Searching for Ghosts in Ireland
Things I didn’t know before I went to Ireland. Over one MILLION men, women and children died during the Great Irish Famine, mostly the rural poor. There was enough food in Ireland to feed the starving population but the British exported it, around thirty to fifty shipments of food produce left the country daily. It is viewed by some historians today as direct or indirect genocide. One million more people fled Ireland. Their empty, collapsed stone houses still litter the landscape. The country’s population dropped by a quarter. Today, there are only about 4 million people living in Ireland.
One of those who left was my great grandmother, Julia. She was only sixteen when she made the dangerous voyage across the Atlantic alone to seek a better life in the United States. Though who knows what kind of discrimination she faced, she eventually found work as a maid in a hotel. She married my great grandfather, Patrick, a dock worker who had emigrated with his widowed mother and six siblings. Only two made it to adulthood.
My grandfather was the youngest of their nine children and the first in our family to go to college. He went to Yale on a scholarship and later became a math professor. All of his six children received college degrees. In 1973, he visited Ireland with my father who had just finished four years in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, and would later travel the world on a diplomatic passport. My grandfather was able to stand on the dirt floor of the one room home his mother had grown up in.
Forty years later, my father, mother, younger sister, Mike (our dedicated chauffeur) and I picked our away through the long, wet grass in Keel Cemetery looking for the spot where my great, great grandfather, John, was buried in 1912. While we can’t be entirely sure, we located a non-descript stone overlooking Finan’s Bay we believe marked his passing. We also visited the site of the hedge school where he secretly taught Catholic children when penal laws made it illegal.
It was meant to be a mini family reunion, a road trip across Ireland but it turned into a pilgrimage of sorts. We retraced their steps. We talked to distant relatives who quickly became close friends. We tried to imagine what life must’ve been like. We drank a lot of hot whiskey. As stories of hardship, sacrifice, courage, tragedy and triumph emerged, they became more real. We were grateful.
From illegally teaching kids to read behind a hedge to a life where nothing seems out of reach, how do you begin to say thank you to family members you’ll never meet but whose fortitude made opportunity possible? Perhaps one way is by keeping their memory alive and passing them on. My dad is having a headstone erected to mark the brave life of John Sugrue. As George Eliot said, “The dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” Here’s to remembering.