My ancestors were the ones who left.
Generations ago on my father’s mother’s side, they emigrated from Co. Cork to England. We know very little about this part of our family (though I’m determined to discover more).
On my mother’s side, my great-great grandmother emigrated from Co. Antrim to America at the beginning of the 20th century. We know much more about this lineage, and I had the honor of reconnecting with some distant family in Northern Ireland when I visited in August. They welcomed me in profound ways, and as I shared some of the sean-nós songs I’ve learned, I was not the only one who felt the presence of our ancestors.
The wound of mass emigration was (and still is) deeply felt in both Ireland & the diaspora. Generations on, I believe that this ancestral wound is calling to be felt, acknowledged and healed.
To demonstrate the heartache that came with both leaving and being left behind, I want to share a few words about a tradition called “The American Wake”. American wakes took place prior to the Great Famine, but most evidence survives from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Here is an entry from the National Folklore Collection about this custom:
“It was the old custom to have what they called a great ‘Spree’ on the eve of the departure to America. At this all the friends and relatives were. They ate and drank, sang, danced and played during the night. Some time near morning, the parents of the boy or girl who was going to America set up a terrible cry. Then the relatives joined and afterwards the friends. Then was set up a terrible chorus of Cries which lasted well over an hour. This usually occurred a couple of hours before day break. Then all the guests went to the station with the person who was leaving. The train was due at 8 o’clock. Sometimes when the young girls or young boys would be leaving the station, a terrible cry would be set up by all.”
This folk tradition strikes me to the very core. Maybe you feel this, too?
Scott’s Quay, Queenstown, Cork
Along with the deep ache of grief and loss felt by relatives and communities left behind, I imagine that there were sometimes feelings of abandonment and even betrayal. A sense that the ones who left were lucky to escape the traumas of colonial oppression. Poverty, famine, and religious persecution were the primary reasons that people left, all of which were heavily influenced by English Imperialism.
It’s estimated that at least 8 million men, women and children emigrated from Ireland between 1801 and 1921.
To give an indication of the colossal nature of this mass emigration, consider that roughly one in two people born in Ireland in the nineteenth century left.
While not all Irish migrants were poor, most were. Many did not have money to move beyond the eastern port where they landed, such as New York and Boston.
My great-great-grandmother arrived in Boston and worked as a baker in the home of a wealthy family outside of the city, which would have been a desirable position (my grandmother told me that a friend of my great-great grandmother helped her to get the job).
Irish immigrants faced great discrimination in America, and often did the most undesirable and dangerous jobs. Though my great-great grandmother was lucky in terms of her employment, she would have certainly experienced other forms of discrimination. (During a very powerful healing that I did with my mother line, she showed me a vision of something horrific that happened to her.)
My American family is still based just outside of Boston in a town called Mansfield, where my Italian ancestors also immigrated to.
There is a hauntingly beautiful song called A Stór mo Chroí which means “treasure of my heart” that speaks to the heartache of emigration, written by Brian O’Higgins at the turn of the century. The narrative is written from the perspective of the land of Ireland itself, poetically called Erin:
Like my great-great grandmother, most Irish emigrants who left their homes during the era of mass migration were aged between 18 and 30 years old, usually unmarried, and often never returned or saw their families again.
The sorrow, homesickness, and heartache my great-great grandmother would have inevitably experienced still feels very potent in my ancestral memory and DNA, and the severance of ties to Land and Lineage has left a legacy of uprootedness, displacement and unbelonging that I know many modern-day Americans and Canadians experience.
After the time that my great-great grandmother emigrated in the early 20th century, Ireland underwent a huge period of disruption, conflict and change. This history includes the rebellion of 1916 (called Easter Rising) which set the scene for the next five years, bringing about the Irish Free State in 1922 and the division of Northern Ireland.
Following this, there was then the civil war in Northern Ireland (known as “The Troubles”) which started because of mounting tensions between Catholic nationalists and Protestant loyalists. In the 1960s, Catholics in cities like Derry and Belfast advocated to end housing and employment discrimination, and to obtain equal voter rights (‘One man, one vote’). The conflict lasted about 30 years, from the late 1960s to 1998.
Despite the discrimination my ancestors undoubtedly faced in America and in England, they were the lucky ones. They were fortunate to escape the hardships that the Irish faced on native soil in their fight against English imperialism.
My great-great grandmother on my mother’s side, Lizzie Dunlop. Her father was Scotch Irish, hence the name Dunlop.
We are descendants of this recent history, and at times, I deeply feel the divide between those of us in the diaspora and those in Ireland.
Lately, I’ve held a question in my heart around how we might heal together and heal our ancestors, too.
Sharing our ancestral history and stories feels like an important piece in this healing and reconciliation work, so that we can better acknowledge and understand the hardships and challenges our ancestors faced. This gives us an opportunity to honor and acknowledge the history we share, and also the places where our history divides, and how this history has shaped us.
I’m eternally grateful for my Irish elders and mentors and all those who have shown allyship in the bridging of this divide. We all have roots, even though our roots look different, and we are all navigating so many layers of ancestral trauma.
I would love to hear your reflections on this topic and your ancestral stories so we might heal, learn and grow together.