Fintan O’Toole, literary editor of The Irish Times, wrote a spot-on piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times entitled “Ireland’s Rebound Is European Blarney.” As the title would imply, he clears the smoke and cracks the mirrors on the illusion that the Irish are on an economic upswing.
He also quotes something shocking. Unemployment is at a staggering 12.8 percent, and it would be worse if 400,000 young Irish hadn’t already emigrated since the crisis began in 2008.
This means that Mother Ireland has said goodbye to almost 10 percent of her children in recent years, adding to the tens of millions who have scattered far and wide in generations past to escape a most certain stagnancy of both fortune and spirit.
My parents are among Mother Ireland’s oldest living children now, and the evidence of the long and rich life they have built for themselves in America can be seen in the generations that gathered around them during the most recent holidays.
There are the gaggle of sons with their cousins in one corner reminiscing over bottomless cups of tea about their visits to Athenry, Caherdavin, Galbally and Ballylanders. There’s a granddaughter in another corner who is completely disconnected from any Irish roots and barely looks up from the screen of her smartphone long enough to let the gift of a grandparent’s love and wisdom wash over her.
Check your texts at the wrong time and you might have missed some of the typically understated yet profound things my father revealed about his long, evolving relationship with Mother Ireland.
The first reveal came after he booked a bus trip to Georgia with my mother. It triggered a memory of a not-so-peachy experience he once had in the Peach State.
“I was just over in this country when I was drafted into the army and based down there,” he recalled. “I was in the sergeant’s office every week asking for a transfer to Germany so I could negotiate furloughs back to Ireland. I did this until he told me that if I came into his office one more time with the request he’d ship me to Korea. So, I never mentioned it again.”
You could just picture a pale and homesick 19-year-old broiling in this unforgiving foreign heat of the deep south, begging his superiors for any excuse to get on a continent that would put him closer to his Mother Ireland.
Time has changed my dad in many ways, and he now ignores the call from Mother Ireland altogether. When my brother’s father-in-law asked my dad at Christmas Eve if he was planning any trips back home to Ireland in the New Year he said, “No, I’m just not up to going nowadays.”
Some people at the table might have mistaken that as an indictment on his health, but I caught that sad, momentary flicker in his eyes. He was thinking about those tight hugs that penetrate the soul and those moist eyes that ensue when he is forced to say goodbye to his remaining brothers and sister.
I remember being in the rental car back in the 1970s, rolling my eyes over the ridiculousness of this emotional outburst. I was a wee one back then and they were in their thirties.
But now that I’ve trotted into middle-aged pastures myself and my parents are on the wrong side of 70, everyone is reduced to a puddle of tears on the morning we take that trip back to Shannon Airport.
Two jets left the nest of that airport this week; one headed to Africa to carry my young cousin Tommy to mission work, while another dropped my cousin’s daughter Michelle back at her teaching post amidst the gleaming towers of glitzy Dubai.
They are the latest children with eyes set on the horizon toward a better life that triggers a new phase of their loving yet complicated relationship with the Mother Ireland they leave behind.
(Mike Farragher’s collection of essays can be found on www.thisisyourbrainonshamrocks.com)
The history behind “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”