentum: forget the shakedown, here’s the breakdown.