Sunday, August 24, 2014

Starting Over


How random our lives are. How we can be born on a whim of chance, a loneliness in the heart, a hunger to be somewhere else. I have become very aware of this as I try to attune myself to the cold fact that my husband and I will be long-distance grandparents.  Before the summer is over our first and only grandchild will have moved to the United States with her Irish mother and American father to start her new little life. And so it puts me in mind of my own lineage. How this precious part of us would never have been born if my forebears hadn’t crossed the Atlantic.
At a time when the Erris peninsula was anything but ‘the best place to go wild in’ as it has just been voted, my great-grandparents and six of their children emigrated from the shores of Belmullet in June, 1883 on the SS Waldensian, bound for Boston. This was the third steamer that year to leave Blacksod Bay under the assisted Emigration Arrears Act. 
The project was funded by the Tuke Fund, named after a Yorkshire Quaker, James Hack Tuke who spent most of his life trying to relieve the starvation and poverty in the west of Ireland. His scheme granted passage to large numbers of tenant farmers and their families from the most deprived areas of Ireland willing to seek a new life beyond the pinched existence of post-Famine Mayo. My great-grandparents chose to do this, handing their hungry piece of grass back to the landlord, packing up whatever little possessions they had and set their sights on America. In all, 3,300 people left those shores between 1883−84.
 
A fine morning by all accounts. Late June, the weather clement as they followed the winding road down to the sea, the S.S. Waldensian waiting for them in the calm waters of Elly Bay.   No need for tears, they were going as a unit and it was still too early for anyone to wave them off.
And maybe they were glad to see the back of it all, the smell of rotting, the wind-crippled trees, the last smoor of a cold fire. For their passage was paid; they had clothes on their backs. The women given a second set of petticoats, dress, a bonnet, a brush and comb; the men an overcoat, two shirts, a muffler, six pounds in their pockets: landing money. The anchor was raised and the SS Waldensian set sail.
According to the passenger list they landed in Boston Harbour on 4th July 1883. What a New World celebration they would have arrived into: flags flying, brass bands, speeches, fanfares, How delighted they would have been to think it was for them alone, a welcome to the land of plenty where the streets were paved with gold, no comparison with the scatter of stones that they had abandoned.
They moved to Rhode Island where my great-grandfather was given work in a manufacturing company. A swanky home by their standards, steady work, a school for the children, another baby born, a child christened.
But after the first flush of excitement, they couldn’t settle. And who is to say what brought them back? Whether it was all those factory chimney stacks blocking out the sky, no burnished sand of Elly Bay, no  sight of geese on Iniskea, no curlew. Either way, against the tide they bought a return passage on a ship still marked with famine and headed back, one of the young girls dying onboard. She was kept hidden in her mother’s shawl until they landed in Cobh where they buried her. Which road they took to find their way back to Belmullet is lost with them but they started over; picked up the pieces. 
            How different this life narrative would have been if they had stayed. Who would have married who? Who would have begotten who? Only that my grandmother would not have met her husband at the August Fair Day in Belmullet, my mother, I, my daughter, and now our granddaughter would not have entered this earth.   
         And so the story repeats itself. Not a boat but a plane, not famine but opportunity, not my ancestors but my own, daughter, her husband, their child, our granddaughter.  Beginning a new life. Starting over.

Published in Ireland's Own, August 29, 2014





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