Ciara Kenny

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The global reach of a single Irish village

A Generation Emigration writer has won a travel writing prize for his story about his mother’s village of Moyvane, Co Kerry

Sean Carlson and his mother Nuala.

Sat, Sep 27, 2014, 00:00


A Generation Emigration writer has won a prize from the Society of American Travel Writers for his story about his mother’s village of Moyvane, in Co Kerry. The story is republished in Weekend Review today.

Sean Carlson

A few years ago, while living in Australia, I found myself 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 farther. 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 to Ireland. Instead the efforts resulted in his execution – a long way from the place of his birth.

In Moyvane, Co Kerry today, a memorial in front of the primary school declares 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, Moyvane may at first glance appear little different from 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 stretch in every direction. Nothing by appearance alone would suggest this village could affect the wider world.

My mom grew up on the outskirts of Moyvane as the second youngest in a family of 16. 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 in Ireland. Forty years have now passed.

New audiences

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 about 400 people, would produce a bishop in Brazil 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 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.

Last year the Gathering recognised and welcomed this global diaspora, past and present. Although a celebration, it involved 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 foreword to The Boro and the Cross, a book compiled more than a decade ago by a committee in Moyvane and neighbouring Knockanure, the 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.

This article was first published on the Generation Emigration blog in April last year. It was awarded a bronze prize by the Society of American Travel Writers at its annual Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. What the judges said:

“The Irish diaspora is often told in macro terms, millions of Irishmen leaving their homes for Great Britain, North America, Australia, etc. But here the author tells that story — with the news hook of The Gathering in 2013 — in micro terms. This is an amazing story of one village and the talent it sent to the world.”

Sean Carlson lives in New York. He is currently looking for a publisher for a book he has written about Irish emigration based around his mother’s experience of leaving Co Kerry;