After watching “Brooklyn” in my local cinema I emerged briefly a young emigrant once again. It was if the years had melted away and the scene at Ellis Island where the main character, Eilis Lacey, was warned to walk tall and straight and give no hint of illness, was hammered home.
I remember arriving at JFK with X-rays of my lungs in 1979 to prove I did not have TB and feeling the same fear of rejection when my great goal was within reach.
Though I emigrated a generation after Eilis Lacey, Saoirse Ronan’s character, the same call of home resonated through my first two years here.
The movie is about the universal Irish experience of emigration, which runs like a wildfire through Irish history, scattering its people to the four corners of the Earth. As the director John Crowley, himself an Irish native, noted:
“The narrative of the Irish immigrating to America is one of the defining narratives of the 20th century in the country. There's scarcely a household in Ireland that hasn't experienced a version of this story.”
As an immigrant I can say that Crowley captured that world almost perfectly. Like Saoirse’s character, I dreamed of home, of family and friends and mostly a girl I left behind, as many emigrants do.
Read more: Saoirse Ronan on her shining role in “Brooklyn” and new role on Broadway (VIDEOS)
I knew it felt the same for previous generations. I spent a brief visit to Detroit meeting an uncle, a brother of my father I had never met. I almost cried he looked so like him. He gave me an envelope with $20, an old emigrant tradition. His main question was which fields were being plowed on his old family farm in West Kerry. After fifty years in America that was what preoccupied him.
I understand that now.
Soon I was in California loving the bright new life I was building but never forgetting in my happiest moments the land I had left behind. Ireland always loomed large; Irish newspapers were few and far between. I remember a friend and I driving out to the Irish Cultural Center in the Sunset District where we’d heard week-old Irish newspapers were available. It is hard to imagine in this internet age.
In "Brooklyn" we see Eilis struggle with emigration blues, make many of the same rookie mistakes we all made before settling in her new home, especially after she meets her new beau, a handsome young Italian boy.
The movie touches on a long-lost source of tension because the Italians, who emigrated after the Irish and were unfairly considered to be inferior by many of the Irish, especially for not speaking the language.
Nowadays it would be hard to find two ethnic groups with more in common, especially religion. I’d wager there are more Italian-Irish weddings than any other ethnic mix.
The best scene in the movie brings that out when Eilis goes to her Italian lover boy’s home for dinner and his kid brother lets slip that the family does not like the Irish. Mayhem ensues as the parents try to shut him up.
Even with her happy new life Saoirse’s character longs for home and when a family tragedy intervenes she finds a reason to go.
Her experience back home is also so typical of the emigrant. Both she and the country she left no longer exist in the old form.
While there is an ease and familiarity and the love of her family, soon cracks appear and the reality of life back home with all its stifling small town secrets comes back to haunt.
I think that would be a fair account of a returning emigrant experience. The author Colm Toibin, who wrote the book on which the film is based, displayed a masterful sense of nuance when dealing with the hopes and expectations of the returning emigrant.
The faraway hills are green in both directions and a terrible conflict arises in Saoirse Ronan's character that finally gets resolved.
The book and movie both capture the inevitable fate of the emigrant, who becomes a stranger in both lands and has to reconcile their different lives.
"Brooklyn" may well be among the best books written on emigration though it is not its direct theme. It catches the different nuances and difficult adjustments emigrants have to make both at home and abroad. It is a true masterpiece.