The Irish have been scattered to the four corners of the earth since 1607 when the defeated Earls fled to Spain hoping to return to fight another day with the English armies overwhelming their country. By the 1680s, France had become their destination of choice, and all Irish children learn the story of Patrick Sarsfield who gave his life for his adopted country during the religious wars, mourning only that he was not dying for Ireland. The Irish fled to every European country, and even into Chile where Bernardo O’Higgins rallied Chile to fight for independence from Spain and Argentina. The promise of the United States lured many rugged, independently minded Presbyterians including, notably, Andrew Jackson.
But it was the calamity of the Great Famine in 1845 that put the poverty-stricken Irish on the boats to America. In their journeys all around the world they carried with them a sense of identity and a race memory of injustice that shaped many of them. This tiny nation seems to have peopled half the world — and yet always that sense of being Irish remains, though sometimes it is unclear what that means. Irish men have been presidents of France and the United States and a famous Irish regiment had a conscientious objection to the Mexican War and switched sides to fight for Mexico. They paid with their lives but are immortalized in Mexico City with a statue dedicated to the San Patricios.
So what does it mean, being Irish?
This is the year of The Gathering in Ireland, a year-long celebration and a call to all to return to reconnect with their extended families and their history. Small distances can be very long in a country where identity is defined by family and by place, and the past seems always present. I have known the village of Dubh Lough in County Mayo all my life and known that my grandmother was born there, but my connection with her has always been through the place where she lived after she married a man 25 years her senior and reared eight children on five acres of poor bog land. She was fascinating to me when, as a child, I watched her light her pipe and converse in Irish. Like most women of her generation, in that place she was the leader, respected and obeyed and perhaps even feared. I recall the only advice that she ever gave me which was in response to something I had said: “You can sit in the corner and keep your mouth shut and have everyone think you are a fool or you can open it and prove them right.”
In her mind, self esteem was based on capability not on positive affirmation! Now I had been invited to return to the village of her birth and meet the second cousins whose existence I had always known about but whom I had never met. We were all to meet in Dubh Lough on Friday for a four-day celebration beginning with a visit to the old house, where Nan, as we knew her, was born. Now that tiny white house served as a stable and the Atlantic Ocean lapped at the shore where the village she would have known had been replaced by a clutch of luxury holiday homes. One member of the party had traveled from Australia and reflected that as a young child 50 years before he had attended a two-room schoolhouse with 100 other children and no bathrooms. “Now it seems that there are three or four houses, all of them with five bathrooms but there are no kids and there is no school,” he said.
As we gathered and tentatively reached out to each other, stories began to be pieced together. It seems that just before the War of Independence, Nan’s brother became a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary and fled to England never to be seen again once British rule in Ireland was over. Other members of the family had fought for Irish independence, and others had simply struggled to make a living from poor soil and cottage industries such as weaving and button making. What does it mean that we all share the same blood? It means that we share the love of poetry and song for which the Irish are renowned and we all have a piece of a story that gets put together like a patchwork quilt. The village of Dubh Lough is in the Gaeltacht. Irish is the primary language used, so the mass that is an integral part of any Irish event is celebrated in Gaelic, the language that my grandmother and her contemporaries spoke. Somehow the poetic Irish language, the lapping of the ocean, the clear starlit skies and the seafood served were all as they would have been known 100 or even 200 years ago. They would have been familiar to the ancestors we all shared. It was easy to imagine those straight-backed people walking to the end of the beach road to say goodbye to children they might never see again. Their stoic acceptance of the realities of their lives meant that there could be no self pity. The most that I ever heard anyone of that generation say about the hard lives they lived was: “What can’t be cured must be endured.”
Now all the old promises had been fulfilled. The sons and daughters who had never returned and those who went for a year and stayed away a lifetime were represented on the beach at Dubh Lough. The ancestors must have been proud. In the words of one of our number: “Thank God for who we are, and what we are and how we are.”
Elaine Cawley Weintraub is chairman of the history department at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. She recently returned from a gathering of her Carey family clan in Dubh Lough, County Mayo, Ireland.