Waves of emigration leave a legacy of love and loss behind

Behind 200 years of emigration statistics, despite modern technology, certain things remain constant

‘During its various waves it is not just parents who have experienced loss, but also siblings who could not or would not leave for a variety of reasons.’ Above, Irish emigrants leaving the West of Ireland for America in 1880. Original Publication: The Graphic (Photograph by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

‘During its various waves it is not just parents who have experienced loss, but also siblings who could not or would not leave for a variety of reasons.’ Above, Irish emigrants leaving the West of Ireland for America in 1880. Original Publication: The Graphic (Photograph by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

Occasionally, research findings that appear to highlight the blindingly obvious are published. Earlier this week, Trinity College Dublin’s longitudinal study on ageing (www.tilda.tcd.ie) highlighted the hardly surprising reality that some mothers have suffered from depression following the emigration of their children between 2009 and 2013.

Research for the Tilda report reveals “general and robust evidence of mental health declines for the mothers of emigrants ... by comparing the parents who saw at least one child emigrate with those whose children remained in Ireland, we have the potential to produce strong statistical evidence of a causal relationship between emigration and mental health”.

The authors of the report stress that what is novel in their approach is that “while emigration is often discussed in terms of the people who leave, this paper shows that there are real impacts on the people left behind … While the suffering of parents as their children leave is often referred to, this is the first time that the effects have been identified in a nationally-representative dataset.”

Again, it is hardly revelatory that those left behind feel the effects, but it is fair to highlight that such feelings have not traditionally been explored in depth and to that extent, at least the report encourages reflection on the impact of emigration on those people.

The report is a reminder that behind all the emigration statistics over the past 200 years, and despite the modern revolution in technology, certain things remain constant and unchanging.

In 2010, Philip Lynch from Westmeath, who emigrated to Melbourne in the 1980s, offered this powerful and moving recollection in a contribution to this newspaper: “On the June morning I left, I found my mother in an upstairs bedroom. She was already well past the point of consolation .. . the surprise and shock of seeing my mother so upset that morning stayed with me for a long time.”

Those who benefited

In the 19th century, for example, it was convenient for commercial farmers who were doing well to blame Irish emigration on British colonial rule and thus to divert attention from their own role in evictions, farm consolidation and market-oriented farming.

Irish historian Kevin Kenny points out that “there was a strong element of expediency in the invocation of banishment and exile by those who stayed at home”. But on the other side there were also those who felt they had lost much by not leaving.

When he was interviewed for an RTÉ Prime Time programme in 2003 that dealt with the experiences of Irish emigrants who had fallen on hard times, Fr Jerry Kivlehan of the Camden Irish Centre in London insisted: “Ireland hasn’t even begun the debate about emigration. In the same family you can have two brothers – one forced to emigrate, the other forced to stay. Both end their lives feeling bitter, both feeling they got the bad end of the stick.”

Since then, owing to the most recent wave of emigration, it is fair to assert that some of the debate that Kivlehan identified as absent has begun, at least in relation to the emigrants.

Invisibility

Contemporary emigrants, partly due to their level of education and developments in communications and social media are much more vocal and in touch with Irish news and current affairs, but those who are grieving their absence rarely get much attention beyond the annual snapshots of them tearfully embracing their loved ones as they embark on their journey or return for holidays.

At least the Tilda report highlights some of the psychological implications for those enduring loss. Reading it, I was reminded of Seán Keating’s 1936 painting Economic Pressure which depicts a stationary, gaunt, immobile man standing between two worlds; the barren Aran islands and the world of opportunity beyond, where a younger man embracing his female relative, probably his mother, is heading to.

We know from accounts written by emigrants, including the writer George O’Brien, that the journey for such young emigrants was not straightforward; in O’Brien’s words, it often involved handling identity and integration issues by “sliding from one self to another, which seemed part of the swing of things”, or in the words of another writer and former journalist with this newspaper, Donal Foley, “clinging to the comradeship of adversity”.

Perhaps the Tilda report will make us think about how such mental sliding and clinging works for those left at home, bereft. Such feelings do not just belong to the pre-Skype decades.

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