“Taking the boat”

I’ve spoken before about my maternal grandmothers feelings about emigration which put simply was a matter of great pain and loss.  Last week got me to thinking about it more, as I met with cousin Ed and his family at a gathering in Crooke.  Ed had travelled from southern Florida to connect with members of his extended family following the emigration of his grandfather in the early 20th century.  His grandfathers sister, Margaret Hanlon of Coolbunnia was my fathers mother, someone I never knew as she died a young woman.

Meeting with Ed and his family and of course our own extended family was one of those rare happy occasions, as it seems we mostly gather at funerals these days.  I’ve met the returning emigrants and their descendants before, but at an age where it had little meaning to me.  However time moves on and with it your perception of the world and yourself.

On Sunday last there was plenty of music and song and at one stage I was called on for a story, and to be honest, nothing would come to mind.  Fear does that of course.  I’m much more relaxed hidden behind a computer screen.

Once I had thought on it though, the story I could have told was a story of emigration that my grandmother passed on to me about her brother “taking the boat” to America.  She was born in Feb 1919.  She was the youngest and had six brothers.  Ritchie was the eldest and I’m not 100% sure of the correct running order of the other lads but they included Mikey, Christy, Paddy, Johnny and Willie. 

the Moran siblings less eldest brother

They were born in the Russianside 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.  But times were tough, fishing was a poor livelihood and one of the realities of most families at the time was emigration.

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 were already living in New York and that they organised the fare and a job at the other side.  Whatever the arrangements, she was unaware of it all until the night of the American Wake which probably took place in the mid 1920’s.

She related how different the house was leading up to the event, the extra scrubbing and cleaning, the setting of the table back and the extra food that was prepared or dropped into the house.  She didn’t remember drink but she did recall music, singing and dancing which started in the evening and which to her young eyes must have been magical.  At some point she remembered being carried into a bedroom by a brother, which she thought was Christy, having fallen asleep where she sat.  Next morning she woke early to find the music and dancing over, but many of the neighbours still around.

Her parents didn’t seem to have gone to bed and her mother looked drained and tired.  Very soon after rising a pony and trap came down the road.  It was driven by Paud and John Burkes father if I remember correctly, who Nanny said was a relation of ours.  Into this was put a case belonging to Ritchie and after he lifted her up and gave her a hug 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 to walk towards the strand and her mother turned towards the house and she remembered her wailing behind the closed door.

Even as a child there was work to be done, but sometime later in the afternoon, Ritchie strolled down the Russianside Road.  Nanny who was throwing the remains of a teapot over the ditch ran to him and he lifted her up again and she innocently asked him “how was America?”  She remembered being confused, after all he was often away longer when he was at the fishing, and there was never a party then, and her mother and father never acted as they had done that day.

It transpired that having travelled to Waterford to catch the train to Cork and ultimately Cobh, the station master had turned him back as the ship wasn’t yet ready to sail.  He took Ritchie’s case for safe keeping, told him to return on the morro and Ritchie turned on his heels and strolled home. The next day Ritchie was gone again but this time Nanny didn’t see her big brother again for over thirty years.

gathering to celebrate the emigrants return,
Ryan’s Quay July 1956

Ritchie eventually died in America as did Johnny.  Mikey died on the buildings in England.  Willie who spent half his life in New York, retired home to the Russianside only to die not long after.  As I said the relations did visit, but I was of an age where it meant little to me.  But I guess now that Nanny is dead (the last of her family to go to her rest) and my father too, I have a greater sense of my own mortality and an enhanced interest in those belonging to me. 

A few years back we were on a short holiday in Cork and took a trip down to Cobh.  Visiting the heritage centre there, I became overwhelmed as I walked through what would have been the departures gate for emigrants.  Reflecting back, I realised it was probably because I had seen emigration from my grandmothers perspective; a sundering of the family.  However, maybe Ritchie saw it as an adventure, an escape or a great opportunity. 

Talking to Ed last Sunday evening made me wonder about it some more.  Although I will never know, I suppose emigration like anything in life is a personal journey.  But it also impacts on all those it touches, and in Nanny’s case that was very negatively.  Maybe if she had been older when Ritchie left, she would have seen it with different eyes.   

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.
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