"Little work, and even less money, in de Valera’s holy, xenophobic Ireland... was an economic disaster."
Saturday was heartbreak night in old Wexford. The railway station would be jammed for the last train to Rosslare Harbour, where the emigrant ferry to Britain awaited.
I often stood silently among the crowds with my own father, a merchant marine. But somehow his “exile” of four months was much more bearable than that of the other fathers, for when his run to Argentina finished he’d spend a couple of idle months at home.
He sometimes stayed longer. His own father owned two big farms and would often prevail upon him to settle down again to the unsteady cattle-dealing life.
But they were too alike – one too domineering, the other too independent minded. Eventually, there’d be a blow up, and my father would storm out, telling my grandfather exactly what he could do with his two fine farms.
Nonetheless, the scenes at Wexford station are seared into my memory for they showed all too well the human cost of emigration.
There was little work, and even less money, in de Valera’s holy, xenophobic Ireland. To put it mildly, the Irish Free State, and ensuing Republic, was an economic disaster – rarely able to support its people.
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It wasn’t what you knew – it was who you knew. And those who knew no one of consequence poured out of the country – many to the US, but in our “Sunny South-East” London was always calling.
A grim silence usually blanketed the railway station. Men didn’t show their feelings back then, while wives quietly fussed about, making sure their husbands had packed the carefully cut sandwiches and flasks of scalding tea for the overnight journey to London’s Paddington Station.
But even at an early age I could tell they were fearful of breaking into sobs that would make it even harder for the stone-faced men and their desolate children.
The worst nights were right after Christmas since there would be no return until the summer holidays. And London has always been a bleak place without money – for after the cost of lodgings and the price of a couple of Saturday night pints, the remains of a fortnight’s wages would be swiftly dispatched home in case temptation struck.
Then, out of nowhere, there’d be the inevitable disruption. A gang of tough lads would arrive from the pub, in snazzy but stained suits, shirts and ties askew, suitcases in hand.
They’d been on a farewell tear all day and recruited some young fellah with tales of the high-life they were leading in Cricklewood.
But lo and behold, the young fellah’s mammy or girlfriend had gotten wind of the desertion and were trying to talk some sense into him.
It was hopeless. As frightened as the young eejit was now that the head of lager was wearing off, how could he back down in front of his mates?
The women would know this – they’d already brought his overcoat and packed him some kind of a bag. But they had no regard for stiff upper lips; and so their tears would flow like November rain.
The young fellah would be mortified. But the lads knew what he was going through. They’d been there themselves, and so they’d turn their backs, light up their Players [cigarettes], laugh quietly among themselves, and chatter about how great it would be to see Arsenal kick the bejaysus out of Chelsea at Highbury the coming Saturday.
But the tears of the mother or girlfriend had punctured the stolid Wexford reserve, and it was now open bawling season, until someone would point to the track signal – the train from Dublin had passed through the tunnel at Ferrycarrig.
And within minutes it would come shunting into the station and before you knew it your father, husband, or boyfriend was waving goodbye out the window on the first leg of his journey.
Aboard the train the young fellah would be trying to act like the man he wasn’t. He’d be coughing from the strong Players, and sipping courage from someone’s pint of Powers.
While the rest of us stood on the windswept station until the caboose light had disappeared around the corner before trudging home to our fatherless houses in the unforgiving land of de Valera.
Larry Kirwan was the leader of Black 47 for 25 years. He is also a playwright, novelist, and a columnist for The Irish Echo.