Please Treasure Our History
By Cormac MacConnell
April / May 2008
Many of you out there in the diaspora are in possession of treasures of our history which we here at home either carelessly lost or callously threw away into the footprints of the Celtic Tiger. That reality was hammered home to me an hour ago.
I was in my neighbor Jimmy’s house and his Limerick mother was there. Her eyes were glowing as she showed me an aerial photo of the long-thatched West Limerick cottage in which she was bred, born and raised, one of nineteen children altogether.
They were hard but happy times, she said, her fingers caressing the front wall and eaves of what had been home. She did not weep but she was deeply moved, and rightly so.
Their thatched cottage was later sold for about 300 Irish punts. Later it was converted into a bungalow.
Now it no longer exists at all. That aerial photo, taken in the late fifties or early sixties, is the only photo she has of her birthplace.
It came across the Atlantic to her in a small cache of treasures that belonged to a relative in New York whom she never met but had corresponded with for no less than 37 years! Her American relative had a fear of flying so never made it back home to Limerick and died some months ago.
Her family, finding the lengthy correspondence across the ocean, put the cache of mementos together and sensitively forwarded it back to Jimmy’s mother in Limerick. They were not to know that one of the items they sent back was a bone rosary that was a gift from Jimmy’s mother to her cousin nearly thirty years ago.
Now she sat before me with her eyes feasting on the black and white image of the cottage in which she was born. It was a special experience for me.
Yes, many of you out there in the diaspora possess family treasures we have allowed to slip away. When the good times came we threw away far too much, including too many elements of our histories.
Keep them safe, please, both for yourselves and those who will follow. And for us. More and more we will appreciate them.
I have personal experience. Six or seven years ago in the Bronx I met the oldest survivor of the generation before my father. All my grandparents had passed away before I was born.
This feisty old lady, since gone to God, was able to tell me about my father’s mother Bridgie (“She’d had a stroke. She was still out on the farm feeding calves even though one side was nearly totally paralyzed. She was as cross as a cat!”)
And many more items of my genetic cargo were related to me before a rich evening ended before a peat fire and beside a nearly emptied bottle of Irish whiskey. I learned a lot about myself that evening and was the better for it.
I think this situation exists because those who emigrated – to the U.S. especially – fundamentally believed they were making a one-way trip. I think they knew they would be lucky if they were able to afford a trip home in later years.
Hence the power and poignancy of the so-called “American wakes” in the hours before the hackneys brought emigrants down to Cobh and the waiting ships. And surely that mindset enriched the later nostalgic memories of home, surely it enhanced the importance of the letters and photos and family news from Ireland.
If the “American letters” back home with vital dollars were important over here then, I’m now certain that the “Irish letters” to the ones far away in Boston and New York and Chicago were just as vital for family survival.
And I think we did not preserve our 50 percent of that cache of emigrant documents as well as you did on the other side.
Only last Halloween, for example, I wrote here about the execution in 1923 by the Free State of a young IRA man called Patrick Hennessy after he and his colleague Con McMahon were captured after attempting to blow up the railway lines at Ardsolus Railway Station in Clare. It was a minor engagement of our dreadful Civil War.
It would be long forgotten in Clare but for American resident and family member Ellen Murphy, who has donated the correspondence relating to the event, including Hennessy’s touching eve-of-execution letters, to the Clare County Museum. Because of those letters, good Irishmen are now known about, honored, remembered with sadness.
Any time I have visited the U.S. in recent years I’ve talked to older emigrants who possessed a crystal clarity about what they left, how they traveled, what they found when they passed through Ellis Island.
Memorable was the late Peg Pierce from Liscannor, who recalled that she danced so much during the voyage that her Clare feet blistered inside her shoes. Contrary to our common belief, she was dancing with joy at having escaped from a harsh and hungry economic background with, at best, a nearly enforced marriage in her late teens to a much older farmer.
Thereafter she would have a huge family and a corresponding workload. She did much better over on the other side. And she knew it. But she still missed home so very much down the years.
Back here at home, after decades of hardship and emigration, we threw out too many of the babies with the bath water when the better times came. Modern homes replaced the cottages, and the old photos and correspondences were too often devalued and lost.
We were – and are – in such a hurry to get where we are going that we wanted to forget the most of where we came from. The regrets are starting about now. And they will become sharper in the years ahead.
What did Aunt Alice look like before she went to Boston in ’22?
Did we really have a photo of an uncle who was a cowboy on the Oregon Trail cattle drives?
Was Thomas really a GI in World War II?
Was Colleen truly a beauty queen in Chicago in 1947? Have we any photos of her?
You in the diaspora have more proofs of our scattered histories than we have anymore. You treasured our past better than we did. For God’s sake (and ours) don’t lose it or throw it away like we did.
I wish ye all could have seen Jimmy’s mother’s glowing eyes.
Cormac MacConnell is a columnist for the Irish Voice newspaper where the above commentary previously appeared.