Immigrants have traveled from Ireland to America for over two hundred and fifty years. This traffic is usually thought of as one-way, flowing in a westerly direction across the Atlantic ocean. Today I wish to challenge that assumption!
As I read more stories of the Irish in America, I have come to realize, not every immigrant stayed in their newly adopted land.
Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes tells his parents’ tale of immigration to America, where he was born. Their return to Ireland was prompted by the unexpected, tragic death of their daughter in 1935.
They left New York as America tried to emerge from the Great Depression, only to suffer further impoverishment in Ireland. As I read this beautifully crafted memoir, I could not help but question McCourt’s parents’ decision to leave America.
Until I read this book in 1997, I always considered an immigrant’s return to Ireland, a very rare occurrence.
During research for my post on The Old Woman Of The Roads, a poem by Padraic Colum, I discovered the poet’s father spent three years working in the United States. The young Padraic, his mother and siblings remained in Ireland while his father joined the Colorado gold rush. Unlike most immigrants, the elder Colum returned to Ireland in 1892. The norm would have been to send passage fares for his family to join him in America.
I started to wonder how frequently Irish immigrants returned to the land of their birth, choosing an Irish life over the possibility of achieving the American Dream. Was the road to American success not paved with gold as they originally envisioned?
I did not need to look beyond my own family to find evidence of bidirectional immigration. When I discussed this topic with my parents I learned two of my great-grandfather’s spent time in America in the late 1800’s, before returning to Ireland to live out their lives.
My maternal great-grandfather Henry Browne was born near Skibbereen, County Cork. He spent close to twenty years working near Salem, Massachussets, before returning to Ireland to marry my great-grandmother, Margaret Leahy in the early 1900’s. I have no details of his American life. He returned to farm the family land and to marry, when many might have thought him a confirmed bachelor. The motivating factor for his return was land. No matter how far from home an Irishman may wander, the thought of family land being lost forever, will always tug on his heart strings.
My paternal great-grandfather, William Geary was born near Kildorrery, Co. Cork in 1852. He spent close to a year in the United States in the late 1880’s. The purpose of his trip is a family mystery. In his absence, his wife Teresa Carver and my great-grandmother worked the family farm with great efficiency, creating prosperity the family had never before known. She was probably delighted not to have to cover her husband’s bar tab, while he was off gallivanting the world.
We thought perhaps he was part of an Irish group of athletes from the newly formed Gaelic Athletic Assocation, who traveled to America on an unsuccessful fund raising trip. This “American Invasion” was a display of Irish games and athletics for Americans organized in 1888.
My great-grandfather was a weight lifter, a founding member of the Kildorrery GAA, with a liking for a drink or two, and a wander lust he could never quench. Upon further investigation, his name did not appear on the list of athletes who participated in the GAA tour. The dates of his absence did not quite coincide with this trip. Where he went, what he did, or whatever notion took him across the Atlantic ocean remains a mystery to this day. All we know is that he returned, and took up life where he left off.
And so my question today, is how often did immigrants return to Ireland, after spending some time in America?
If you have an immigrant tale of two-way traffic between Ireland and America, I would love to hear it. Please feel free to share your family stories here on this blog.
If you think you may have a story that might be great material for a blog post, just leave a message in the comment section, or send me an e-mail via my contact page.
If I ever find out where my great-grandfather visited in America, I will be sure to share the story with you.
Slan agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom