Thought you needed a DeLorean á la Marty McFly to travel back in time? Nope. Guest blogger Allie Gavette has discovered all you need is a trip to the in and an open mind.
I’m here to chat to ‘real’ characters from the 18th and 19th century, right at the doors of their thatched cottages. They’re bound to tell me about the vast tide of emigration to America, and what it is doing to their community. As an American with Irish ancestry, I’m tempted to ask about the origins of my own family in the area, and find out what life was like for them.
As I wander among the dusty streets of cottages, shops, a bank and barracks, I’m drawn to the loudest, most distinctive voice in the village. This must be the local farmer I heard about, who claims he’s from a place called Ballyfibbin, and always has a story to tell.
Well this is what he told me:
Well hello there! And who might you be?
Ach, how ya doin’ yerself? Jonjo Brannigan’s the name.
What do you do here in Ulster?
Ah now, a bit of this an’ a bit o’ that. I suppose you could call me a farmer. About 20 acres I have. Been in the family since ever I can remember. Me Da before me and his Da before that and his Da afor that.
Well now Jonjo, I heard you’re a bit of a storyteller. I hope that doesn’t mean you’re going to tell me tall tales…
Not at all! Heaven forbid young lady. No, I’m what you call a seanchaidhe in Irish. I think it means “the keeper of old lore.” Y’see, very few people here can read, let alone write. So in a way, I’m their storybook. Over the years, I’ve listened to many stories, mainly from the old ‘uns. When the craic’s in I can sit me down, let the whole town sit aside me if they want, and relate these yarns.
So do you have stories of people leaving this area for America?
Why only the other day, Mrs. McGribbin was tellin’ me her wee lassie of 18 was off to the new world. Just can’t find any work at all here. But there’s a fancy hotel in New York that are desperate for chambermaids. They like the Irish ‘cause we’re honest and hard workin’, so they are actually payin’ her fare over there. I would say over half the population of Ballyfibbin has somebody belongin’ to them that has upped roots and headed for America. Why even me brother Willie, he headed to erm, Phillydelphium I think you call it.
Phillydelphium, yes I think I’ve heard of it! So how are they getting on over there?
Well now Willie, he says he’s doin’ rightly. Leaves here cause there’s nothin’ for him, and got a job only a coupla days after landin’ there. He’s workin’ in an enormous warehouse washin’ beaver furs by all accounts. Says he’s getting a good pull—sorry, getting’ decent wages—and shares a bedroom in a lodging house with a coupla other fellas from Galway I think.
Any stories of locals who found great success in the ‘new world’?
Ah now missus. There’s success and there’s success! I’d say me brother Willie, has been successful. Then, you take them Campbell brothers from Plumbridge. I was in Reilly’s pub the other night heard that Hughie, the older one, has his own business premises in that Philly place and the young buff, Robert, is workin’ in some place called Saint Louise and is in charge of—wait for it—a Brigade of men who catch beavers. Sounds very fancy to me.
How do these people get to America?
Willie got a sailing boat outta Derry to take him all the way. It’s not just ‘round the corner y’know. Took him eight weeks to get there. And I tell ya, it wasn’t cheap either. Cost him four pounds, four shilling—about half a year’s wages for one of them chambermaids up at the big house!
So where do they settle when they get there?
A lot of Irish just stay where they land, like Baltimore, Boston and New York. Some of them get them big wagons with a big sheet over the top, and head inland. They travel hundreds and hundreds o’ miles all over America so they do. Find a decent spot and set up home there.
I can picture Ulster to be pretty deserted since so many people left. What happened to the homes and buildings left behind?
Now, that’ll depend on circumstances and well, let’s face it; some o them houses were more like hovels anyway. Take the Corrigans. Their dwellin’ place was fallin’ apart so it was. Half the thatch on the roof was away and they had no money to fix it so to speak. Only Joe’s brother already in America sent a ticket over so’s they could join him over there.
Then of course there’s the Devine family. They didn’t own the land they built their house on. Old man Hurst, the land agent, was spending so much time chasing the rent money, he ended up buying them a ticket to America so as he could get ‘em out, take over the house and let it to what he calls “respectable tenants”.
You know Jonjo, I’m from the West Coast of America, but I’ve had family who lived around the Donegal area generations ago. Tell me, do recognise the name O’Donnell?
Well now missus. Fine name O’Donnell. Kings of Tyrconnell they once were.
Ooh they were kings?! Tell me more about these Tyrconnells.
Tyrconnells? Many, many years ago that was all of Donegal, a wee bit of Fermanagh, Sligo, Leitrim, and a slice of Derry. Sure there’s still some fancy O’Donnells, but they all seem to be livin’ in Spain so they do. Mind you, there’s still plenty of O’Donnells left, but if you come a visitin’ don’t expect to stay in a fancy castle. Oh sure there is one, but nobody lives there any more. Well, a few bats and rats maybe. No, the O’Donnells I know are just ordinary folk like me. Mind you, there’ll always be a mug of tea and a rake of fadge bread to welcome you back home.
That sounds lovely, I may try track them down. And how about you, Jonjo, how’s your life here?
Let’s just say, the life I lead here is the only life I’ve ever known. Hard work, a bit o’ craic in Reilly’s, me religion and me hopes for the future. I suppose you could say every day is a new chapter in my life. Who knows what the future holds?
If you fancy having a chat with Jonjo Brannigan aka Geoff Heaver yourself, get down to the Ulster American Folk Park. He assures us he never runs out of stories.
One American caused stir when he returned home to his ancestral village in Wexford. He brought quite a crowd with him, and media, because he was President of the United States as well…