An America Wake

Today sees the inauguration of a new president in America. It promises to be an “interesting” presidency with many fears as to the direction America is taking. One concern is the attitude to emigrants. So today I thought what better way to reflect on the event than my own Grandmothers family experience of emigration to America in the early 20th century.

My Grandmother “Nanny” was born in 1919.  She was the youngest of seven and had six brothers.  Ritchie (Richard) Moran was the eldest and the other lads were Mikey, Christy, Paddy, Johnny and Willie. They were born in the Russianside, Cheekpoint, Co Waterford, Ireland in a small three roomed house. It was a fisherman’s cottage, close to the river, where as soon as the boys could pull an oar or haul a net they would have been out fishing.  I’ve blogged before about the realities of fishing for us youngsters, but my grandmothers generation had it all together tougher; fishing was a poor livelihood with no welfare protection net, political and economic uncertainty gripped the newly formed Irish state, and the only safety valve for families was emigration.

The Morans in their Sunday best, Ritchie is missing from the photo

Nanny was never sure how the money was raised to send Ritchie to America but she suspected that some of her uncles on the Moran side, who were sailors, were already living in New York and that they organised the fare and a job.*  Her only involvement was in the preparations for the the night of the American Wake which took place in the mid 1920’s.

She related how different the house was leading up to the event, the scrubbing and cleaning, painting and polishing. The setting of the table back in the kitchen to create space on the floor and the and the extra food that was prepared or dropped into the house. She recalled a night of music, singing, dancing and laughter, a magical night compared to the normal hard work of tending the men who were fishing daily leaving all the work to the women and the young. At some point she remembered being carried into a bedroom having fallen asleep where she sat. Next morning she woke to find the music and dancing over, but many of the neighbours still in the kitchen, or standing around outside.
Her parents didn’t seem to have gone to bed and her mother looked drained and tired. Soon she heard a pony and trap come down the road.  It was driven by a relation from Faithlegg named Burke. Into the trap went Ritchies case and after he said his goodbyes he hopped aboard and went off up the Russianside road, his brothers strolling beside the trap until it reached the top of the hill. Her father turned away and walked towards the shore and her mother turned towards the house and she remembered her wailing behind the bedroom door.
As the day passed her father returned, and her mother emerged from the bedroom, a sense of normality returned and they set to work tidying and preparing the dinner. She had her jobs to do and she recollected that as she was standing out on the roadside later in the afternoon, Ritchie strolled down the road. Nanny who was throwing the remains of a teapot over the ditch ran to him and he lifted her up and she innocently asked him “how was America?” 
It transpired that having travelled to Waterford to catch the train from Waterford’s south station to Cork and ultimately Cobh, (the route is now the soon to be fully opened Waterford Greenway) the station master had turned him back as they had received a telegram to say the ship was delayed.  He took Ritchie’s case for safe keeping, told him to come back tomorrow, as there was no point sleeping in the station, or the docks in Cobh overnight.** Ritchie’s trap had left, so he turned on his heels and walked  the nine miles home. The next morning when she awoke, Ritchie was gone again but this time she wouldn’t see him for over thirty years.  
gathering to celebrate the emigrants return,
Ryan’s Quay July 1956
Ritchie eventually married a Polish lady and settled down in Westbury, Long Island. In time two other brothers emigrated to join him. And not only his own family, but others from the village went via his new home on Long Island too. Packages and other assistance was sent back and there were bundles of air mail labeled letters kept in the glass cabinet of the living room in the Russianside. The framed portrait of JF Kennedy needless to say adorned the wall. Ritchie and Peg had a family of three boys and a girl and his grandchildren and their children are now American through and through. Ritchie eventually died in America as did another brother Johnny. Willie who spent half his life in New York, retired home to the Russianside only to die not long after.  Although my Grandmother was always sad to think of their loss to Ireland, I’m aware of how much opportunity the journey afforded them. 
Today in America a new President will be sworn in, and you can’t help but wonder how it will impact on actual or would be emigrants and their opportunities. It appears that President Trump and his team, themselves the product of emigrants, have lost touch with the origins of their United States. The Moran brothers sought a new chance not to sponge on their adopted land but to enrich it. Their motivation was to escape financial and economic hardships for an opportunity to continue to work hard and put money in their pockets. The vast majority of emigrants then and now simply want nothing more.

When my Grandmother experienced the American wake in her childhood it was to acknowledge a loss, but also to celebrate the opportunities. Afterall, the entire family had a stake in the emigration of their eldest sibling. You can’t help but think that today in America the stakes are no less important, but on a national scale.

*Brian Moran subsequently told me the Richie, his grandfather, left in 1922, 16yrs old and was sponsored by his uncle Peter Moran of New York
**Many of previous generation before had departed in sailing ships such as the SS Dunbrody from New Ross and those leaving would be rowed out from the shore to join the ships as they passed down the river

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2 Replies to “An America Wake”

    1. Thanks Peter, its an old tradition as I understood it, though its probably kept alive these days by going out to a pub to see off a family member heading abroad. In my Grandmothers day twas known as a wake, because of the distance involved i think. The family were of the opinion that they would probably never see their child again, so it was like a death, albeit with an occasional letter! As it happens, it was the last time that either Ritchies parents would see him again, they died a few years before he made it back to Ireland

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