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Tales of Emigration: Great Writing, Great Places.

Writing.ie | Magazine | Historical Fiction | Interviews

By Vanessa O'Loughlin

Emigration is an issue at the heart of every Irish family, not least now, as we face recession again and our sons and daughters head abroad seeking employment and opportunity. In a unique series of events, Dublin UNESCO City of Literature and Writing.ie have teamed up to bring you some of Dublin’s top writers in some amazing locations, a series that launched on the replica famine ship Jeanie Johnston, on a night when the wind howled down the Liffey and we witnessed first-hand, the emigrant experience.

As originator of the series and chair for this event, my English accent rather stood out as the audience began to gather below decks in the main saloon area of the ship. But my story is one of immigration too – my family are Foxs, O’Mahonys, Mellons, Murphys and McShanes – my great grandfather William Fox was born in Antrim in 1851 and travelled to the north of England in 1870; on the other side of the family, Daniel O’Mahony was born in Skibereen and emigrated to Newcastle in 1895, where he married Elizabeth Murphy. For me the creaking timbers of the Jeanie Johnston were a poignant reminder of the pain of famine but also of hope, hope that was conveyed in some spine tingling readings by outstanding writers Marita Conlon McKenna, Kate Kerrigan and author and journalist Martina Devlin.

Writing about three very different aspects of Irish history, these authors’ stories bring the emigrant experience right into our living rooms, and in the case of Marita Conlon McKenna, whose bestselling Famine Trilogy is now on the national curriculum, provide a vital link between the Irish who were forced to leave, and their grandchildren and great grandchildren who live in Ireland today.

For Marita, listening to a radio report of three small skeletons found in an unmarked grave beneath a Hawthorn tree, significantly in a field beside a school, was a seminal moment that produced a book that is one of the bestselling children’s books of all time in Ireland.

On board the Jeanie Johnston Marita told us, “I was ironing, and was listening to the Marian Finucane show on RTE. They were talking about these three skeletons that had been found. I just had to stop ironing to listen. The field beside the school was a bog, and every day the children who walked to school got wet and dirty – I’ve been on so many school visits since and seen the children’s’ shoes and socks drying on the radiator- the school authority decided that they should drain the field. The poor man with the digger started work and the next thing, he looked in his scoop and there were the bones.

For me, it was the fact that children had been playing over the place that these children had been buried, only a few inches below the surface that really hit home. They were under a Hawthorn tree; I wondered if there had been a cottage nearby, and these children had starved, or if they had been on the road and had huddled under the tree for shelter. The Hawthorn has mystical properties in Irish tradition, and I wondered if the children’s parents had laid them beneath the tree in the hope that it would protect them. I just couldn’t get the idea out of my head.”

Under the Hawthorne Tree begins in 1845 – the potato crop has failed and everywhere people are dying or emigrating. The family of young Eily, Michael and Peggy does not escape. Marita told us, “As story idea evolved I felt them tapping on my shoulder; I had to tell their story.”

Their baby sister dies and is buried under a Hawthorn tree, then their mother leaves them alone to go in search of their father. The children are determined to avoid certain death in the workhouse, so they set off on the dangerous journey to Castletaggart, to their great-aunt’s home.

Fighting hunger, for children the stark reality of death is a constant shadow, yet they are fortunate: their great-aunts welcome them. But what they have lost – their home and family – weighs heavily on them.

As the story develops across the trilogy, we find Eily on board a ship bound for Boston, plucking the straws from her mattress to count the days of the passage.

Marita’s reading was from The Wildflower Girl, where Peggy finally reaches Boston. It felt like history in the making as Marita described Peggy opening her hand and releasing the straws she had counted into the wind.

Martina Devlin told another spine tingling story of emigration that began when she discovered quite by chance that her grandmother’s uncle was a passenger on the Titanic. Uncovering a deep family secret, she discovered that he had been sent the money for the passage by his sisters who were already established in Chicago, and was travelling to United States to start a new life. The catch was, as Martina told us, that he appeared to be eloping with a girl from a neighbouring village who was pregnant with his child.

Ship of Dreams published by Poolbeg Press tells the story of Tom O’Brien and his fiancée, Johanna (Hannah) Godfrey who eloped together from Pallasgreen in County Limerick bound for America on board Titanic as steerage passengers. When Titanic hit the iceberg, on that fateful night of 15th April 1912, Tom perished along with 1516 others and his body was never recovered – but Hannah, the woman who was carrying his child, and her best friend, found a place on the lifeboat.

In a gripping tale Martina fictionalises Tom’s passage and Hannah’s early life in New York, the job she gets in a laundry, her interaction with fellow survivors from the same lifeboat and the birth of her daughter, Marion.

Martina told a packed cabin on board the Jeanie Johnston“When I was writing Ship of Dreams, there was a real sense of blood calling to blood. I had a photo of my granny’s Uncle Tom O’Brien in front of me as I wrote, and I felt that telling his story was a way of reclaiming a family member who was lost to us. Both literally, and almost in family memory too. There wasn’t even a body – steerage class tended not to have anything to identify them, like wallets or shirt collars with initials. There is a mass grave in Halifax in Nova Scotia where unidentified bodies are buried, and I sometimes wonder if he might lie there.”

Martina’s story is a true blend of hope and tragedy beautifully told.

Kate Kerrigan is from rural Mayo and has a different story of emigration to tell, one of the Jazz Age. Ellis Island was a Channel 4 Book Club choice and Kate told us, “Young Irish women left Ireland in their droves throughout the 1920’s and many became so seduced by the glamour and the freedom that they never came back.

“We were visiting Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, on Fifth Avenue, the great Catholic monument with its gold-domed ceilings and papal proportions. It suddenly occurred to me that this would have been one of the first places a young Irish immigrant girl would have come to on arriving in New York. From the simplicity of a cold, country church in Mayo – to the grandeur of St. Pat’s New York – the contrast was so enormous that I immediately began to think about what extraordinary effect all of this conspicuous wealth would have had on the hearts and minds of the young women who came here in the early part of the 20th century. My central character, the passionate and adventurous Ellie Hogan, came alive for me that afternoon – and started me on her journey from rural Ireland to Jazz Age New York and back again.”

Kate is currently promoting the next book in her emigration series City of Hope on a tour of the United States. City of Hope sees Ellie Hogan return to New York after the death of her husband John. She hopes that the city will distract her from her grief but the Depression has rendered the city unrecognisable –gone is the energy and party atmosphere that Ellie fell in love with ten years previously. Then someone she never thought she’d see again steps through Ellie’s door and it seems that even the Atlantic isn’t big enough to prevent the tragedies of the past catching up with her….

The forthcoming Great Writing, Great Places events include  Getting to the Heart of it – tales of romance in the resting place of St. Valentine, in Whitefriar Street Church with best sellers Colette Caddle, Michelle Jackson and Claire Allan (Wednesday 5th October – this event is free)and on Tuesday 18th OctoberDublin on a Plate – food and food writing at its best at Fallon & Byrne with leading food writers Georgina Campbell and Catherine Cleary, and Chef Catherine Fulvio – enjoy a fabulous hot buffet (see link for menu)  for only €20 per head, and listen to our great food writers in style!

About the author

© Vanessa O’Loughlin 2011

Learn more about the fabulous events organised by Dublin UNESCO City of Literature by visiting their Website

You can hear more from John Lonergan, discussing his memoir ‘The Governor, here

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