The feeling of loss and loneliness penetrates the Irish countryside after centuries of emigration but did the best leave or were they those who stayed behind?
“The best left” was a phrase I heard often as a boy. Usually it was muttered by my grandfather and not in the most charitable of tones.
Thomas Hughes was a headstone maker. This tough business demanded certain sensitivities. The “widow-woman,” - more often than not the customer - was usually still grieving on the first visit to his stone yard near Wexford’s Quay.
A headstone, kerbing, and a couple of bags of marble chippings would be chosen. Some down-payment would be agreed upon and a “rough date” for erection set.
The occasional customer would settle up in the graveyard when the last chipping had been spread – a furtive exchange of a sweaty roll of banknotes. But more often than not there’d be a promise of imminent payment.
And so the dance would begin and could continue for years. Polite letters would be dispatched and a settlement usually occurred somewhere down the line.
When it didn’t and the debt was finally written off – that’s when the judgment “the best left” would be muttered.
Emigration ripped the heart out of Ireland. People had always left the country for better opportunities, but the Great Hunger that began in 1845 opened the floodgates.
With so many dead and a way of life destroyed, what was the point in staying?
Those with the financial means boarded ferries for Liverpool where they would catch the great ocean-going ships that transported them to America.
Others, less fortunate, left from ports around Ireland often on small “coffin” ships.
And when the first huge wave of emigration subsided around 1855 those who remained often commented on the silence that blanketed the countryside and the deserted streets of small towns.
We tend to dwell on those who left – their courage and how they eventually overcame the travails that awaited them in an unwelcoming, Know-Nothing foreign land.
But what of those who chose to remain in an atrophying society where a conservative Catholic Church was busy consolidating its power with the tacit agreement of the Anglo-Irish establishment.
It would be another thirty years before Charles Stewart Parnell attempted to restore national Irish pride and dignity.
My grandfather like many of his generation often wondered aloud how his life would have turned out had he taken the emigrant boat?
His boyhood best friend, Will Cuddihy, had departed with his family for New York and never wrote.
Even in his late 80s Thomas Hughes was often heard to say, “I wonder where Will ended up?”
Perhaps that’s why a song like Kilkelly can rip you apart. Based on a series of letters written by a father to his son in Maryland between 1858 and 1893 you learn painstakingly about the immense divide between those who left and those who stayed behind.
There were no winners, the heartbreak was shared, and yet you somehow feel that those who moved westward were at least entering a dynamic, changing society.
Even growing up in Ireland in the 1960s you could sense the feeling of loss and stasis throughout the countryside. Something had fled leaving a dread loneliness, An uaigneas, the old people called it.
I felt it often but in particular while visiting my paternal grandfather’s farm down in Rostoonstown within view of Carnsore Point, the actual southeast corner of Ireland.
It was wild and windswept country, and about a half a mile down a grassy lane stood the four walls of a long abandoned house.
There was an ache about the place that was almost palpable, though it didn’t bother my grandfather’s cattle who sheltered there from the bracing Atlantic breeze.
But who had lived in the house? What was their story? Are their descendants living in New York City or Butte, Montana, even now wondering about their roots?
Did the best leave or was that just a way of rationalizing the despair of those left behind?
As Ireland and Irish-America drift even further apart because of today’s repressive immigration policies, it’s always good to remember that we all once came from the same small fields and little houses - we have much in common.
If the best did leave Ireland then many of the same remained to pick up the pieces.
* Larry Kirwan was the leader of Black 47 for 25 years. He has written 16 plays and musicals, his latest Paradise Square will open in Berkeley Rep in December. He has written three novels, a memoir, and A History of Irish Music. He hosts and produces Celtic Crush on SiriusXM Radio and writes a bi-weekly column for The Irish Echo
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