Transatlantic Railroad, a short story by Mary M Burke
In the lead-up to the 1992 abortion referendum, a pregnant Irish student is shipped off to the States to give birth and have her baby adopted
The agency that arranges for holy shows like me to hide out with a pious family until the baby has been quietly born and adopted by another Catholic family gave me a choice of available hosts: a farming family in Cavan or an Irish-American family in Connecticut
It is 1992. Too late in the century to be running away for the reason I am running and too late to be running so far. 500 years after Columbus and 400 years after the first university on Irish soil, from what I’m reading in the in-flight magazine. You’d think both Ireland and America would know better by now to be transporting young women in my situation.
And I am 20. You’d think I’d know better by now than to have agreed to being transported.
Up the pole.
Bun in the oven.
I’m making a list in the journal the agency wants me to keep of all the vague terms the Irish have for unwanted pregnancy. The journal has a picture of the Virgin Mary on the cover with her eyes thrown up to heaven, looking like this whole sorry business was sheer embarrassment. Never has a spokeswoman been so badly matched with her charity.
A “host family” the agency called them. They are the host and I am the parasite. The foolish single Irish girl who got herself knocked up. (Knocked up. I must add that one to the list.)
“A holiday in America, Orla. A free holiday in America.” It sounded like I was being given a prize for not having an abortion
The agency that arranges for holy shows like me to hide out with a pious family until the baby has been quietly born and adopted by another Catholic family gave me a choice of available hosts: a farming family in Cavan or an Irish-American family in Connecticut. A local Catholic charity in Connecticut would take care of all my expenses.
Connecticut. In America, no less.
Jesus Christ! Did they really think I’d choose a farm in Cavan over a place in America? I think I know Connecticut from the telly. Near New York. Rich. Big cars. Mansions. Macy’s and Bloomingdales on the main streets of fancy towns.
My hosts are Mr. and Mrs. Moore.
“Welcome, Orla,” Mrs. Moore says at Arrivals, with what seems to be genuine warmth. Maybe this is going to be okay. But my heart sinks as they drive me from JFK Airport. With every few miles northward we seem to get farther and farther from the possibility of department stores. We pass what they tell me with obvious pride is a large and famous Connecticut public university, but it is in the middle of nowhere. There are cows grazing in fields around the campus. In the name of God, where were the nightclubs and pubs that always huddled close to campuses? They talk at length about the Catholic church in their neighbouring town. It seems I will be brought there every Sunday. I begin to see tractors on the road as we approach what they called their hometown. I had travelled thousands of miles to get away from tractors on the road and seeing cows up close. Why hadn’t I looked up Connecticut in the World Book Encyclopedia at home?
And that word “hometown” that they keep using. Once we approached the place I can see that this wasn’t what I would’ve called a “town”. If you call something a town in Ireland, it means that there are things to do at night. Pubs. Chippers. Fellas with cash and a car waiting around the doors of chippers and pubs looking for a bit of trouble. Life.
The Moores’ so-called town wouldn’t have qualified as a village in Ireland. It had a church of some denomination I’d never heard of. And some cracked business to do with giving poodles hair-dos or the like. Who in the name of God gets a poodle in the countryside? A friggin’ church and a beauty parlour for dogs. That was the whole so-called town. Mostly it was farms or places that may as well have been farms for all that was going on in them or near them.
I am a few days in and have been taken to meet friends and neighbours for various barbecues or small parties. It turns out that everyone around here has food at 5 o’clock and are in bed by 9 o’clock. My toddler neighbours in Ireland weren’t in bed by 9, never mind the grown-ups. I hadn’t left the outskirts of Donegal Town to come this far and look at cows or be in bed by 9.
Jesus Christ, but at the end of the day, Cavan is about an hour from Dublin if you put the welly down really hard on the accelerator. This place was hours from any city. 20 minutes in the car to get milk. 20 minutes in the car to get a newspaper. 20 minutes in the car to visit what still passed as a neighbour around here.
The Moores love that President they have. From the way my national school teacher talked, I thought all American presidents were Irish and Catholic, but this fella has the cut of a Northern Prod. My host family loves him because of something to do with God. And abortion. They think I don’t approve of abortion because I am here pulling my guilty belly up under their dinner table every evening. I don’t have the heart to tell them that I didn’t have the money to get myself to England. Anyway, a holiday in America sounded like a passable alternative to all that hassle and guilt. That’s what Anna in the agency called it.
“A holiday in America, Orla. A free holiday in America.” It sounded like I was being given a prize for not having an abortion.
Anna nodded “yes” very quickly when I asked to confirm that Connecticut was a nice big urban centre near New York.
They’d tell you any lies to keep you away from the boat to England.
Ah, the dirty problem that godless England is left to clean up. Funny how Ireland wanted independence in everything but that.
When I’d realized I was pregnant, there were girls I thought of asking for advice. Withdrawn girls with worried-looking boyfriends I’d noticed disappearing from college or the local scene for a long weekend. They returned with a look of relief. Most girls knew these other girls’ likely destination, but we didn’t talk about it openly.
We Irish girls are good at silence.
No, I couldn’t possibly ask them. Because if we knew each other, they’d deny it. Anonymity was required. I remember the blank pages at the back of imported British fashion glossies where abortion services were advertised for the home market. Somebody had intact copies though, since clinic addresses and numbers could be found in black pen on the back of the women’s bathroom doors in college. The graffiti would be scrawled up over the weekend and by Monday afternoon it would be painted over by the janitor. Every time. Week after week. It was the only time I’d ever seen an urgent response to anything in sluggish University College West. You had to move fast if you wanted that information.
Timing was my problem. I found out I was in trouble in early May right after exams had ended and I’d got a waitressing job in Donegal Town for the summer to save for next year’s college expenses. No college bathroom door information service to hand out of semester, and anyway, the graffiti warfare almost certainly died off during summer. One lunch break in my first week of waitressing I stood at the window of the travel agent on The Diamond looking at Ryanair prices to England. I calculated: travel, accommodation, the probable cost of the procedure, if I could discover an address for a clinic. Saving was hopeless. It would be September before I’d saved enough. I moved to get back to work and suddenly noticed a business premises right next to the travel agent. I’d often passed the place but never paid much attention to it. It wasn’t clear what it did, now that I looked at it properly. The window was a mix of images of the Virgin and some vague messages about helping young women in crisis. Giving them choices.
That sounded promising.
I pushed open the door. A neat, middle-aged woman looked up from her desk and smiled warmly.
“Welcome, dear,” she said, standing up and extending her hand, “My name is Anna. What can I do for you?”
Yes, my hosts certainly do love that President they have. Bush. Bush. I find it hard not to giggle when they bandy that word around. These people don’t seem to know their own slang words at all. And they never swear. And they look at me in great confusion when I say “Jesus Christ!” even though they talk about him all the time too.
I had to pretend to be fully contrite.
I had to pretend to be fully Catholic.
I’d never have dared tell the agency or my hosts that my Presbyterian aunt-in-law and her daughter, Julia, had slipped me to her church in Donegal Town at every opportunity when I was a child. Their hymns were better, full of drama and words that sounded like Shakespeare, so I found it marginally more tolerable than Mass. I suppose my aunt did it to best my mother. They had a long-standing rivalry based on whose queen cake recipe was better. And my aunt thought my mother was a bit thick.
“Better songs,” I told my aunt on the phone once.
“Hymns, Orla,” she said. “They’re hymns, not songs.”
“Songs,” I said firmly, putting the phone down.
My problem has always been that I like the path of least resistance. Sex without insisting on a condom. A cigarette instead of a salad. An Arts degree at UCW.
I was at the beginning of my second year there when I met him on a weekend home in Donegal. Ah yes, Arts at UCW. My adopted cousin told me years ago that it was known as the Dosser’s Degree in his Civil Service office, so of course I put it down as first choice on the university application form.
I didn’t tell Mr. No Condoms that I was pregnant in case he’d propose marriage or something stupid like that. I’d already dumped him by the time I knew, anyway. He’d been alright to practice on in various dark corners during weekends home from college, but he wasn’t a keeper. My inertia had its limits.
Mr. and Mrs. Moore have left a collection of Irish-language poetry for me in my bedroom. They haven’t asked me to stop calling them by those titles, so I continue to do it, just as Anna advised in the agency’s mandatory Orientation on American Social Norms. I had to sit through it with a few tearful girls from other parts of Donegal who were also going to go to the States in the coming weeks. Most of it was dead wrong, I can see after a while here, mostly ideas about America taken off the telly, but they got the “Mrs.” thing right. You don’t call anyone “Mrs.” in Donegal, unless you’re taking the mick.
“How’ya, Mrs.?” cheeky young lads say to old women they don’t even know to make other cheeky young lads snort.
“Oh, thank you, Mrs. Moore,” I say with pretend enthusiasm, flicking through the poetry volume, “This will remind me of my father.” She looks happy and it occurs to me that she must assume that my oul’ lad is some Donegal Irish-speaker and lover of native poetry. If only she knew. He’s painter and decorator from Dublin, who only washed up on the outskirts of Donegal because he met my Donegal mother on a visit to Birmingham. My father is self-employed and does well enough to have a garden shed stocked sky high with magnolia paint, the colour of choice of Donegal housewives. But he’d do better if he didn’t annoy so many potential customers.
“Dublin has never been an Irish city,” he’d say in his favourite local pub in his loudest possible Jackeen voice to open proceedings. “It has always been an outpost of the Danes and the Saxons.”
“Irish hasn’t been spoken in Dublin,” he’d continue after the opening provocation, “since before the Vikings ransacked the piddling village it sprang from.”
His theory was that the true working class of Dublin has British surnames.
“That’s how you know a real, multi-generation Dub,” he’d tell any local who could tolerate him. My father considered himself one of those, of course, and we have what he called a proper Jackeen surname: Hatton. A name from a town in southern England, he liked to say with absolute conviction without ever having verified that fact. Like everyone else in Ireland, he stuck with his own version of history, facts be damned.
“My family are,” he’d proclaim, “the proud descendants of the chandlers, footmen, and cobblers that followed the English invaders of Ireland.”
“And my family were,” he’d continue, particularly if there were French or American literature students knocking about the place in summer, “the longtime neighbours of the James Joyce family.”
He’d pause, judging the effect of his words before adding, “and of the Leopold Bloom family too.”
“No matter how far back you go,” he’d continue, jabbing the chest of some shy local farmer trying to have a quiet pint, “The Hattons has never been culchies.”
His family had stuck for generations to the old working class and Jewish heartlands of inner Dublin. “The suburbs is only for culchies and Prods,” he’s say to uninterested Donegal listeners who only knew O’Connell Street and its environs, if they knew Dublin at all. Glasgow was where Donegal families went for a big shopping spree.
On trips to Glasgow or Birmingham, I felt immediately at home when I saw the vomit on the streets of a Saturday morning and the late-night confrontations over nothing in particular. These were my people and my father’s people.
“Middle-class Dubliners has Irish surnames and grannies in the country and at least one person in the family who did well in the Civil Service exam.” He’d continue. He dismissed the Civil Service as a job scheme for culchies. He called himself a socialist and made loud noises about being the only person in the locality who voted Labour. It was one more way of annoying the locals.
He particularly enjoyed expanding on this thesis when he had Gaelgeorí in the audience.
“The Civil Service is a great incubator of Irish writing,” he’d say. Any language students from Dublin or abroad there who hadn’t come across my father before would take an interest when they heard this.
“Just about every poet writing in Irish since Independence was in the Service,” he’d continue, reeling them in, before delivering the usual left hook: “Sure, it was a bursary, not a job.”
This didn’t go down well, just as he hoped.
“Do you know how much them government lads charged me to install me phone a few year ago?”
He’d pause for effect, looking from one irritated face to the next.
He’d pause again, letting the massive figure sink in.
“A penalty for interrupting their writing time,” he’d conclude. This line was always his cue to relax and savour his pint, job done.
My host family bring me to a small hospital-cum-clinic for a check-up in the nearest town. It is where I will give birth in November, right at the cusp of the end of my three-month holiday visa.
“We are so sorry that we couldn’t get you into a Catholic hospital,” Mrs. Moore apologizes, “but we are just that bit too far from one.” I want to tell her that it’s alright. I really don’t miss crucifixes looking down at me when my arse is sticking out of a hospital gown.
“But we got the next best thing,” she continues, almost gaily, “An Irish doctor!”
Great, I think. Just my luck it’d be someone from Donegal who’ll recognize my accent or have had a run-in with my loud father in a pub there.
I needn’t have worried. Dr. Gildea was really Irish alright, and not just “Irish” in the way the Moores were. She was a Dubliner, of the sort my father would have called a culchie from the suburbs. Well educated and middle class.
“Just Orla, thank you, Mrs. Moore,” Dr. Gildea says with a tight smile when my host mother attempts to enter with me. She closes the door firmly.
“Well, Orla,” she smiles at me, almost wryly. “Let me have a look at you.”
The Moores have had contact with her before this, so she knows the drill. I am in the country to give birth and then leave. She prods and pokes and asks me if the father is from Donegal too. When I say yes, she sighs.
“Multiple sclerosis,” she says, sighing again. “I don’t suppose you know that the northwest of Ireland has one of the highest incidences in the world? That’s why we have an MS protocol in the US hospitals for Irish mothers-to-be.”
I’d never heard any of this before.
“They don’t do anything like that in Ireland, do they?” I ask her.
“Nope,” she replies, almost grimly.
She tells me that she will perform a foetal ultrasound and something called an amniocentesis.
“A what?” I ask her. Out of sheer boredom, I’d read the pregnancy literature given to me by the agency and was prepared for everything but this.
“It’s a sample of your amniotic fluid that I’ll get with a hollow needle. It’ll tell me if there are any developmental abnormalities.”
I let the implications of those big words sink in.
“They don’t do that in Ireland, either, do they?” I ask her, beginning to realize that the pregnancy literature given to me by the agency described the procedures of the Irish system only.
“Not usually,” she answers, looking straight at me. She pauses, and then continues, “You do know why that is, Orla?”
I understood. Nothing to be done if there was anything wrong with the baby, so no point testing. We didn’t say any more about it. We Irish women are good at silence.
“It’s a boy, for what it’s worth,” is the last thing Dr. Gildea says as I’m leaving. It hadn’t even occurred to me to ask. I am coping with this by not thinking about it as much as possible.
The Moores stop at a large supermarket on the next trip home from the hospital.
“Pregnant ladies have lots of cravings,” Mrs. Moore smiles. “Take your time and get yourself some treats!”
I look longingly at the fine display of unfamiliar cigarette brands behind the till. There is so much variety. “Virginia Slims” sound elegant, like something Scarlett O’Hara would smoke if she lived in this century. The cigs are also way, way cheaper than in Ireland. It seems such a waste not to take advantage of such a bargain, but I walk away. Or waddle I suppose.
Although I was nearly six months in on arrival at JFK, I’ve been carrying small until now and so getting away with the sweet Irish colleen routine foisted on me at Mass on Sundays when I am mostly seen sitting down. But with every week that passes, that’s getting less convincing. Unmarried sweet Irish colleens aren’t supposed to have big, guilty bellies.
On my third check-up with Dr. Gildea, I notice Mrs. Moore adding lots of paperwork and what looks like a cheque to the forms I’ve filled in. Of course, I need to remember that. Health care is not free here like in Ireland. I make small talk with the receptionist when Mrs. Moore goes to the jacks.
“So, how much does the charity pay for these check-ups?” I ask as nonchalantly as I can. She pauses before answering, unsure I should be given such information. I pull out my best sweet Irish colleen smile so as to convince her that I am unthreateningly thick.
“Alright,” she sighs, and pushes the cheque towards me.
I almost have a weakness when I read the number. It was what I was thinking of paying for a second-hand car a few years ago. It’d taken a full summer of badly-paid waitressing in Donegal Town in the months before college to save that amount up.
The health care is an outrageous cost here. The cigarettes are cheap though, it has to be said.
“Are they making you go to Mass?” Dr. Gildea asks as she hooks me up to the foetal monitor.
“Yes,” I answer sullenly, “and they won’t give me any drink.”
Dr. Gildea bursts out laughing.
“I know I should lecture you, Orla,” she says once she has got her laughter under control, “so just tell the Moores that I did, okay?”
There’d been an incident in my first few days here. Mr. Moore had just opened a chilled bottle of Budweiser on the patio on the hottest day I’d ever experienced. Mrs. Moore and I sat each side of him with what the heat had quickly turned into tepid glasses of water. A drop of condensation trickled down the side of the bottle so lazily it felt like I was seeing it in slow motion. It was almost erotic.
“Can I taste that?” I asked Mr. Moore hoarsely. He moved to offer the bottle to me, but Mrs. Moore stayed his hand.
“No, Orla!” she cried out. “It’s not right!”
“But I’m nearly 21,” I protested, “and anyway, I’ve been drinking legally in Ireland for years.”
Mrs. Moore sighed. “It’s not the legality of it, Orla,” she said, looking pointedly at my belly, “it’s the morality.”
“Morality.” People talk likes priests here, even the women.
There are other things to read in my bedroom too. Old copies of weekend editions of the New York Times too full of American news to interest me and copies of Cara, the in-flight magazine I’d looked at on Aer Lingus on the way over.
Some of the Cara magazines contain leaflets from the agency, illustrated with images of its spokeswoman. Someone had given the Virgin a Hitler moustache on one leaflet. Proof that other Irish girls had come through this room before me, if ever I saw it. Well, it made sense that the Moores had done this before, since it had all been so streamlined.
Those other girls must have opened up the World Book Encyclopedia entry on Connecticut and realized how boring it was going to be if they’d gone to the bother of stealing reading material from the plane.
It is 9 o’clock on a Friday night and the Moores have gone to bed, so I’m left to read the out-of-date magazines. There seems to be an article about Bunratty Castle in every edition. It is far too early to be going to sleep on a Friday night. Sure, I’d be only thinking about doing my make-up for the long night out ahead if I was in Ireland at this time of the week. Thinking about what first drink I was going to have in the pub. I finally find an article that isn’t about castles or kissing stones. About some former slave called Frederick Douglass visiting Dublin during the Famine. A people-smuggler in a network of safe houses for runaway slaves called the Underground Railroad. It hadn’t occurred to me before that Black Yanks sometimes went to Ireland too. We only got one kind of American in Donegal. Or so we thought at the time.
Every few summers my mother’s American cousins took over our house. A family with three teenaged girls, Patty, Jenny, and Debbie. Patty, the eldest one, was the evidence of my American aunt-in-law’s failed first marriage. Patty had a brother back in Boston who never came to Ireland. My aunt-in-law didn’t have a drop of Irish blood in her and wasn’t even a Catholic, so her patchy marital history was tolerated as something to be expected. My cousins gave the impression of being good looking because they were tall, and tanned and had better teeth than local girls. They scandalized the locality by making free with the best-looking young GAA players all summer long. The trainer complained to my father in the pub that they were the cause of the parish team losing the under-21 county finals. The girls smoked quite openly, and their parents would arrive with a massive suitcase packed with duty-free cigarettes which they’d dole out to the girls. My aunt and uncle also brought many duty-free bags full of clanking bottles. (The girls must’ve had an alcohol purchase allowance too, somehow, when I think of all the bottles that came.) My father only drank occasional pints of Guinness in the pub and mam didn’t drink at all, like most housewives, but my aunt and uncle would make a big show of gifting them the bags of whiskey and vodka. And then they’d spend a portion of every night of their stay draining them. Those were only so-called presents they ever brought. I was young when they first started coming and thought for a while that American perfume was particularly unpleasant when I smelled it in the evening. It was later that I realized that the smell was actually whiskey.
It was considered bad form to drink at home in Donegal. It was all right to overdo it in the pub, but you were called an alcoholic if you had a drink or two it in your own house. Drinking was one of those rare sins you were supposed to be open about. It looked mean to drink at home too. You were cheating the pub out of business.
The girls were as tight as their parents. They only brought me a present once. A tee-shirt with a picture of a tall lad and the motto “Fly like a Bird.” I’d no idea who he was. Larry Bird, they told me. A famous basketball player, they said. Although I was a child with the equivalent of $3 to my name, even I could tell that the flimsy tee-shirt cost about $3. They stayed at our only middling-sized house for four weeks of the summer and ate the meals my mother cooked every day. A $3 tee-shirt.
One time the eldest girl, Patty, took me to McGees, our local supermarket. They loved our Americans at McGees because they’d order whole cases of things like picked onions and peanut butter and Quaker oat cereal. Nobody bought whole cases of anything in Donegal, and especially not lesser-spotted items such as those.
Patty was evil one of the three girls. I was about five when she first visited. I was confused by her short hair and what I thought of as her boy’s name. She and her sisters wore blue jeans, though the local teenage girls generally wore dresses or skirts. The trousers. The hair. The name. It was all overwhelming for someone who only knew the ways of Donegal Town and its environs.
“You’re not a girl!” I blurted out loudly the first time I met her.
She never forgave me.
After that, Patty didn’t speak to me unless absolutely necessary, so I thought my lucky day had arrived when she smiled at me in the supermarket one summer’s day and addressed me by name for the first time. I was twelve. Five years had passed since The Boy Incident.
“Orla,” she cooed, sweeping her arm in a slow and dramatic arc across a tempting display of every variety of Cadbury’s chocolate bar, like Satan offering Jesus the world.
“Orla, tell me all of your favourite candy bars.”
“Candy.” I knew their lingo well by now. That meant the good stuff.
I savoured this great and unexpected gesture of generosity. Obviously, Patty was making amends for the rocky start we’d got off to by offering to buy me my favourite chocolate bars.
Should I start with my most or least favourite? I asked myself.
Should I list five or 10 bars? I pondered.
Should price be a factor? I considered.
“Hurry up!” Patty snapped, the smile suddenly gone from her face.
Mr. McGee walked over to the display. “Will that a whole case of each, now, Patty?” he asked, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. “Sure, maybe two cases of each if you have that many friends at home to buy presents for?”
Quietly, the moment ruined, I listed out the least pleasant chocolate bars I could think of: “Bournville, Double Decker, Lion Bar, Turkish Delight, and Bounty Bar.”
That year, the Yanks stayed so long that I was a week into my new school year and they were only packing to go. On the Friday evening, after Julia and I were back in my house and still in our school uniform, Jenny beckoned us aside. Jenny was the middle daughter and could be kind when the mood seized her, and the concerned look on her face suggested she was feeling benevolent.
“Orla,” she whispered, “I’m not trying to be unkind, but, well, you have been in the same brown skirt, blouse, and sweater all week.” She paused. “I’m leaving some of my clothes behind for you. They’re a little stained and worn after the summer, but, you know…”
Julia and I looked at each other.
Julia sighed, and then spoke slowly and carefully, as though talking to a dog. “It’s a uniform, Jenny.” Our cousin remained puzzled. I think she thought Julia meant a work uniform.
“A school uniform,” Julia continued, speaking even more slowly than before.
“Oh,” said Jenny, “You guys go to Catholic school.”
“Well, I suppose we do,” I said after a pause, “but we don’t call them that because almost all schools here are Catholic.”
“Even the Prods go to them,” said Julia, pointing to the Virgin Mary image on the school crest on her jumper.
Julia had manoeuvered to attend the local Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception instead of a small Presbyterian school farther away so she could sit out religious instruction and have a quiet cigarette in the middle of the school day.
There were things about our American cousins that didn’t tally and Julia and I were too young then to piece the picture together. Class was one of those many things in Donegal that Everyone Knows and No One Talks About, and we didn’t master that code until our early teenage years. By then, our girl cousins were too busy with marriage and kids to come to Ireland anymore, but we still talked about them often. We finally understood one day over some illicit cigarettes in my father’s garden shed: their lack of understanding of school uniforms, the pickled onions, the meanness, the whiskey “perfume,” the suitcases packed mostly with duty-free cigarettes, the complications of who was whose else’s half-sister or step-brother.
“Omigod!” says Julia, “They’re poor!”
I savoured the new concept of Americans Who Are Not Rich and Educated like a hard-boiled sweet. That explained their lack of interest in Irish history
My American uncle brought home twice what my over-taxed father did, but by American standards they were poor. We looked at each other in astonishment. The only poor Americans we’d ever seen were the Waltons on the telly.
“Jesus Christ!” says Julia, “How come our friggin’ American cousins are poor when everyone else’s are loaded?”
I savoured the new concept of Americans Who Are Not Rich and Educated like a hard-boiled sweet. That explained their lack of interest in Irish history. Ours were the only American cousins in the area in the summers who didn’t bang on and on about the Famine like it was something that happened last year and to them.
“White trash,” Julia said with all the certainty of an Irish teenager who had learned something she didn’t really understand from an American television show. “You and I will stop smoking once my mother finds us out and batters us, but the whole lot of them will die with fags in their mouths, hooked up to a respirator.”
I only understand all of it fully now, out here in the Connecticut sticks. There are poor looking people and places here too, just like Donegal. Not all Americans are rich. Far from it.
We knew as little about them as they did about us, I admit to myself.
Julia was a mentor to me. She taught me how to inhale cigarette smoke, and described the mechanics of French kissing when I was eleven. She was the bad older sister every young girl needs. Of course, like all good mentors of pubescent girls, she was really mean.
“You’re not our blood, anyway,” she’d say in a low, insistent voice to our adopted cousin when he wouldn’t give her his portion of cake at family gatherings when we were young. (Much later on I found out that he actually really was related to us, “adopted” without paperwork to cover up an unwanted pregnancy in my mother’s extended family.) Despite or maybe because of her meanness, I valued Julia as a resource of knowledge I had to acquire.
Unfortunately, though, she didn’t tell me enough about condoms. You’d think a Prod would know more about contraception.
My mother always seemed a bit distracted. She was quiet by nature and maybe a bit dim, if I’m honest, and I think my father’s constant jabbering meant that she found it hard to concentrate on anything. She looked confused when he went on and on about culchies as if they were a species unknown to him, since he had, after all, both married and fathered women of that affliction. And she often furrowed her brow at me like I was a slightly peculiar acquaintance she only half remembered. Every major decision of my life had come as a huge surprise to her.
I got just enough points in my Leaving Cert at Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception to scrape into the Ascension into Heaven, as we called any college far away enough away from parental control. No more hiding your drinking or smoking. No mother or aunt hectoring you to go to a church of a Sunday. You didn’t even have to eat dinner if you felt like a few bags of Tayto crisps instead. Freedom. About a week before I finished my first year at UCW, my mother asked for the first time if I liked going to college.
“It’s mighty,” I said, not providing any other description of all my adventures.
“Oh,” said my mother, and left it at that.
Right out of school, mam had trained as a nurse in Birmingham in the late 1960s, before she met my father. She never said much about her years in England, except once, when an abortion storyline on Coronation Street roused her briefly.
“I was in England when that legislation went through,” she said quietly during the commercial break.
“The number of Irish girls who came in to us…” Her voice trailed off and she bit her lip.
She looked and me and continued with an intensity that was unusual for her.
“They gave local boarding houses as home addresses, but, sure, one look at their scared faces even before they even opened their mouths and you’d know well they were from Ireland.”
She fell silent then. I said nothing. We Irish women are good at silence.
“No crucifixes on the walls in them hospitals,” was all my father added, and with an air of satisfaction. He disapproved of anything he could imagine James Connolly disapproving of. Julia called him “What Would James Connolly Do?” behind his back.
My parents were such a different generation. Sex was something you either had only in marriage or you made damn sure that everybody believed that this was the case if it wasn’t true. You wouldn’t believe the amount of times I’ve been told about the premature birth of a fine strapping nine-pound babby born eight months after a wedding. Overlarge newborns are surprisingly common in Donegal.
Julia’s theory is that there was less sex then because indoor plumbing or at least ready hot water wasn’t universal in our parents’ generation.
“The Irish sexual revolution,” Julia concluded, “was the spread of hot water.” Which meant that it only happened about 10 years ago, so.
It’s the sex-repelling smell of late 1970s Donegal that I remember most. A jet-plane trail of pungency extended from both men and women as they walked by. It was hard to decide which was the worst, the overwhelming perfume of the women or the sweat of the men.
No, I couldn’t associate my parents with sex, despite my existence, so I didn’t want to tell them I was pregnant. They wouldn’t throw me out or anything dramatic like that, but my father would say too much and would mother say too little. I told my aunt though. Something to do with her not being a Catholic made me think that she was less likely to squirm about an issue that very strongly suggested I’d been having sex.
My aunt drove me to Dublin Airport in the end. I was pleasantly surprised that her indifferent tolerance stretched to actual practical help. I think she liked being part of a conspiracy that excluded my dopey mother.
“We won’t be telling Julia about any of this now, either,” was the last thing she said to me at the airport. The second secret adoption in the family, or Christ only knows, maybe the tenth secret adoption in the family, for all anyone told anyone else.
“I’m taking time out to go study in America,” I told my parents and everyone else.
“Oh,” said my mother, after a long pause.
“Don’t think I’m funding that jaunt!” said my father, “it’s enough to pay your UCW fees.”
With the help of the college doctor, who seemed well used to aiding in the cover up of student pregnancies, I told the college a different lie, and they allowed a deferral of my final year on vague medical grounds. He finalized the paperwork for me right before college reopened in September.
Nobody in Ireland studied abroad in America. It was the Yanks who came to our colleges for a semester. But you have to proffer a lie in Ireland, even when everyone is aware that it is one. All those strapping six-foot young lads I know in Donegal who seemed to have suffered absolutely no ill effects from their premature births.
At first, I’d thought that the Moores were what Julia and I would have called Rich Yanks back in the day. Rich Yanks know loads about how the English starved the Irish and speak with great familiarity about Bunratty and Ashford Castle. A hatred of the English and the desire to stay in their former castles always came as a package. After living here for a few weeks, though, and seeing the Moores’ comfortable house and the similar homes of some friends and neighbours who invited me along with them, it seems a bit more complicated than just money. I’ve been in the houses of people with money in Donegal and they were never as comfortable as houses here. In Donegal, even when there is money involved, homes are cold and damp, adequate hot water is not guaranteed, the furniture might look be valuable, but it’s not made for slouching, and there were always central ceiling lights with a bulb of 100 watts or higher and few lamps, which meant that that even the most pleasant evening conversations had a whiff of interrogation.
The spaces that mere acquaintances got to see - the entry hall and the formal room - were often the nicest in Donegal homes. In Connecticut, the most welcoming rooms are the spaces the family relaxed in. The kitchen, the bathrooms, what they call the TV room.
Their attitude to the sharing of food was another puzzle. The Moores hosted their friends for food often, but straight out told them to bring starters or dessert to the meal. Having to cook before going out wasn’t my idea of a good beginning to a relaxing evening. I saw the Moores’ neighbour bring brownies to a group dinner once, and when she was leaving she took the remaining uneaten brownies home with her. No one blinked an eye at what would have made someone a by-word for tightness in Donegal. At the same time, Mr. Moore gave away most of the jams made from the fruit in his garden. It struck me in the end that New Englanders were frugal, but that it was a choice. In Donegal, frugality was mostly a necessity.
That was the difference between Donegal and Connecticut.
It has been autumn most of my stay here. “The fall,” they call it. I like that. I think I will use that phrase when I am back in Donegal to annoy the locals. The countryside here is heavily wooded and there are wild mammals everywhere. I’ve been surprised by the beauty of Connecticut. I thought that only Ireland was pretty, just like the Tourism Authority tells us. And I thought I knew America from watching all that telly. Twelve-year-old Orla would’ve said that America was a place full of trigger-happy cops and ladies called hookers and that it contained only two very large and very violent cities, which were called New York and Los Angeles, and the countryside was something only the Waltons lived in and anyway, they lived, oh, two hundred years ago, or something, so the countryside had long ago become a massive car park and all the Indians were buried under it.
The reality of America was surprising. A bad surprise at first, but it has grown on me. As my belly has got bigger and I’ve got more and more tired, I’ve welcomed the 9 o’clock bedtimes and the quietness. I’ve been able to use my tiredness to get out of going to Mass on Sundays lately too. It occurs to me that there’s more variety of trees and wildlife here than in many parts of Ireland. I don’t know why the Yanks who came to Donegal always went on and on about the pretty Irish countryside when they have all this. They come to us for something they don’t realize they already have. And it suits our pockets to believe the bull shite.
Today I will be checked into the hospital and induced so as to be able to return to Ireland before the end of my three-month holiday visa. My last contact with Dr. Gildea. I’d seen her a lot more than I’d expected to from reading the agency material. There are many check-ups during pregnancy here. Because, I suppose, there are choices that can be made as a result of them. I pack my meagre belongings into the college rucksack I came with. Almost all of it is stuff I brought with me. Even If I’d had the money to buy stuff here, it wasn’t like there were any shops nearby.
“Thank you both, from the bottom of my heart,” I tell the Moores when they come in to see my progress, and I mean it. I don’t really understand their motives in trying to help a pregnant girl from the other side of the world and maybe would rather not understand, but they’ve been kind to me and I’ve grown fond of them over these past few weeks, even though we hardly know each other in many ways.
“Rest assured that your baby is going to go to a good church-going Catholic family,” Mrs. Moore tells me earnestly, long after she might have suspected that this is not something I’d lose sleep over.
“And we have a little present for you!” she smiles, extending a wrapped box.
“A wee present!” her husband adds. He has enjoyed picking up my Donegalese.
Remembering their kind but frugal ways, I’m a little afraid that they’ve packaged up the Cara magazines, but I open the box to find that it’s a print entitled “Beautiful Donegal” of the sort the tourist tat shops sell at home. It looks like Donegal. If you took away the banjaxed cars, the electricity poles, and every sign of business or habitation. This is what they dream of, surrounded by the beauty of the Connecticut countryside. Their sweetness breaks my heart a little, and I wipe away a tear. They are good people. We mean completely different things when we use words like “Catholic” and “Irish,” but they are good people.
The Moores had long since confirmed my guess about the other Irish girls who’d come to them through the agency, and that was why, it occurs to me, that their friends seemed so unsurprised by the pregnant Irish woman tagging along.
“I’ll make the room spick and span for the next Irish girl!” I tell them as they are about to leave me to finish packing, in a bad attempt to lighten the mood.
“Oh, sweetheart,” says Mrs. Moore, stalling at the door, “You’re the last girl. Anna wrote us that the agency is cancelling the programme. Ireland is changing. Girls are more and more likely to keep their babies and raise them or even live with the father.” She says all this with a tone of almost relief. Maybe she, too, has found it all to be a charade in the end.
Mr. Moore smiles wanly, “You’re the last runaway on the Transatlantic Railroad, Orla.”
I was too pleased with myself for understanding what should’ve been an obscure reference to American history to actually think about what he’d just said.
Why am I here?
The Moores and their friends don’t condemn me, as their like might have a generation ago. And I’m not ashamed, as I would’ve been a generation ago. So, why are we all going through this rigmarole? What are we afraid of?
Right before we get into the car to drive to the hospital, Mr. Moore wordlessly points out some news from Ireland in the weekend New York Times. On the day I’m due to fly back, there will be a referendum on abortion. We look at each other, no doubt wishing for very different outcomes. I feel a glimmer of hope. My Ireland is not the Ireland of my parents’ young days. Choice has been the difference between Donegal and Connecticut, but change may well be coming.
But any change is too late for me, anyway. I’m giving birth in the morning.
I’ll go back to Ireland once the baby’s adoption paperwork has been finalized. Dr. Gildea said she’ll give me something to suppress my milk so I don’t make a show of myself on the flight. I’m not meeting the adoptive parents, though I was amazed to have the choice to do so here. I will leave the baby’s name to them. I want no claim on him.
A clean break and all of that.
I’ll come up with some story about why I’m back from America after only a few months and everyone will pretend to believe it. To my face, at any rate. I’ll make a half-arsed stab at finishing the degree and get the kind of second-rate result that will allow me to get an undemanding Public Service post in Donegal or Galway, like the culchie I must finally admit that I am. The path of least resistance.
“Ah, the Public Service,” my father will say, “the final resting place for banjaxed rural ambition.”
And I’ll work in a big office with loads of other women and you can be sure that a few of us will have taken the boat to England, or the car to a farm in Cavan, or the Aer Lingus flight to the Moores of Connecticut or their ilk, and you can be equally sure that we will never, ever talk to each other about it when we exchange queen cake recipes.
We Irish women are good at silence.
And somewhere in America will be a wee boy who doesn’t know that his surname should be Hatton and that he’s really a mongrel mix of culchie and Jackeen, a heritage no test will ever reveal but that should’ve been his.
Mary Burke is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut. She is completing a first collection of short stories. Her short story Hy-Brasil was included in The Faber Best New Irish Short Stories, 2004-5, edited by David Marcus. Another, Shakespeare’s Daughter, was shortlisted for a 2007 Hennessy prize