An old man in Belmullet, a native of the Inishkea islands, was asked if he ever went back to the island. ‘I do,’ he said. ‘Mostly every year: I like to go back and walk around the old place.’ The islands, low lying land off the Mullet peninsula, had been evacuated in the 1930s, a few years after a fishing tragedy that took the lives of ten men, who now lie buried in Faulmore.
Like that old man my own family liked to go back every year, from Lancashire to Erris and Glencullen, and to walk around the old place. It was my mother’s home and it was also home to us, her children. I have been going back, mostly, every year of my life to the Mayo of my forebears, and truth to tell, I go back there every morning when I wake. Erris is imprinted on my heart and mind.
I have been fortunate to be able to do that, living in an age when travel is easy and money is there. For many other people, thousands of them, leaving Ireland and home was a break that would never heal, a one way journey away from all that was familiar and into the unknown. In the 1950s, the decade of my childhood, when I was making happy journeys to Erris for the holidays, over half a million young Irish people were making their way to England, on a one way ticket, to find work and to make a life. Most of these people never came home again. Their story is recorded in a book, first published in 2003 and now reissued, An Unconsidered People, by Catherine Dunne.
Ireland in those years was a poor and underdeveloped country that mirrored exactly the naïve vision of De Valera who had spoken of comely maidens and of children playing at the crossroads. It would take the inspired work of the economist, T K Whitaker, to bring change about in Ireland. This man, in his later years, bought the old school house in Glencullen, where my mother had received her education, and on a fine summer’s day he welcomed my mother and her sister, Sarah and myself into his house and we exchanged stories about the place.
When my mother left home in 1935 she said goodbye to her own mother, promising to be back soon. No, you won’t, her brother, John told her. This really was goodbye. It would be sixty years before my mother came back from Lancashire, a widow, and made her home in the West once more. She was forever grateful to England that gave her the opportunity to make a life for herself.
But mammy did come home often, to visit her mother, every summer, and we children were introduced to Ireland and to Mayo and to Erris. We were very blessed to be able to make that journey, and to see a world so very different from our own cobbled streets in Lancashire. We have the benefit of both worlds.
Later on, as a priest working in London, I would meet the London Irish, that unconsidered people, and I would enjoy running parish dances where Irish bands would play. And every now and then I would bump into someone, single and getting on in years, who had left Ireland and never gone home. There was a sadness sometimes in that.
On my father’s side, the Fahys of Westport, three sisters of my grandfather went off to America and to Chicago in the early years of the 1900s. Those girls said goodbye to their mother and father, knowing full well they would never see them again in this world. They made good lives in America.
One of those girls, Ellen Fahy, married a Mayo man, Michael Devanie of Hollymount. She had four children and then died in childbirth in 1923, aged 35 years. In recent months I traced my cousins in America and spoke via email with Ellen’s grandson, also Michael Devanie, a retired lawyer in Wisconsin. It turns out Michael and his wife had visited Westport for themselves, about twenty years ago, and called on my sister while there.
Our roots have powerful connection to the earth. Like that old man in Belmullet, we like to go back and to walk around the old place.
17 May 2022