GET THE BOAT: Insightful New Book Explores Themes of Irish Migration and Identity

In Irish Post columnist Joe Horgan’s new book, he explores themes of migration and identity. The following is an excerpt from People That Don’t Exist Are Citizens of A Made Up Country…

I am sitting in a car in County Cork facing the Atlantic.

I look at the Atlantic like so many others have done before me. This is Ireland and it is a very Irish story.

In the mid-1950s, in his mid-twenties, my dad got tired.

By his own account, he grew tired of a society where the few jobs that existed were awarded on the basis of a nod and a wink.

He didn’t want that. He didn’t want to spend his younger years standing in line, he said.

He didn’t want to realize too late that the future was elsewhere.

He didn’t want to have to accept the little that was offered to him.

He didn’t want to have to be so grateful. So he got on a boat. He got on a boat and left County Cork and crossed the Irish Sea to Great Britain.

Beside him, gazing out from the railings of that boat, watching the lights of Cork harbor fade away, stood the woman who would become my mother.

She was eighteen and was leaving Ireland for the first time. I can see her now by looking in the rearview mirror of the car.

I can see her setting there in the backseat.

She was eighteen and was crossing the Irish Sea to Britain. Across the cold expanse. Through the water.

I have a photo of her at this time. She has long black curly hair and a skirt almost to the ankles. It’s a photograph so it’s not exactly her but you can still see her.

You can see her eyes and skin and long black curly hair.

In the rearview mirror, I see her now, the same woman some fifty years later. I can see her eyes and her skin and her shorter, still dark hair.

She has aged well. The lines around his eyes little, the graying on the sides little. She has nearly six decades and six children from the young woman in the photo, but it’s still her. She is always there.

Six decades after landing. She’s still in the picture too.

This book was written in the rural hills of Cork overlooking Dan and Margaret Murphy’s farm.

A short distance from the path from here, between two abandoned outbuildings, a break in the trees gives a framed view of the other side of the valley.

In the distance, traffic from Cork’s main road and, in the rain, vast herds of noisy crows.

An old map of this area shows that there were once twelve dwellings in the courtyard at the top of this alley. There is only one house left, lonely. It’s a safe bet, here in Ireland, that some of the inhabitants of these missing homes have become immigrants, migrants, economic refugees.

On the walls of an Irish social club in England, there is a painted version of this scene.

The boreen meanders above the chairs, the artist’s skill gives him a perspective of distance, and the hay is armed in the fields.

Whitewashed cottages dot the stage, and from red half-doors men and women lean forward.

At a table below, I sit with my mom and dad as they talk and drink.

The floor is sticky and on a Saturday night here or a Sunday afternoon, men with big hands are dancing with their wives and they are dancing to get home. Outside there are the streets of an English town but inside are the immigrants and it is a different place.

My parents came to England from Cork in 1954 from Ireland with little work and little prospect for a couple who wanted to start a family and build a life.

Prior to emigrating their knowledge of Britain was limited, but newspapers, movies, and word of mouth all spoke of a land with plenty of job opportunities.

After all, it wasn’t as if emigration was a drastic option for the type of Ireland they lived in or the type of Irish they were.

Regardless, about the ubiquity of their choice, the emotional impact of leaving home has not been lessened. My mother says that for the first six months she hardly left her rooms, and even the sheer height of the buildings bothered her.

The city they came to was purely a matter of luck. Manchester, Sheffield, Glasgow, London were all places of work, all cities of immigration, but eventually, for no identifiable reason they can remember, they went to Birmingham and stayed there for over forty years.

Thus, in the English Midlands, far from their Irish origins and the imaginations of their youth, they had a family in a town which they had chosen at random as some could make a choice by sticking a pin in a piece of paper.

This is based on a singular personal story, although the large number of Irish immigrants to Britain fully account for this shared experience.

More importantly, however, a family story can be a glimpse into something that is more of a burning social issue than ever before.

The question of immigration, migration, refugees.

At any time while writing this article, I could have stopped and spotted a report on migrants in the Mediterranean.

Migrants on land or drowned migrants.

It remains the story of our time, whether it’s through the Trump wall, the psychological Brexit wall, or the orange-bodied people swinging in the water.

I’m from downtown Britain and my voice and vowels, maybe my face, only betray that.

But in looking for the tabloid immigrant bogeyman, I didn’t have to look very far.

I just looked at the people I grew up with.

I just looked at those who are sitting next to me in the living room.

Joe Horgan’s book People That Don’t Exist Are Citizens of A Made Up Country is available here.

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