As I pick back up most of the rest of my life, I’m trying very hard to hold onto the memory of these last two weeks. While the Baltimore sun glared down on me yesterday I found it especially pleasant to recall being wet and even a bit chilly at times, needing an additional layer or two. With the loss of spring, Baltimore’s weather quickly becomes the kind that my mother used to say “takes the starch out of you.” Yesterday I willed myself to remember, instead, my feet sloshing within my sneakers, pants glued to my legs as I plunged into the high grasses of a graveyard coated with the remains of the previous downpour as Jane and I looked for a particular stone one afternoon. Mind over matter worked like a charm.
When driving along quiet roads in Ireland one nods or raises one’s hand in greeting, actively looking into the eyes of another. In Ireland people also talk about the weather. A greeting and mutual acknowledgement of a beautiful day is common, or comments about yesterday’s beautiful day as we mutually anticipate the current weather to change. And change it does, constantly, which accounts for perfect weather in my book, including the rain. I love the description of misty Irish days as “soft,” and I love the cloud-filled skies both before and after the rainfalls, one set made up of velvety grays, another set an endless array of postcard-worthy compositions. I have been waking these past few mornings thinking I’m still somewhere in Ireland. I welcome this sensation for as long as it takes for my soul to completely make its own journey back.
On my first afternoon and night in Ireland I came upon some contrasts—other realizations beyond the island’s contemporary and ancient beauty. The economy is indeed in dire condition, as I’d known from the global news. But several times throughout my trip I heard the statement voiced, “There is no money in Ireland.” When I shopped at Penny’s that first afternoon, trying to find something to put on other than what I’d been wearing for three days in transit, the place was packed with women and girls shopping. The amount of activity was surprising. There seemed to be more people inside that store than had been on the sidewalks. Were the more expensive clothing stores as well-populated?
After I got back to the place where I was staying, showered, changed and re-emerged, considering an attempt to find someplace to eat, I encountered even less, and different, outside activity. I wandered around the area, passing a small group of twenty-somethings drinking beer on a church’s steps, one woman’s face covered in bruises, then headed across a bridge into a neighborhood. When it turned out that the likely eating establishments were closed, I asked an elderly woman who was walking with packages from recent shopping if she could tell me where I might find a cafe nearby. She seemed startled that I addressed her and hurriedly told me there was no such place there, to walk in the other direction, and proceeded to get herself home. Along the river toward the next bridge I passed another small group of young people who seemed oddly threatening. Soon I was near Penny’s again. Turning to walk up the block I almost came face to face with three young women prancing in my direction in skimpy clothes and make-up so overdone that they looked to be in costume. Just beyond was a group of about twenty young people, mostly male, hanging out aimlessly.
Soon there seemed to be utter desolation of a kind I had only experienced in American inner cities. The streets twisted and turned with only an occasional figure darting quickly into a doorway, a few pairs of men talking to each other outside corner bars, and a couple or two wandering as I was, with deer-in-the-headlights expressions on their faces, and maybe one on mine. There was no grime or litter about, however, only an absence of activity and a feeling that the area had been abandoned. Perhaps this was the kind of neighborhood about which Frank McCourt wrote and I hadn’t wanted to believe existed. Eventually someone walked in my direction who looked kind, and I asked him to direct me to my landmark, which proved to be not too far away. I decided to call that day’s adventure to an end and simply headed back to my room. It would only be upon my last night in Ireland that I learned of the bustling center of Limerick, with many a business that would have appealed to me, only a few blocks further had I walked in the opposite direction.
The feeling of emptiness occurred in other ways afterwards, though, thankfully, without including a sense of potential danger. It seems that throughout the midlands beautiful towns are closing up shop as nearby malls have attracted business away from the small locally owned ones, and the population itself moves to larger cities or other countries. In Shannonbridge, County Offaly, I wondered if I had arrived in the town too early in the day. Where was everyone? Besides the few cars that were parked or had passed me on the road I only saw two men out repairing a wall. They assured me that the tourist office I stopped at would open in a couple of minutes if I waited. Did it actually ever open that day?
Having not yet gotten the hang of the routine of recharging my camera and phone batteries each night, downloading pictures and thus making ready for my tomorrows, I had arrived in Shannonbridge with a full camera and had left my phone (which takes great snapshots) back in the room charging. I’d hoped to find good postcard versions of the beauty I was seeing right then, but had to suffice with the still images I captured in my mind. This lovely town with its own view of the River Shannon drifting past, flowing under the bridge for which the town was named, was the homeland of my great aunt’s husband and his family, the Martin’s. It was the first of many small towns that I visited in order to locate my research in a physical form that I could feel directly and observe at first hand, imagining my ancestors in place.
The landscape of the Irish countryside would once have been full of communities and teeming with people. The Great Hunger and several other famines and epidemics denuded huge swathes of territory over the centuries, but the global economy throughout more recent decades has continued to take a severe toll. Dr. Irial Glynn, a Marie Curie fellow at the Institute for History in Leiden University, explained much about the current Irish emigration problem in an online podcast he made for the History Hub. He explained that more than 400,000 Irish have emigrated since the Famine and that now the country is losing its young at a disturbing rate—particularly its male population, who have difficulty finding work in their own country. Unemployment is over fourteen percent today, up from six per cent in 2006. Currently about forty per cent of Ireland’s 15 to 19 year olds are out of work, as are more than twenty-five per cent of her 20 to 25 year olds and sixteen per cent of her 25 to 34 year olds. Immigration was just over 13,000 in 2007, but had risen to more than 40,000 in 2011.
Many Irish immigrate to Great Britain and send money back to their families, reminiscent of the nineteenth century era of immigration into the United States and other countries. Dr. Glynn explained that after World War II, almost all countries had “boom” times, except for Germany and Ireland, in which there was never an industrial revolution. Irish workers could find seasonal employment and many settled in the greater London region. Today, however, when there is a global economic slump, it is difficult to find work anywhere. I heard upon two separate occasions during my visit about young Irish men going, or considering going, to work in the mines in New Zealand or Australia. As in centuries past, here once again young Irish men are taking on the most difficult manual labor opportunities to afford themselves and their families a better future. One women I met revealed that of her several children, some of them have emigrated to the United States, Canada or Australia. As Dr. Glynn quoted, “in times of crisis Ireland tends to spit out its young.”
Aideen Sheehan, wrote in December for Independent.ie that almost 250 people per day leave Ireland in search of a more stabile financial future. United States immigration data suggested to Sheehan “a brain drain of talent as they include 1,171 Irish people with ‘extraordinary abilities or achievements’, as well as 1,259 athletes, artists and entertainers.” In his article was embedded a poignant video of families being reunited at the airport during temporary trips home for Christmas. Meanwhile, as they do in every other country, political parties vie for power and promise that they will fix the many problems. Local elections were being held during my stay, and telephone poles everywhere were covered with posters for political candidates.
In trying to understand what I experienced during my first night in Ireland, I was told that the young women I saw might have been Travelers, a minority culture with early Irish ancestry. I recalled the biography of Nan Donohoe, published by Sharon Gmelch in 1986, about an Irish traveling woman who lived this entirely different kind of life in our own times. Gmelch is a professor of Cultural Anthropology and other topics at the University of San Francisco. My memory of her book was of awe for the hard life that the Traveler population of Ireland survived in their own insular universe. Working for cash doing hand labor included “tinkering” for the men, the repairing and producing of metal products and other types of small commodities for sale. The tightly knit families would move from place to place continually through the seasons and when forced to leave by people settled in areas they encroached upon. Having pulled Gmelch’s book down from my library, I intend to reread this, and to seek out her other books about Tinkers and Travelers: Ireland’s Nomads, Irish Life and Traditions, and a new book co-authored with her husband, Irish Travellers: The Unsettled Life, due out in October 2014.
My host at one of my AirBNB locations (a service that I heartily recommend, even given my first night’s experience) explained that Travelers may be found all throughout Ireland, often setting themselves up in places like abandoned railroad bridges. Apparently, they might be able to claim a parcel of land permanently if they successfully remain in place there for ten years. No longer a horse-drawn carriage society, they live in mobile homes and small trailers. Some have acquired a great deal of money and live in mansions. While traveling between towns in Tipperary, I suspected that I may have driven past a Traveler cluster, a cropped portion of the presumed encampment photo included here. Although I had watched the 2007-2008 television series, The Riches, which I stumbled upon on Netflix, I had imagined that the premise of the series was an entire fantasy. I had not been aware that this culture also took root centuries ago in the United States and in other countries, and that there are Traveler settlements in such places as Murphy Village, South Carolina, and White Settlement, Texas. The stories in modern times are far from romantic.
I don’t pretend to understand the complexity of Irish politics, its economy, its immigration situation nor its Travelers. Nor do I profess to even comprehend the complex workings of my own country’s equivalent social and political concerns. Being in another environment in a manner beyond that of a tourist, however, did help to bring new awareness to my own various micro and macro realities. Perhaps there is too much about the global present that unsettles me, leading me continually back to a relatively safe fascination—the searching for links between the dead and the living in undeniably beautiful places to which I have some personal connection. It is upon this aspect of my journey that I will concentrate the rest of my Pilgrimage posts.
©2014 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair
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