Back in the 1840’s and 50’s there was a mass exodus in Ireland of young people forced to leave the country due to the economic devastation. Thousands of young people were leaving Ireland in an effort to escape starvation and avoid poverty, as young as fifteen they boarded the Coffin ships, filled with hope for a better future in America and despair at the thought of probably never seeing their family or Ireland again.
However their start in New York was no fairytale. The Irish were considered the lowest of the low and the words “No Irish need Apply” often followed an advertisement for employment. Being branded the “white nigger” the Irish had a tough time in gaining acceptance in the land of free but home was not an option so much so that thousands never returned to Ireland again.
The night before these naïve young Irish left their home for America, it became a tradition to have a gathering at their house, family and neighbours came to mourn the young emigrant’s departure and mark the significance of their journey across the Atlantic to their new life. The “American Wake”, aptly named as many would never return home and it was now they would say their goodbyes to parents, siblings and neighbours, a wake for the living, living in American.
Despite being poverty stricken the parents of the young John or Margaret would muster up some sort of refreshments, in the line of Porter, Whiskey or Poitin. They would talk into the early hours offering advice to the naïve traveler and maybe play music and dance or sometimes it was a more somber affair particularly as parents might mourn the loss of their eldest son or daughter, as these were often a good help with the younger siblings. Heading off possibly by ass and cart or bicycle to the nearest port with a tattered case and a pair of new five-year-old shoes, John or Margaret said goodbye to Ireland and began the grueling seven week voyage in the hope that they would escape disease and arrive alive.
About 150 years later, we find ourselves in a similar position, 2013 and there are c. 1,000 Irish people emigrating each week. This time, heading in every direction, to places like Dubai, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Nairobi and India, not just America or England which may now feel like home from home. And the American Wake or at least the 2013 version of an American Wake is going strong.
Firstly today’s Yvonne and Declan are having the party at their own house, (they’ve had a few going away nights, but this is their joint one), their house is a lot bigger than either of their parents and they may as well enjoy the marble floors, the granite worktop and the cut stone features before the bank repossess. Heading to Indonesia the following day, Yvonne has a lot of packing to do, remember she has the kids stuff to pack too, so they decided to get the party catered by the French Café down the road, their mini quiches are to die for.
Declan never lived abroad before, other than the year out in Oz and the long way home via Thailand, oh, and he spent a couple of summer s in France and Germany. Yvonne is nervous having the kids every day without the help of her Mam but she’s hoping that the supplied driver and a maid will ease the transition.
Yvonne is devastated leaving her girls, Shona and Dervla, but they’ll see each other next summer and every Friday night on Skype with a glass of Vino. Dervla said she might even pop over mid February for a sneaky few days if her Visa bill becomes lower that the year she was born. Both Yvonne and Declan enjoy the going away party, and lots of people brought tidbits for the kids, in case they’re get bored on the plane journey, heaven forbid that Saoirse and Fionn would be bored or the trip would be a nightmare, despite breaking it up with an overnight in Dubai.
Yvonne’s arrival in Indonesia today is vastly different from Margaret’s arrival in New York, in 1850, there are no signs saying “no Irish need apply” only a driver standing with a sign reading “Mrs. McNamara” standing in the arrivals hall.