Ciara Kenny

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

The reach of a single village

Seán Carlson examines the successes of emigrants from Moyvane in Co Kerry, the village his mother left 40 years ago

Thu, Apr 25, 2013, 10:00


Seán Carlson

A few years ago, while living in Australia, I found myself rather unexpectedly in a place where two centuries earlier an exile from my mom’s village in Ireland, quite likely a distant relation, became part of the history of both countries.

After a day of hiking in the Blue Mountains, so called for the mist of eucalyptus oils that colours the air, I detoured from the most direct route back into Sydney to visit the historic towns along the Hawkesbury River.

When I saw a sign for Castle Hill, I detoured even further. There, in 1804, a man by the name of Philip Cunningham initiated an uprising of fellow convicts. Having been sentenced to the penal colony of New South Wales for his involvement in the 1798 rebellion in Co Wexford, he led his men, the story goes, with the intention of seizing ships and sailing home again for Ireland. Instead, the efforts resulted in his execution—a long way from the place of his birth.

In Moyvane, Co Kerry today, a memorial out front the primary school declares Philip Cunningham “a son of this parish”. Engraved in the left side of the stone is a pike, the weapon used in his struggles. On the right, a boomerang.

Splintered off the road between the towns of Listowel and Tarbert, at first glance Moyvane may appear little different than many villages throughout the country. Its shops, pubs, and post office stretch along the main street, and a church stands between the GAA pitch and the school. A co-operative creamery serves the area’s dairy farmers, as it has since the late 1800s. Bog and farmland surround every direction. Nothing by appearance alone would suggest this village could impact the wider world.

My mom grew up on the outskirts of Moyvane as the second youngest in a family of sixteen. Throughout her childhood she witnessed her sisters and brothers leave. Most went to England. Two entered a convent in Wales. Her oldest brother settled in the Bronx. A sister set off for California.

There were occasional visits over the years, but more than anything my mom learned about the lives of her siblings through the letters they wrote home to their mother.

When my mom left, she was almost 17. She joined her sister, her brother-in-law, and her nephew in London. At the age of 21, she arrived in New York, certain she would return to live back in Ireland. Forty years have now passed.

Like all who know this story as their own, my mom may have left the place from where she came, but it has never left her.

Such experiences have echoed in villages, towns, and cities for generations, repeating once again. Yet who would have thought that Moyvane, with a population of around 400 people, would produce a bishop in Brasil and another in Texas, a newspaper publisher in Detroit,  a university president in New Orleans and two founding members of Comhaltas in North America, who extended the music and culture of Ireland to new audiences abroad. Of my mom’s sisters, one opened a number of boutique clothing stores in Tucson, Arizona. Another managed rural healthcare projects for women and children during several years in the Gambia.

Time and again, places like Moyvane have seen their “children” and their descendants leave their imprints wherever they have gone. Some followed religious paths. Others laid roads, fought fires, and opened pubs. They went into medicine, law, business, and government. They shared the gifts of the instruments they played, the words they wrote, and the stories they told.

This year, the Gathering recognises and welcomes this global diaspora, past and present. While a celebration, it involves what is ultimately a sad yet universal story of leaving home, of coping, of remembering those left behind, of the potential for new beginnings.

Whether a convict rebelling in Castle Hill or the countless young women and men without memorials to mark their lives, not all who left had the choice to stay or the opportunity to return. For those setting off today, it’s easier than ever to remain connected back home and to share so many smaller moments with family and friends.

In the foreward to ‘The Boro’ and ‘The Cross’, a book compiled more than a decade ago by a committee in Moyvane and neighboring Knockanure, schoolteacher and poet Gabriel Fitzmaurice wrote, “It tells the story not just of the local community, but of the community in exile throughout the world.”

Indeed it does.

The significance of emigration, for Ireland like anywhere else, is that one country’s loss often means another’s gain. The reach of a single village can be disproportionate to its size.

Based in New York, Seán Carlson is completing a book about emigration through the lens of his mother’s experiences. He was formerly a manager of global communications and public affairs at Google. See