Thousands are Sailing - Ireland's emigrant legacy
The experience of the Irish community in Britain is often overlooked in explorations of the relationship between Britain and Ireland, particularly the huge numbers of men and women who, forced by economic hardship, left Ireland to seek work in England in the years after the Second World War. In order to give voice to this huge well of experiences, the Wolfe Tone Society has organised ``Thousands are Sailing'', a day of commemoration of post-war emigration to England to be held in Camden Irish Centre on 9 September. The day will include a series of lectures, exhibitions, music and dancing and a showing of Philip Donnellan's banned documentary, The Irishman.
The primary inspiration for the event, however, has been provided by the award-winning book `I Could Read the Sky', a brilliant and poignant novel by Timothy O'Grady which, together with stunning photographs by Steve Pyke, explores the nature of memory and exile. The book has also been successfully adapted into a play and after its first performance in London last year, will be staged again, performed by O'Grady himself, as the climax of the day's events.
There were so many children who were doomed to emigrate and when they came to England they felt shame because they were outcasts. They were regarded with at best indifference and at worst outright hostility
Although born and brought up in Chicago, O'Grady spent a considerable time living in London, and the motivation for the book arose partly from his experience of the exiled Irish community in the city, as well as his family's origins in County Kerry. Whilst Ireland itself is full of memories, O'Grady felt that this sense of history had not really found its way to emigration; ``one of the main areas of experience involving a lot of memory''.
``I had been living in London for about 15 plus years and been around the bars enjoying the music and mixing with Irish emigrants of all ages, a lot of whom were labouring,'' he explains. ``I knew Donegal and the Arran Islands and my family are originally from Kerry, so I had experience of the West of Ireland.
``The possibility for the book came up in a strange way. My publisher had seen Steve Pyke's pictures - Steve had been photographing Ireland for ten years - and we wanted to find a way of producing a book which was not just captions to photographs. We wanted a real interaction between the pictures and the words because they come from the same root experience, but still that each of them do what only they could do. Photographs are like memories; they take a moment and allow you to transport someone somewhere else, freezing the moment in time - like an act of memory itself.
``I looked at the pictures and it took me about two years to work out what approach to take. It was never anticipated as a novel - it just evolved into that. I looked at a lot of collaboration between writers and photographers and they didn't really need each other, so I wanted it to be a genuine book, not just some publisher's invention.''
He also recalls being struck by the letters which appeared - and still do - in The Irish Post, the London-based newspaper for the Irish community in Britain in which relatives tried to track down those who emigrated and then simply disappeared.
``The Irish Post regularly runs letters such as `Looking for Mary Doyle who was known to frequent such-and-such ballroom in 1962'. Within my own family circle, my ex-wife's uncle didn't get the land, so he went away and nothing was heard of him ever again. All his nieces and nephews tried to find him and it was agony; this absence, a terrible ache, a feeling of distress and shame for this man who'd vanished and they didn't know where. Eventually he died in Nottingham in a tiny bedsit and it was two weeks before the body was discovered. There are lots of stories like that.''
Other small incidents and experiences have also played a part in the shaping of O'Grady's work. One such incident, he explains, occurred in his native Kerry.
``An elderly man passed by and were talking about a nearby house. He spoke about the builders, not about the owners - something you never hear in England. There is a tendency there to forget who actually put the bricks on the ground. I was very aware that this book was about the people who built the cities and laid roads but who had no memorial to them.''
d although the reasons for mass emigration were historically primarily political and economic, O'Grady feels that social and cultural factors were also significant. The complex sense of shame on the part of emigrants, often one of the defining experiences of life in England, was very geographically specific. Those who went to America, for instance, had a rather different experience.
``I think shame has been endemic in Irish life, although not everyone has participated in it to the same degree. Poverty brings shame even when there is nothing that can be done about it. There were so many children who were doomed to emigrate and when they came to England they felt shame because they were outcasts. They were regarded with at best indifference and at worst outright hostility. They were trying to deal with conventions of language which were totally alien to them and which made them reluctant even to speak.
``Irish emigrants were received utterly differently in America, partly, it has to be said, because they were white and spoke English. But of course there wasn't the colonial history and the political antagonism as there was with Britain.''
For all that, however, O'Grady explains that he did not originally consciously intend his book to act as a memorial. ``I just wanted to tell the story. But some people I have met say, for example, that it bought their father back to life. It commemorates a lost generation, because they were outsiders in England, and exiles in Ireland.''
However, whilst the days of mass emigration may be over, there are aspects of contemporary Ireland which still disturb O'Grady.
``Ireland has become a terribly vulgar place,'' he says. ``There are ostentatious displays of wealth on show. The money has been and is being made rapidly and there's a smugness there. The rich are rapidly changing the culture of the country but the people at the bottom are living completely different lives.
``There are class differences. You're damned if you live on certain housing estates and your children are damned too. It's probably why the state is terrified of Sinn Féin - because they connect with those people. Sinn Féin are on the estates and involved in the fight against the drugs and the state is very frightened - it doesn't want that kind of politics entering into society and has used all sorts of people, including drug-pushers, to try and discredit Sinn Féin. It is scared of the politicisation of a mass of working class people - as in the North. People in Dublin might get woken up and start to shake the system.
``Like Sinn Féin in Belfast. The present generation are very focused, very energetic and imaginative about moving power, and they have done a lot of it. I was amazed by the politics in Belfast and thrilled by it because it is an entirely different kind. There is an unstoppable bunch of people there.''
`Thousands are Sailing', a day of commemoration of post-war Irish emigration, will be held at Camden Irish Centre, Murray Street, London N1 on Saturday 9 September, beginning at 12 noon, with music by Shane McGowan and the Popes, Sean Brady and others. Entry is free. Timothy O'Grady's `I Could Read the Sky' begins at 6pm in the McNamara Hall and tickets for the performance are £5.
I Could Read the Sky is published by The Harvill Press, price £6.99.
BY FERN LANE