By Sean McCabe
It was a thrill to see my uncles come home from America each summer. They had all emigrated to New York in the 1950’s and all three got jobs with the telephone company. One married, had a kid and settled down in Queens. One remained a bachelor and settled down in Brooklyn. The third disappeared, and wasn’t heard from for years.
All three uncles were a constant source of wonder for us youngsters, growing up as we did in our small Irish town, especially the married uncle, for he was always the most generous. He’d arrive in to our house accompanied by the uncle who had stayed to mind the family farm, and after hugging my mother and settling down to a nice tea in our kitchen, he would call us over individually and press a twenty dollar bill into our hands (I had five siblings). It was straight down to the bank then to get the money changed, and then straight to the sweetshop to buy ice creams. How little things change, I reflected recently, as I watched my own kids run to the candy store to spend their weekly allowance.
Twenty dollars was a lot then and we appreciated our uncles all the more for it. To my mind, with these visits, America certainly took on the form of a place where money grew on trees, where you could have anything you wanted. This image was helped by my uncle’s attire: he wore a white suit, and had a deep voice not unlike John Wayne’s. He even looked like John Wayne, to my excited eyes.
The yellow cigarette stained fingers and the packet of Marlboro’s always sticking out of the breast pocket of his blazer did not hurt the general impression of him as something larger than life, from a greater place. There was plenty of braggadocio about him, to be sure, but underneath it all, he had a certain touch of class. After all, it took a certain nerve to walk down the main street of our small town dressed in a white suit and talking like John Wayne… No wonder I had a desire from early on to come to America.
My other uncle, the unmarried one in Brooklyn, was a bit quieter and less flashy, but almost as generous. He was more sober minded, did not go to pubs much, but the twenty dollar gift was always dispensed. So we looked forward to his arrival almost as much.
They generally took a trip ‘back to the west’, as they would term their five-hour journey to Connemara, the place of their birth, in a rented car. Or else my mother drove them. They would stay in a hotel in Clonbur and visit their relations around Lough Corrib, the ones who had stayed, who had resisted the temptation to emigrate, and the ones who still spoke Irish as a first language.
My uncles would revert back to their native tongue in conversation. In talking to my mother in our house, the language of choice was Irish. No amount of years of living in New York had altered my two uncle’s proficiency in the language. They liked speaking it. They liked coming home and came home just about every summer.
It was the need to connect with their native place, to get back to their roots, although both of them were often fond of complaining about how dull life was in my hometown, or on my uncle’s farm (who had stayed). I definitely would not have envisioned either of them returning permanently to their native soil. New York was in them. They were American now.
I suppose they were a part of at great wave of emigration that occurred in the 1950’s. We all know that there is another wave of emigration occurring at the moment. It seems to happen every thirty years or so. And now the destination seems to be Australia and Canada more than the U.S.
It is not a good thing for the Irish economy, in the long term, but the world is a smaller place now. In the 1890’s most of them were gone forever, never to return. In the fifties, they made it back if they could for holiday visits. In the eighties many stayed and eventually settled and went home frequently. In the nineties many emigrants returned home to live, during the years of the Celtic Tiger.
Emigration is not the big tragedy it used to be. Most who leave this year will eventually return after a few years of working abroad. The Irish are much more educated than they used to be and are more mobile in both directions than ever before. Emigration is not the all-or-nothing situation it used to be. In fact the word itself may be a bit outdated.
And so, the moral of the story? There isn’t any? I don’t know. I do know that as a boy my imagination was sparked by the idea that I had three uncles living in New York City, that I would go there one day myself and see all those big cars I had seen on television, or maybe meet some of the superheroes I had seen in the movies on the street hailing a cab or in the window of a restaurant. Needless to say they would notice me, and stop what they were doing to talk to me! Ah yes emigration! Faraway shores! Adventure! All fuel to a boyhood imagination!
As for the third uncle, the one who disappeared? He did turn up in a nursing home on Long Island in 1994, the year I arrived in America. He was a cool guy, like the other ones. He had that twinkle in the eye, despite the misfortunes that had hit him during his life. And as the song says: life just happens that way.
The Irish experience has always been one of exile and return. He had always been the big mystery of the family, which gladly got solved in the end. Somewhere out there, there’s another kid (or kids) imagining and dreaming about an uncle far away who’s going to make a return visit soon.
*Sean McCabe’s novels and songs can be bought and/or downloaded via his website: mccabesband.com
Today is Sean’s Birthday, Happy Birthday – here’s to creating More stories!