Category: Irish women

Leaving and going back

 

9780992648510-Perfect-MH-cropped-FRONT-COVER-with-outer-edgeLeave-taking was not dealt with well, when my mother left Ireland for England, carrying a suitcase bearing two of everything. When one of many leaves, are they missed? Or was it one less soul to worry about when she, the eldest of fourteen, left?

My own leave-taking was dealt with badly. I remember my bags piled in the hall, awaiting an uncle to drive me to the halls of residence. My mum and dad were not there, and I don’t recall any of my siblings saying goodbye in a way any different to if I was going out for an evening.

I think my mother couldn’t cope with me leaving, so avoided it. Every time I came home for a weekend, I would leave on a Sunday evening, and she would be sitting in her chair, watching telly, unable to see me leave or wish me well with my life away from home. She did not know how to say goodbye, nor did she know how to grieve, or to teach any of us how to do so. Funerals back home in Ireland were not attended, even that of her own mother, and the pain was held within.

For the Irish that made that brave journey from their homeland to England, in the 1940s, 50s and beyond, their travelling often ended where they landed. For my parents, they landed in Epsom, where jobs awaited, and stayed there. So did many of their fellow countrymen and women. So, many of the Irish friends and neighbours I knew as a child are yet living in the same houses as they were  50 or 60 years ago. Now they leave in wooden boxes, set for their last Mass at St Joseph’s church, and on to be buried, as is not the fashion these days, but that is what Irish Catholics of that generation did and do. They bury and are buried, the mourners wear black, and the coffin is borne on the shoulders of the men of the next generation, or the generation below them.

So it was with my Auntie Joan a few days ago – come to Epsom from Valencia in Co. Kerry in the early 1950s, she met and married a man from Sligo, Jack, who knew my dad. In turn, Joan and my mother became friends, and we always thought of Joan and Jack as relatives.

Joan arrived in church last Friday, carried by men that included one of my brothers,  to the sound of my other brother playing ‘Danny Boy’ on the violin – a song of leave-taking.

I saw a group of Irish women in a pub in Margate two years ago. I tuned in to their voices, watched their eighty-plus-year-old heads, dyed black and red. The conversation never lagged. They spoke of parish priests, of sick friends, of those that came on the outing last year, but had taken their leave in the past twelve months. They were from an Irish club somewhere in London. They said the younger Irish don’t come along to their club, to their annual trip, where they lunch at the same pub each year. I could see that their outing would not happen in five or six years time. They would all have taken their leave.

And so it is with that generation of Irish parents, uncles, aunts and neighbours. Taking their leave, depleting the ranks of the Irish that arrived in the middle of the last century. Soon, we will be the older generation, that second generation of children born in England to Irish parents. Left to tell the stories that were told to us, or to write them down in books, as I have done.

I lived in Epsom for the first third of my life, and returned regularly for the second third. The past third has been a time of illness, for me, and a rift with some of my family. For reasons too intimate to go into here, I vowed not to return to that ‘home’, where my mother and eldest brother still live. But never isn’t always forever, and I returned to the town, if not the house I grew up in, for Joan’s funeral a few days ago. Things seemed smaller than I remembered; the town had changed. Yet I was recognised immediately as I entered the church, as ‘a McCarthy’, and was soon caught up in childhood memories at the wake, and in meeting some old friends that I hadn’t seen since I left home at nineteen.

My mother is frail now, and showing signs of dementia. Her time on this earth is not long. Many of her younger siblings have gone, and now her best friend, Joan.

It took me a long time to leave home in my head, in my being – many years after my physical leave-taking. For my mother and Joan, for my father and Jack, they settled in a foreign country, yet always remained Irish. I don’t where I really belong; I never have. But I have been back and settled a place in my mind that has loomed large for all my life.

My story collection, As Long as it Takes, is about Irish women and their daughters living in England. I asked Maggie Drury to draw me an image of two women linking arms for the book cover. These women could be Mary, my mother, and Joan, her best friend.

Footnote: My mother died a few weeks after her friend, Joan. Mary Catherine O’Halloran McCarthy, born 29 June 1931 in Ennistymon Co Clare, Died 2 March 2018 at a hospital near her home in Epsom.

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