Once upon a time, there was a woman named Mary Healy. She had two sons, James and Peter. She did have a husband and possibly other child, but they were lost to her one way or another. Rumors of imprisonment and deportation surround them. They remain nameless to us to this day. But sometime in the 1850’s, Mary took her two boys and left Ireland for England, where there was food and work. By 1871, Peter and James had gone off to the United States, as James was in Chicago for the Great Fire. Peter eventually headed West and another family member disappeared. Mary finally came to the U.S., where she died and was buried.
James married Mary O’Hern, who had traveled to the States from Ireland as well, with at least one brother, Thomas. There might have been another sister, who died and was buried at sea during their journey. She too was in Chicago during the Great Fire I think, for years later, I remember listening with fascination as my grandmother, the granddaughter of James Healy and Mary O’Hern, told me how as they fled the fire, a young Mary O’Hern sat on the tombstones in the Lincoln Park cemetery (which is now gone.) This could all have been myth, but the image of fleeing a fire and sitting on the graves of others stayed with me as a child.
James Healy came to the U.S. a poor Irish boy. He made his fortune, had a grand house, then lost all his money and died a poor Irishman in Chicago. I told this to someone here in Ireland and he laughed and said “Sounds like Ireland itself – started out poor, got rich, lost their money, back to poor again.”
I’ve always been fascinated by where we came from. I listened to my grandparents stories about how their parents or great-grandparents came over to America, to start a new life. I’ve tried to find out where these people came from – not just the Healy’s and O’Hern’s, but the O’Hanley’s, Rizzuto’s, and Talarico’s. Out of that group, the O’Hanley’s were the only ones I had some success with. To my surprise, my Irish ancestors turned out to be somewhat Scottish – at least three generations of O’Hanley’s lived in Scotland…before some land owner rounded them up, shoved them on a ship, and sent them off to new destinations during the Highland Clearances. Ronald O’Hanley, my great-grandfather, was the son of some of those people. Oddly enough, he always stressed to my grandmother that their people were Irish. Not Scotch-Irish. Just Irish. Ironic, as they came from Scotland. We never even knew about the Scottish link until I discovered it in 2001.
But I think of those people, who left home under duress, to seek out new lives. And I wonder what they would think of me, moving back to their homeland, leaving the U.S. Would they be glad that the pride they had for their heritage still lives on? Or would they think I was an idiot?
And I think of the differences in our circumstances. I was able to fly over in a matter of hours, ship what I needed, have it delivered. My husband had a good job waiting for him. We had money in the bank and were welcomed into the country with smiles and wishes of good luck. We’d visited Ireland before, so we knew what we were getting into to a degree. And most of all, we have the technology to keep in touch with friends and family we’ve left behind. Within hours of landing, people knew we were safe and sound.
On the flipside, James Healy spent weeks on a boat, carrying all of his possessions on him, probably in a small bag or suitcase. He entered a country that wasn’t too keen on Irish or Catholics. He probably lived among strangers or near strangers, the only family with him was his brother – and they were both teenagers at the time. I try to imagine sending my two boys off on ships, knowing full well I may never see them again. It’s unimaginable. Yet Mary Healy had to wait weeks, months probably, to hear word that her boys arrived safely. And what of Mary O’Hern? Did she have a sister who died on the boat journey? Did she leave a mother and father and other siblings behind in Ireland? For some reason, we don’t know.
It’s strange in a way, to return to a country that your people had to leave a century ago.