Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Death of an Irish Emigrant in London

When I was in Bandon some weeks ago I had occasion to come across the house in which the English writer William Hazlett lived for a few years over 200 years ago.  Last week I was in London, a city which I first visited many years ago with my friend Frank English.  I have lost count of the number of times I have since passed up and down Shaftsbury Avenue, that broad expanse of roadway which connects Piccadilly with Tottenham Court Road.  For some inexplicable reason last week I ventured into an old graveyard lying just off Shaftsbury Avenue which I had not previously visited.  St. Ann’s Graveyard and an imposing apparently free-standing tower is all that remains of the Church of St. Ann’s which was bombed during the air raids of 1940.  What startled me as I examined some of the ancient gravestones was to find that William Hazlett, the man who as a boy lived in Bandon, was buried in that peaceful oasis amidst the busy streets of central London.  What a coincidence I thought to find and view within a matter of a few weeks the physical reminders of the youth and of the man whose contribution to English literature ensures that he is still remembered, even after the lapse of almost two centuries.

Within a day or so of my visit to St. Ann’s I got a telephone call to tell me of the death of an Irishman living in London.  He was 85 years of age, unmarried, and had been living alone in sheltered housing accommodation in North London.  Born in County Mayo during the height of the War of Irish Independence, his father and mother were natives of that county and lived on a small farm which had been passed down from father to son through generations past. 

The family lived in the same area of County Mayo as my mother’s family and the eldest daughter of the house and my mother grew up together and were life long friends.  My mother ended up in Athy, while her friend joined an Order of nuns and lived out the rest of her life in a convent in New York.  The youthful friendship was not forgotten when in the early 1950’s the friend’s family consisting of her mother and father and her brother who was then in his middle age took up the offer of 45 acres of good land in County Kildare in exchange for their 40 acres of marshland in County Mayo.  They came to the shortgrass County as migrants, the elderly parents perhaps hoping that their only son would have a better chance of making a living in Kildare than they ever had in Mayo.

Life for Mayo migrants in their new surroundings in the 1950’s was not easy.  Even for those who had family connections in an area going back generations life in rural Ireland tended to be lonely and isolated.  Public transport was not to be had in rural Ireland of the 1950’s, shops were often too far away for easy access, while the absence of relations and friends was perhaps the greatest hardship to bear for migrant families.  A few years after migrating from Mayo to Kildare the head of the family died at 83 years of age.  The loneliness of rural life was soon to be exchanged for the loneliness of a different kind when the elderly mother and her son sold their Land Commission holding and took the boat to London.  This must have been a traumatic change for the 74 year old mother who would live another 5 years amongst the cosmopolitan setting of North London.  When she died her remains were brought back for burial alongside her husbands in the Kildare countryside which they had once hoped would provide future generations of their family with as happy and contented a life as their past generations had enjoyed in Mayo.

Last week their only son died after spending almost 44 years in London where the one time farmer worked as a school caretaker before retiring 20 years ago.  My mother, always mindful of the family friendships forged in Mayo long ago, kept in touch with the one time migrant, now an emigrant in London.  When she passed away in 1995 my brother Jack undertook to keep in touch with the Mayo man, who by then was retired.  The loneliness of a countryman living in a strange environment can only be imagined but nothing perhaps prepares one for the isolation which slowly but almost inevitably surrounds an elderly man living alone without family or relations.

I was reminded of this when the funeral arrangements had to be made which in the English context requires visits to the local Town Hall to register the death, documents to be secured for the undertaker, etc.  The hardest job of all comes when the home of the deceased man had to be visited and the possessions of a lifetime examined, evaluated and disposed of.  As I looked at what the 85 year old man had gathered around him, even as he grew older, I quickly realised how unimportant is the accumulation of the material flotsam and jetsam of life.

Emigration was for so long a central feature of Irish life that we tend to overlook the dampening effect it had on the rate of change in Irish society.  The departure of so many eased the job crisis at home, but at the same time it weakened the impetus for social change which would inevitably have followed if the unemployed did not have the opportunity to make new lives in England or America.  The Mayo man who died last week in London was just one of the many thousands of Irish men and women whose departure from our shores helped in some small way to improve the prospects for those of us who remained at home.  Their sacrifices have never been properly acknowledged but now as their generation dies off their stories are being recorded in publications such as “An Unconsidered People” by Catherine Dunne and “Across the Irish Sea” edited by Pam Schweitzer, just two of several publications recalling the lives of the emigrant Irish. 

Willie Hazlett is remembered long after he died and his memory will continue to be recalled so long as English literature is studied.  The man from Mayo who died last week in London and whose remains were brought back to Ireland to be buried alongside his parents, will be a casualty of memory before too long.

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