Touching the reality of immigration

By Jory Squibb

My wife and I wanted to do a hiking trip in western Ireland with our three children. But as an added activity, we wanted to make contact with her maternal relatives in Galway and Mayo counties. A local genealogy buff set us up with the exact rural areas for each grandparent’s homestead, and on a rainy day — when hiking seemed less imperative — we drove inland, leaving the beautiful mountains, rivers, and beaches of Connemara, and eventually braved the tiny roads amid small abandoned farms in the interior of Ireland.

Once we had arrived in the tiny “townland” of Feamore, I spotted two elderly people painting an outbuilding. In the subsequent chat, it appeared that they knew my wife’s second cousin, a bachelor who had recently died, and they began regaling me with stories about this well-known “character.” Later they gave directions to his homestead and the appropriate graveyard to find family members’ graves. Getting to the homestead involved following even smaller tracks and discovering that the house itself had been torn down and that the land was now for sale. Our girls excitedly got their pictures snapped beside the “for sale” sign.

We then began tracing the other grandparent’s birthplace, which was nearby but across the county line into Galway. There, the once-thatched cottage still stood, updated to a galvanized roof in the mid-20th century, and now abandoned. It was a tiny place to raise 13 children, and it was easy to imagine how — as news spread of a better life in England, Australia or the United States — families tearfully sent children off to friends and relatives across the sea. Many would never be seen again.

Later, in the second week of our trip — our children having returned to busy lives stateside — curiosity pulled us back to those tiny farms. We found ourselves in the peat-warmed kitchen of a 75-year-old postmistress, as she further fleshed in the family history since that 1908 steamship passage to Ellis Island. To her, a stay-behind, that history, the disappearance of so many, was well-remembered. Letters from America would flood back at first, and eventually trickle and die. Then, as Ireland began the IT boom in the last years of the 20th century, favored by its English-speaking well-educated population, some Irish Americans, rich by local standards, would be drawn back to the homeland.

To be in Ireland is also to confront the reality of famine, of starvation, of desperately climbing aboard “coffin ships” in the quest for survival. One becomes, for a time, a people occupied and oppressed by a powerful neighbor, who stole your land, outlawed your language and, in the midst of famine, largely ignored your suffering. As Americans, we often flaunt our English heritage; yet looking from the oppressed side, you see it was often a greedy, callous, imperial land-grab.

As we neared the end of our stay and, by comparison, our painless, well-fed ocean crossing, I read the book “Brooklyn,” an immigration story set in 1957. By then, we were no longer quite so accepting of immigrants. You needed a visa, a job and proof of health to pass through that blue door at the end of the immigration hall at Ellis Island. Once out in the sun, you faced a diminished but still very real web of prejudice. Yet the chance of a more-fulfilled life was nevertheless now yours.

I walked freely off the Aer Lingus plane in Boston, saddened by how firmly our immigration doors have slammed; how callous and unfeeling we have become in the face of a starvation and oppression I had freshly glimpsed. Yet I was looking forward to our weekly contact with a local immigrant family: struggling, school-serious, optimistic, language-immersed. They are just the kind of new American you want to help settle and be enriched by. It’s just pretty hard — when the situation is close by and personal — to make this nation of immigrants, anti-immigrant.

Jory Squibb is a 77-year-old retired boat captain. He lives in Camden.

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