A party for the departing

 

EMIGRATION:With emigration once again a fact of life in rural communities, the rituals and traditions associated with leaving home are being revived. BRIAN O'CONNELLattends an “American Wake” in Co Clare. Photographs by Eamon Ward

PAUL MARKHAM LIGHTS a Tilley oil lamp, throws another few sods of turf on the fire and sticks his head out from the top of a half door. He’s wearing an old-style grandfather shirt and the legs of his trousers are tucked inside woolly socks. Inside, the large open fire encourages visitors to sit around it, with musicians taking their seats along one wall under a large old dresser. In the parlour, where the table is set with fine crockery, younger people from the parish gather, and most of those who call in have something in their hands – a bottle of whiskey, a few cans of beer or a freshly made apple tart.

There’s a small bedroom to the left of the entrance with a pot under the bed. Upstairs there is one other bedroom, accessed by a small ladder, while the main room has chairs against every wall. Some tune up violins, while in the corner a middle-aged man looks over lines of poetry written on a crumpled piece of paper taken from his pocket. All those here are from an area not bigger than 10 square miles, and they have gathered in this small cottage to resurrect a tradition that stretches back over two centuries, but has not been seen in this part of the country, or any part of Ireland possibly, for generations.

Once everyone has settled in, Markham stands on the flagstone floor and reads from a large ledger, welcoming everyone, young and old. It’s just after 8pm. Glasses of beer and jugs of whiskey are passed around. Foots begin to tap. More sods of turf splash on to the fire.

The ticking of a grandfather clock punctuates conversation as JFK and Pope John Paul II look down from the mantelpiece, and the bouncy rhythm of the music helps put everyone at ease. Children, parents, grandchildren and grandparents all mix effortlessly. It’s a jovial atmosphere, but one tinged with a certain level of loss, as the first American Wake to be held in west Clare for more than 100 years gets underway.

ALONG THE ROAD from Ennis to Kilrush are remnants of a past generation. Small, one-room cottages set back from the road are still visible from the main route. Some are now used as outbuildings for cattle in the winter, but many just lie there decaying, with their thatched roofs long since galvanised over. The descendants of those who lived in them now reside in 1970s bungalows, farmhouses or larger two-storey houses. Some of the new houses in places such as Lissycasey have garages bigger than the one-room cottages that housed large families during the 19th century.

This area of west Clare, stretching from the outskirts of Ennis back to Loop Head and along the coast, was referred to as the Kilrush Union and saw mass evictions during the 1840s. The Kilrush Union had a population in the 1841 census of 82,353 and covered an area of about 116,000 acres. Today, the population of Co Clare as a whole is just 120,000 people, with a total area of about 850,000 acres. Part of this dramatic decrease in population can be put down to the fact that by 1881, nearly one third of Irish people born in Ireland lived outside of the country.

Emigration has been a fact of life in this area for generations and while some have been willing participants, others see themselves more as exiles than emigrants. In the past two years another generation has begun to leave here and from nearby parishes such as Kildysart, Kilmihil, Kilkee, Kilrush and Cooraclare. They’re not going to America this time, but to Melbourne and Sydney, to Toronto and Vancouver.

For small parishes already struggling against the increased urbanisation of Irish society, the effects have been devastating. Rural pubs and shops are struggling to remain open, GAA teams are finding it harder to field teams at under-21 level, and farmyards are a lot quieter now that many would-be farmers have left.

It was against this backdrop that local historian Markham decided to purchase a small cottage in Kilmurry McMahon some years ago and restore it to how it might have looked in the 19th century. He reinstated the flagstone floors and large open fireplace and chose old-style wallpaper for the one good room.

Bacon hangs from the rafters, religious pictures hang on the walls, copper jugs and large decorative plates populate the dresser. Markham believes that now, more than ever, tradition is worth preserving. With another generation taking flight, he has been holding informal gatherings in the house several times a year.

Last Friday, with three more youngsters preparing to emigrate, he held an American Wake, like the kind which marked sad departures all over west Clare right into the early 20th century.

AS THE MUSIC and song continues, standing outside the cottage, renamed the Rambling House, are three friends – David O’Connell, Johnny Keogh and Evelyn Cullinan. All are in their 20s and in a few weeks time they will leave Ireland for work. The gathering is partly a way of ensuring they get a proper send off. They’ll land in Melbourne towards the end of January and hope to make contact with others gone out before them. All three have held out longer than many of their friends, but as work has got more and more scarce, they feel they were left with little option.

O’Connell (24) is a qualified mechanical engineer who says that there is little choice for him but to leave. He got his first taste of life abroad last year.

“I was away for a few months from April to August in Saudi Arabia. It was a culture shock in every way. I’m a qualified mechanic. Since I came back I have been working steady, but it is going to get very quiet here. There will be nothing here in January. If I get sponsored in Australia, I’ll stay there, simple as that,” he says.

While he is looking forward to the experience, he knows that, given the distance, he won’t be able to come and go when it suits.

“My cousin is getting married and I can’t come home for that. But to be honest, nearly everyone my age is gone. If you are going out for a night now, everyone is trying to figure out who to ring. You’d be going through numbers on your phone and not knowing who is left that you could meet up with.”

Later on, O’Connell dances a set in front of the fire, as Markham tells stories about customs and characters from the area. Jennifer Markham plays a mesmeric slow air, and it’s easy to see why in the past the mixture of an open fire and music would have been able to trigger emotions from a people not known to be that emotionally upfront.

Sitting on a bench that doubles as a bed is 80-year-old Seán Johnston. He tells me his mother’s family were evicted from near here at the turn of the 20th century and subsequently his mother left for New York. She later returned, met his father, and got married. When he was old enough, Johnston too emigrated, and of his six children, five of them have now left, so emigration has visited three generations of his family in living memory.

“We came from a very poor family. I left in 1948. I was only 18 and before that we worked on the bogs in the early 1940s. After the war, oil came back and we were out of work. I came back here in 1970. I did a term in the US army and went to Korea for 16 months. That was an experience.”

Johnston’s story is not unique, and the level of emigration in his family is evidence of the ubiquitous nature of it in this part of Clare. “Of the 13 in my mother’s family, 12 emigrated, with 10 of them going to Buffalo, New York,” he says. “I came back with a Canadian wife and six kids and five of my kids have gone back to the States. There were nine in my father’s family and eight of them emigrated.”

AT ONE POINT in the night, Markham takes out a sheet of paper on which he begins to list young people from the area who have left in recent months. In a radius of about 12 miles, he can list 63 who have emigrated. Looking down through the list, the main destinations are Australia and England, and in some cases up to five members of the one family have left. This has had an inevitable impact on the community.

Eamon Keane, who is helping himself to tea and sandwiches laid out on a table, is chairman of the local Shannon Gaels GAA club. He tells me that while the club has been going 125 years, it might struggle to field a team at certain levels next year. He says it is likely that in the future more teams from neighbouring parishes will have to amalgamate so as to be able to compete.

“We lost eight players in the last two years and another four this year. So we are being stretched. In the past the problem wasn’t as drastic because of bigger families.”

Should the problem continue, Keane believes the GAA will have to look at lowering the teams to 11 or 13 players a side so as to allow clubs to maintain their presence in local competitions, especially in rural areas like this.

The song and dance goes on long into the night. There are stories about courting and Cavan people, and a mixture of songs written by locals and well-known ballads. The difference though between here and Bunratty, say, is this is not for a tourist audience. The house is here for the locals so they can gather and share what bonds them – culture, tradition and sense of place.

Markham’s passion and commitment to historical preservation is admirable, and the manner in which he can unite different generations under one roof is also an achievement. “It is a pity for us to lose some of our heritage and past,” he says.

“Some people say to me, how can you do a night’s entertainment without a television? You go into a house now and it is ‘Ssh, listen’ and everyone is watching the television. Here, everyone is chatting and they share jokes and stories as well as their problems. Tonight, we’re saying farewell to the three people leaving in a few weeks’ time. We’re determined to give them a proper send off, which they can take with them in their heads and hearts.”

At around midnight, several of the 30 or so gathered leave, and at that moment the session is in danger of ending. Markham throws more turf on the fire. The empty chairs are moved back, and those who are left pull closer together.