Some years ago, I was approached by a family in the US to do research on ancestors of theirs who had left Ireland in the 1850s. In the course of finding out what they already knew, it emerged that this research was only the latest stage in a multi-generational quest that started immediately after emigration.
Like so many, the emigrant ancestors were fleeing the aftermath of the Famine and were forced into the cheapest and most desperate route. They traveled to Liverpool as deck passengers on a cattle transport from Cove, with all the filth and misery that entailed, in order to get access to a cheap ticket to New York. In Liverpool, they spent weeks, husband, wife and four children, living in the unimaginably overcrowded squalor of the city’s Irish ghetto as they waited for their passage. Then, when they were finally on the quayside and about to embark, they discovered that the youngest child, four-year-old John, was missing. Despite frantic searches he could not be found, and they were faced with the choice of staying, with the loss of their passage-money and the knowledge of what awaited them in Liverpool, or leaving without the child. They left.
Immediately after arriving in the US, the mother began to write to Liverpool police stations, orphanages, charities, anyone who could conceivably have come into contact with her child, and continued to write for the rest of her life. She never discovered what happened to him. Her other children had to promise to continue the search after her death, and then her children’s children and then their children in turn. Over a century and a half, the agony of that loss became embedded in the family’s story of itself, generation after generation, each one taking up and pursuing the lost child again.
Hundreds of thousands of stories like this are what lie behind Irish-America. When we’re tempted to jeer at the Paddywhackery of St. Patrick’s Day, we should think of them.
A fuller account of the family and their journey is at https://youtu.be/KQu9DrUsl4M