A journey to Ireland to discover one’s roots is a very important rite of passage for many Irish Americans. Here is one such immigrant tale, told by Irish American Writer Charles R. Hale.
A Journey To County Monaghan:
When I cast my imagination back to the spring of 1854, I see John Hale’s immigrant ship, the Neptune, sailing through the narrows and toward the tip of Manhattan. Straight ahead the city rises against the bay and the sky. The spires of the churches and the masts of the tall ships stand out in the clear light of a spring morning. Moments later, my great-great grandfather comes ashore, and thus, becomes the opening act in my family’s American story.
Hale and Sullivan, Keating and Kelly, McCarthy and Gorman, they arrived during the nineteenth century and they stayed. They built the tunnels and bridges, they worked the saloons that lined the Bowery and they fought the fires. But like many of the Irish, they failed to pass along their stories. No one wanted to talk about starvation.
What were they like, the earlier generations that wandered through the city, slept in buildings now gone to dust and then vanished into silence? I was confronted with all that had been lost: the names and faces, buildings and streets, their joys and disappointments, and their stories. And what about their lives in Ireland? Their lives remained untold and unrecorded. All but one…
* * * * *
My grandfather Allie Gorman said one of the police or peelers, was smacking around his fifteen-year old father, George, in the family butcher shop. Apparently, George responded in kind, and then some. Everyone in the family would laugh. “Ol’ George didn’t take guff from no one,” they’d say of our ancestral tough-guy. The Royal Irish Constabulary last saw George hightailing it out of Ireland and landing, by all accounts, his pugnacious, disputatious, vainglorious self in NYC on February 13, 1891.
Did that really happen? I had no proof, but I did learn that the Gormans owned a butcher shop and a farm in Castleblayney, a small town about fifty miles north of Dublin. And so, in the summer of 1996, I gathered my wife, Karen, my son, Christopher and my mother together and said, “We’re going to Ireland. Maybe we can learn what really happened.”
Never the intrepid one, my mother said, “Let’s be careful…they may still be looking for someone.” Irish grudges don’t die that hard, do they?
We landed in Dublin and drove straight to Castleblayney. I’d been referred to an older gent, Jackie Byrnes, who knew of the family. He said he grew up on the property next to the Gormans and he offered to take us out to the farm.
A mile from the center of town, I pulled the car onto a dirt road. The unoccupied farmhouse came into view. We entered the house and soon my mother was standing in front of a fireplace. She stood there in silence, staring, imagining. And although she didn’t express it as such, my mother appeared to be on a pilgrimage and was, at last, standing in front of a holy shrine.
I felt her emotions gather. She said, “It’s the first time I’ve ever felt my father was connected to something. His childhood on the streets of New York was filled with misery. It always seemed as if nothing or no one came before him. I feel better knowing there really is a link, a connection between my father, my grandfather, and Ireland.”
We left the site, drove our guide home, and thanked him for all he’d done. “I guess I’ll never know if the butcher shop story is true,” I said to Jackie.
“Aye, but now you’ll tell the story of your mother standing in her ancestral home, honoring the past. ‘Tis a grand story, indeed,” Jackie said.
* * * * *
I occasionally wonder why my great grandfather George left Ireland. I’ve spent hours poring through old newspapers and police reports seeking to learn the truth of that story, but I’ve found nothing. Perhaps he hadn’t told my grandfather Allie the truth. When he told the ‘butcher shop’ story it might have been a blend of fact and fiction, including the disdain he felt for the police and Anglo-Irish authority. Or maybe it was my grandfather Allie who reworked the story into a myth for his purposes. Fights, hardship and struggle dominated Allie’s adolescence; perhaps he reinterpreted his father’s story to help him survive his childhood.
And so when I think back to that summer of 1996, I see my mother standing in front of the fireplace, in communion with her father and grandfather. The expressiveness of her silence was more powerful than any words I can write or speak. But in that moment, in her silence, I knew our family story had changed forever. The story of struggle and survival, so important to nineteenth century Irish immigrants and first generation Irish-Americans, was no longer relevant to my family. The butcher shop story served us well but it had lost its usefulness, and once a story loses its usefulness it loses its purpose. A new and more powerful story had emerged, my family’s need–our human need–for connection.
Charles R. Hale is a writer and storyteller who is particularly interested in family stories. He combines genealogical research and family lore, cultural aspects of a period such as music, art and sports, with local and world events in order to obtain an understanding of an ancestor’s everyday existence. Charles has had a number of stories published in literary magazines and has presented his stories at colleges and museums in New York City, as well as New England. Charles is an active member of the Irish American Writers & Artists, an organization that celebrates the achievements of Irish-American writers and artists, both past and present.
To read more of Charles’ stories, visit his website Stories Connect Love Heals
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Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
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