A lament for those who left our shores – Pat McArt

Thanks to technology, emigration is no longer the terrible heartbreak it once was

Pat McArt

Pat McArt

Pat McArt is a former editor of the Derry Journal and an author and commentator

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When I was growing up every family had someone far from home (Alamy Stock Photo)

The doorbell rang and my mother told me to go answer it. Standing outside was a man with a great tan and a strange accent: “Does a Pat McArt live here?” he asked.

I said I was Pat McArt and he replied with a hearty laugh: “Well, the guy I am looking for would be a good few years older than you.”

He was looking for my dad.

Now, I should explain that I was 12 years old and it was 1966 when this encounter took place, and the man at the door was my dad’s first cousin who had emigrated to Australia shortly after the First World War and hadn’t been home in half a century.

That night, although not really a drinker, my da got out a bottle of whiskey and he and his long lost cousin had a great old chinwag. A few songs were even sung.

What I didn’t learn until long after was that there was a story behind the story.

As a young man, the first cousin had been left in charge of my dad’s wee brother, a three-year-old. As, apparently, it was a lovely summer’s day, they went outside where they had great fun. But somewhere along the way the wee lad managed to eat some berries off a tree in the garden and that night he got very sick and died quite quickly.

The first cousin was wracked with guilt, believing he was responsible.

And there was another twist. What my dad didn’t know, and certainly wasn’t told, was that his Aussie friend had been diagnosed with terminal cancer only weeks prior to his visit, and there would seem little doubt that he came home was to assuage that sense of guilt he carried all those years.

It must have come as a great relief, redemption even, for him to learn that my da had never blamed him in the least.

How many people emigrated decades ago, never to return home?
How many people emigrated decades ago, never to return home? (Aaron McCoy/Getty Images)

As a young reporter I was sent to interview a wee Letterkenny woman, Mrs Duggan. The year was 1974, she was 74, had never been on a plane and was now heading off to Queensland to see three of her sons who had emigrated in the late 1940s. She was a bit nervous but so, so excited. I wrote the story up and then interviewed her again when she came home. She told me she had a great time, that she loved every minute of it.

It wasn’t the full story.

Out in a pub quite a few years later, I ran into one of Mrs Duggan’s younger sons and we got chatting. “My mother didn’t tell you the truth,” he remarked.

“When she got to Sydney airport my mother had to get a flight on up to Queensland. When she arrived there, she was waiting for a long time for someone to pick her up. Eventually there were only a couple of people left in the waiting room – one was a man with grey hair, the other was my mother. They didn’t recognize each other – the grey-haired man was her son.”

The years had changed them so much that a mother didn’t recognise her first-born son, and he didn’t recognise his mother. He his mother cried for years about that.

Third story…

While in Adelaide in 1999, myself and the missus were invited to a party hosted by a Derry couple, George and Colleen Hudson. They emigrated in the early 1970s. At the party I got into conversation with Colleen’s brother, Gerard. An absolutely lovely fella.

He told me that not a day went past that he didn’t think of Ireland. He remembered fishing on the Faughan, going to school, the craic with his pals etc.

What had happened was that his father had been killed in a road accident, the Troubles were in full swing and his mother decided it would be in the best interests of all concerned if they emigrated and made a fresh start in South Australia, where Colleen and George were already settled. So they did.

Thanks to technology, emigration is no longer the big heartbreak it was

I often think of Gerard. He emigrated 50 years ago this year. And he’s never been back. What would he make of Derry today? What would his memories be? What impact did the Troubles have on all those young friends? Did they all survive?

When I was growing up emigration was a hot button topic. There was a lot of lamenting about those who were gone, sad stories and songs. Every family had someone away from home.

Thanks to technology, emigration is no longer the big heartbreak it was. The sad tales and sad songs are, thankfully, a thing of the past.