I first visited America in the 1990s when I went on holiday to Boston to visit my cousins. Boston is a city I absolutely love and for an Irish person it can feel like a home away from home. During that first visit one of my cousins asked me if we had electricity in my home. Somewhat confused I asked why we wouldn’t. But as we talked I realised we were talking about two very different places, both called Ireland.
For my cousin, Ireland was a place frozen in time like a John Hinde photograph. Ireland was a place that lived in the stories told to her by her grandmother about the Donegal left behind. My grand aunt Margaret (my cousins grandmother) left Ireland in the 1920s. For a young girl in in that time there were two choices, get married if possible or emigrate. Emigration was not some big adventure to broaden the mind. Emigration was a necessity borne of the hardships of 1920s Ireland. So Margaret boarded the SS Cameronia, leaving her home as an emigrant to make a new life in a land built by immigrants.
From the moment they board that boat or plane every emigrant carries Ireland like a time capsule to their adopted home. It is their most treasured possession which they keep alive through the stories they tell their children and grandchildren. They in turn create a huge diaspora of people throughout the world who identify as Irish. These people carry Ireland with them as a longing for a place they may have never seen, a sense of belonging to a people they hardly know.
For me, modern Ireland is very different from the place our emigrant ancestors left. If there are happy maidens and athletic youths dancing at the crossroads, then they are more likely to be dancing to Macklemore than O’Riada. We spend as much time as anyone on Facebook or Twitter or YouTube (all of whom have international headquarters in Dublin). Emigration is still part of the Irish experience. But now it is often a choice rather than a necessity. And for those of us who have lived away from Ireland, it is a more connected exile with news from home online and family a Skype call away.
I’ve been back to America many times since that first visit. I have connected with cousins from Montpelier, VT to San Diego, CA. For me these connections have been some of the most rewarding aspects of finding out about my family history. Learning about the experiences of those who left and those who stayed behind has brought us closer as cousins, bridging the gap between modern Ireland and the Ireland of our past.
The Ireland that we dreamed of has changed much over the last few decades. But some things have not changed. We still have our great love of family and our love of story. We are renowned the world over as great storytellers. This St. Patrick’s Day reach out to your Irish relatives across the world. This is a great time to tell your Irish family story.
Beannachtaí Lá Fhéile Phádraig daoibh go léir.