My grandfather died when he was 97. He was a big tall man who lived on a remote farm outside Letterkenny. He wasn’t one of life’s great talkers, rarely if ever initiating a conversation, only responding when asked a question. So I really never got to know him that well.
Shortly before he died we were sitting around the big open fire and I heard the story that he had two brothers who emigrated in the early 1900’s and that he had, basically, never heard of them again. It was the first I had heard of it. One, it is believed, died in the Great ‘Flu epidemic of 1918 somewhere in Canada. What happened the other is unknown.
Fast forward 80 or so years on from 1918 and I’m sitting at a party in South Australia. During the course of the evening the host told me he wanted me to meet someone and I’m introduced to this very good looking man with thick dark hair and a strong Derry accent. To cut a long story short the guy emigrated at 14 years of age in 1974 and to this day has never been back. We sat down and chatted and the nostalgia he had for home was palpable. He told of fishing on the River Faughan the day before emigrating; of his heart breaking when kissing his first love goodbye – she’s a granny now, and the sorrow of leaving behind childhood pals. When talking you could see the years falling away and he was back as a boy in his home place near Dungiven.
While studying economics at secondary school our teacher digressed one day when asking us what was Ireland’s biggest and most valuable export? Seeing where I’m going with this you can probably all guess the answer because as we started shouting up the predictable ‘cattle’, ‘sheep’ ‘fish’ we were silenced by his response – ‘our young people’.
I looked up the figures the other day on Google and it’s claimed that 356,000 people emigrated during the decade ending 2018. Statistics can be cold, meaningless things but the reality can be so much different.
One day, somewhere around 2010, my wife was out walking and she met a woman she knew. They started talking and in the middle of the conversation the woman who was upbeat at the start suddenly began weeping. Her two children, she explained, had emigrated to Australia to find employment. They were doing great. Having a great time. She was supposed to be happy they were making this wonderful new life for themselves but she was in bits stating “every evening I go home to a house that’s like a morgue.” No banter, no laughter, no loud music.
And one Sunday (probably in the same year!) I was listening to the local radio station as I was about to tuck into my roast dinner and a request came on for two young people from the same family who were emigrating to Canada the next morning. I had two children much the same age. I was thinking what it would be like in our house that Sunday night. I could imagine what that mother and father were feeling that day.
They were not the first to have those knots in the stomach and, unfortunately, they won’t be the last. Near Dunfanaghy in west Donegal there is a sign written in Gaelic posted on a bridge… but this is no ordinary bridge; the English translation basically says it is ‘the bridge of tears’. It got its name as it was here that the families walked with their children who were emigrating. When they reached the bridge it was the custom for the emigrant to go on alone and the family to turn back.
There will be many ‘bridges of tears’ in this country, north and south, in the weeks and months ahead. That’s the likely price the less well-off will pay for Covid 19. The big circle of emigration which has been the one constant in our long sad history is turning again.