Thursday, September 25, 2014

Irish Famine "Coffin Ships"

          Alongside the River Liffey in the heart of Dublin’s modern financial district, Rita and I recently came upon a cluster of bronze statues—gaunt, despairing, their meager belongings clutched to their chests--walking  to the docks. They are among a host of memorials commemorating the 150th anniversary of An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger, as the Irish Famine of 1845 to 1852 was known at the time. Docked along the quays nearby is the Jeanie Johnston, a replica of a tall ship that made sixteen crossings to Canada and America carrying a cargo of Irish emigrants. The ship is a famine museum and testament to the millions who escaped An Gorta Mor.     
         As a means of clearing the land for the more profitable raising of livestock, it was often cheaper for landlords in Ireland during the famine to pay for steerage passage aboard a cargo ship to America, Canada, or Australia, rather than evict their tenants. Unlike those in steerage class aboard most other famine ships of the time, however, no emigrant aboard the Jeanie Johnston died during the dangerous sea crossing of nearly two months, thanks largely to an enlightened captain and his ship’s doctor. Most of those ships did not even have a ship’s doctor on board. Called “coffin ships” for their deplorable overcrowding, scant provisions, and inadequate ventilation, 30% of their steerage passengers were said to have succumbed to cholera, typhus, and other diseases in the cramped quarters and to be buried at sea.  

            On a road beside Clew Bay in County Mayo, in the village of Murrisk near the town of Westport, sits The Coffin Ship, the Irish National Famine Monument at the foot of the sacred mountain, Croagh Patrick. A stylized bronze sculpture dedicated in 1997, it is a stunning sight.
             The ship is an abstract rendering of a three-masted cargo ship, sails unfurled, the main deck and hull diminutive in scale. A green patina mottles the sides of the ship as the bronze oxidizes, suggesting perhaps the ravages of the sea during the arduous crossing. With their abbreviated double yardarms, the three masts resemble crosses, symbolizing the torment of the ship’s human cargo. But most poignant of all are the skeletal figures that seem to leap and arc, as if caught in ferocious sea gales as they escape the ship. This image of departing spirits is stark and haunting.
             What strike me most about the memorial are the dreams of those who did not live to see the other shore and the legacy of those who did. How many of those who perished on the infamous coffin ships left on board sons, daughters, spouses, extended family who lived to see the crossing completed, the dreams pursued and one day fulfilled, in their lifetimes or in those of their children or grandchildren? Who might have been among them in the long lists of our own ancestors? Whose immigrant dreams may we, ourselves, be living, one hundred and fifty years later?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Some Thoughts on Seamus Heaney, One Year Later

            A year has now passed since the renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney died in Dublin at the end of last summer. He was buried near his family’s grave in the little country churchyard of St. Mary’s in Bellaghy in his native County Derry, Northern Ireland. This May, on the first of many pilgrimages to Bellaghy, I stood beside the resting place of this great but humble man, the spot marked by a simple wooden cross, his name and dates on a metal plate. It was tucked into a corner of the churchyard, the grave capped with a bank of clay and chained off by small white links. Alone, I read with rueful irony the line, "Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not" from "Blackberry Picking."
            Seamus Heaney left us on August 30, 2013, texting his last words to his wife: “noli timere,” Latin for “don’t be afraid.” I find a comfort of sorts in the thought that Heaney was himself unafraid of what lay before him as death approached. Now, a year later, many continue to feel his loss but know that in his silence, his verse is with us still. How can I enter a church anywhere, anytime, after reading his “Poor Women in a City Church” without seeing “bright asterisks on brass candlesticks:/. . . Blue flames . . . jerking on wicks” or “Old dough-faced women with black shawls/ Drawn down tight kneel in the stalls”? “Marble columns and cool shadows/Still them,” he tells us, and “In the gloom you cannot trace/A wrinkle on their beeswax brows.”
            How can he be gone from us, this Nobel Prize-winning poet, when in his lines we hear “the squelch and slap/Of soggy peat” as turf is cut from a bog and tossed up upon the bank in “Digging”? Or when he recalls for us those childhood days when we traipsed behind our fathers, following in their steps, then live to see with awful poignancy the roles reversed in “Follower”:

                                              I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
                                              Yapping always, but today
                                              It is my father who keeps stumbling
                                              Behind me, and will not go away.

How can he not be here, this poet of grace and truth, who in “Mid-Term Break” is called home from school when his little brother is struck by a car? He who captures forever the image of his brother’s coffin: “A four foot box, a foot for every year”?   
            In the years to come, each time I return to Ireland I will make the journey to Drumcliff churchyard outside Sligo Town, as I always do, to pay homage beside the grave of the poet William Butler Yeats. But I will then drive on up to County Derry in the North and find my way to the humble country churchyard of St. Mary’s in Bellaghy. There I will pay tribute to Seamus Heaney. An Irish friend suggested to me that Heaney’s grave will never attain the pilgrimage status of Yeats’s final resting place, as Yeats lies beside a main road outside a major town. One finds himself amidst the remote and lonely backroads leading to Bellaghy, he told me, only if one has made a particular point of going there, or if one is lost. Yet I envision a different future altogether for Heaney’s gravesite. I see a poet’s grave marked by a polished granite headstone and border to which the people whose lives his words have touched will journey from near and far alike. They will come alone and in droves to pay tribute to this poet who lives still in his words, whose voice we still hear.