Write of passage across the water
Author Paul Breen has been influenced by his family’s long history of emigration
Emigration has been a feature of my family’s history for nearly two hundred years, maybe four or five hundred if you go back down through the Anglicans on my maternal grandmother’s side. Descendants of theirs would one day head off on ships bound for Canada and Boston, where they’d build new lives in sun-seared chalk-white houses.
On my father’s side the story is much the same, albeit featuring people from a different tradition, one of historical dispossession rather than settlement. Regardless, they’d cross the water, shake off the poverty of the past, and ironically build new lives for themselves in many of the same towns and cities – places with names such as Cambridge and Lawrence, in Massachusetts. One of them would become a fighter pilot in the US Army, and the poster boy for Camel cigarettes in the early 1940s.
Charles Sharkey, war veteran, barely old enough to drink alcohol, died in a plane crash in Tsingtao, the home of Chinese beer. This was a story I only learned a few years ago, thanks to an aunt in Wales who has assiduously researched our family history, but I grew up on such stories of immigrants. There was my grandfather’s suave and handsome brother who died young in a New York hospital, far from his birthplace on the rocky hinterlands of County Fermanagh.
Then came tales of less romance; those who’d fade away rather than burn out in the raging flames of youth. Three sisters left Tyrone in the 1800s and started out on the struggle of creating new lives in a faraway land. A year later a letter came to say that their mother was on her deathbed. One would have to go back home. The middle sister, Ellen, in her 20s, was selected. She’d go for a few months and then return, but twenty years accumulated before her mother passed. There was no place then, even in America, for a middle-aged spinster. She stayed in Ireland as her sisters had daughters who’d gain degrees and become teachers, and send a grandson back to Ireland in the Second World War, in the same uniform as Charles Sharkey.
All these stories spoke of great events from afar, and the changing of lives through the leaving of home. America offered the richest of legends by far; big houses, fine clothes, conversations laced with words we hadn’t even heard of, and degrees in times when the children of those left behind exited school at the age of 14. There were others though – my grandfather’s people from Mayo who worked on London’s railways and building sites, as if there’d been such an exodus from Swinford in the 60s and 70s that there was nobody left anymore. They’d talk of meeting friends from school on a Saturday night as if Camden was the new Castlebar, and of how quickly the fortnight passed in the summer when they’d come “home”.
I’d always fancied myself as more of an American than a Londoner, if I was ever to emigrate, which didn’t seem that likely when I was young. I doubt I’ve ever met anyone who had a life’s ambition to leave “home” forever. But as you grow older, time and circumstance conspire to determine your fate, and mine has been to end up living in London as a university lecturer and writer. In my field, job opportunities are greater, and salaries as much as doubled because of the amount and nature of universities in England. If I’d stayed in Ireland, in Dublin or Belfast, even Galway, I’d have been faced with ploughing through years of part-time work in half a dozen different places to get a permanent lecturing job.
Now I’m married to an English woman whose family left Ireland a couple of generations ago, and I’m living in a place called Charlton which is home to a football team who play in a valley at the slope of a hill on the edge of the River Thames. As a young boy I was a passionate supporter of Liverpool and late nights of European adventure in places such as Bucharest and Budapest. Coming here, I began to watch my local team and fall in love with the sense of escape offered by following them on a Saturday afternoon, even as they slid down the divisions and faced the likes of Rochdale, Stockport County, and Yeovil Town. Charlton Athletic became my club rather than Liverpool, and now I have written a book about it.
Though it started out as autobiography, the final form is fiction and is entitled The Charlton Men. I would say it’s the latest in a long line of stories of emigrants and immigrants, hopes and dreams, one island that’s always going to be called “home”, another that physically is “home”, and the bit in the middle where I feel I am located. Possibly that’s where the London-Irish are most comfortable for we’re different to American immigrants who become Yanks very quickly, even if we’re all part of the one story. Maybe in another life I’d have written a book about the New York Mets or even Shamrock Rovers, but here I am on a sunny Sunday writing about Charlton. It’s my home now, even if I have another “home” across the Irish Sea.
Paul Breen is a university lecturer and author of The Charlton Men published by Thames River Press, now on sale through Amazon.