Diarmaid Ferriter: When going back can be as difficult as staying
In a sense, it is like a return to the 1950s when Irish emigrants in the US could rarely attend family funerals
A man carries an Irish flag during the St Patrick’s Day parade in New York: Emigrants frequently have to straddle two worlds, handling identity, dislocation and integration issues. Photograph: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
Amongst all its other impacts, the Covid-19 crisis is adding another difficult chapter to our long emigration story. It raises the prospect that leaving Ireland in response to the economic fallout will be much more problematic than was the case historically for Ireland, which has been more affected by emigration over the last 200 years than any other European country.
It has also created considerable practical and emotional difficulties for those emigrants who want or need to come home and have little prospect of that for some time to come.
Emigrants frequently have to straddle two worlds, handling identity, dislocation and integration issues by, in the words of Irish writer George O’Brien, “sliding from one self to another, which seemed part of the swing of things”. That has been made even more difficult as a result of the current situation. Dealing with the lockdown in their host country, emigrants are also worrying about family members at home or facing the particular cruelty of forced absence when family members are sick and with no possibility of attending the funerals of loved ones.
In a sense, it is like a return to the 1950s when Irish emigrants in the US could rarely attend family funerals. Such is the plight of emigrant Eilis Lacey in Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn, when Fr Flood breaks the news to her of her sister Rose’s death at home: “ ‘The funeral will be the day after tomorrow,’ he said. It was the softness in his voice, the guarded way he avoided her eyes, that made her start to cry. ‘Why did I ever come over here?’ she asked.”
“I’ll say goodbye to her for you,” her mother told Eilis when they spoke on the phone. All Eilis could do was imagine Rose laid out at home and “each moment of Rose’s death and her removal”.
In 1956, Ireland’s Commission on Emigration stated that emigration had become “a part of the generally accepted pattern of life”. That did not make it any easier; consider, for example, John Healy’s book Death of an Irish Town (1968) when he wrote of the emigrant train leaving Mayo in the 1950s: “The Guard’s door slamming shut was the breaking point: like the first clatter of stones and sand on a coffin, it signalled the finality of the old life. The young girls clutched and clung and wept in a frenzy.”
The commission’s report suggested that emigration weakened “national confidence and pride”. But it was also a safety valve and a conservative influence; the same report suggesting the scale of the exodus diluted the need for “drastic action” as it “made the need for full development of our economic resources less compelling”.
Refuge and punishment
More than 400,000 people left this country in the 1950s while later, gross emigration for the period 1983-1993 amounted to 472,300, and in the single year 1988-89, 70,600 people emigrated. Of course many thrived, but the loneliness or sense of banishment crushed others. At the Irish Centre in Hammersmith in 2016 I interviewed different generations of Irish emigrants, including a 92-year-old man from Killarney, who emigrated in 1946 and was still angry about his forced exile.
Another was a 70-year-old woman reared in an orphanage in Cork who was sent over to London at the age of 16 and had only recently told her large family about her childhood. London, it seemed, was both refuge and punishment, providing anonymity and jobs but also a feeling of displacement.
There was one song in particular I thought of that day, written by Jimmy McCarthy and sung by Christy Moore in the 1980s, Missing You; evocative and raw, it captures the anger, regret and loneliness associated with some of the Irish in “London in the nobody zone” and the baggage carried by emigrants who often wondered about a return to Ireland but realised that going back might be as difficult as staying. It finishes with the line: “ And I’ll never go home now because of the shame of a misfits reflection in a shop window pane.” The Irish in Britain are now the oldest ethnic group there and the most likely to live alone.
With the last economic crash came another exodus; the CSO estimated 89,000 people left Ireland between April 2012 and March 2013 alone, while between 2008 and 2014, about 100,000 Irish people emigrated to Australia. Almost nine years ago The Irish Times initiated its Generation Emigration series to provide a forum for the Irish abroad. What has been striking about the voices it has highlighted is the abundance of those prospering but also, despite the revolution in communications, the endurance of the psychological complications that arise from being so far away.
That is especially apparent now, as the big change in more recent emigrant experience compared to the 1950s and 1980s – the chance to return home regularly – is denied.