Last week was the National Week of Migration, officially declared by The U.S. Catholic Bishops. I’m thinking we need more than a week, but I appreciate the effort. And it made me think again about the migratory routes of my own family.
I was also thinking what a luxury it is to spend time researching this migration story – what were the reasons for, where are the records showing, etc. And how baffling this would be to the very people I’m trying to understand. I figure they would either think I was crazy or hopefully appreciate a little, that I cared. Their livelihood and sometimes their very lives were at risk, while I’m in my warm home (thank you, central heating), curled up in a comfy chair, cup of coffee by my side, pouring over essays with titles like “The Transfer of Land and the Emergence of the Graziers during the Famine Period.”
It’s been said that there are only two stories on earth: “a stranger comes to town” and “a person goes on a journey.” Either way, someone’s leaving home.
The migration story of my family, the Farrellys, as the story of all Irish famine immigrants, has elements of both. The stranger in this story is, of course, is the English. Colonization is born of the desire to build power and security for the colonizer. What happens to the colonized is of lesser importance unless they interfere with those primary goals. How all that plays out to the locals is determined by a stew of variables: geography, who holds power, the political and economic philosophy of the power holders and unpredictable natural events (see potato blight).
Etched in stone in a remote famine graveyard in Culllen, Kilkenny is this quote by Dessalegn Rahmato: “Famine is the closing scene of a drama whose most important and decisive acts have been played out behind closed doors.”
If famine is the closing scene, here’s part an earlier act that played out in the life of the Farrellys:
The dawn of the 19th century in Ireland was marked by several events: the quick and brutal crushing of the 1798 rising, the Act of Union (abolishment of the Irish Parliament, transferring all power and decision making to Westminster) and the emergence of the industrial age. The population of Ireland was about four million. It would double, reaching more than eight million on the eve of the famine in 1845.
1821 was the first year an official census was taken in Ireland. You can begin to get a picture of a place and time by reading census reports. Most of this first census was destroyed, along with all other Irish census records up to 1901. However, the tiny parcel of Ireland on which my ancestors lived is part of the remnant that survives. (My eternal gratitude to the person who snatched this bit from the flames of the Irish Civil War in 1921).
Here’s the picture: small tenant farmers like Thomas and Rose Farrelly lived on a few acres of land, raised their children on potatoes and supplemented their income by growing, harvesting and spinning flax. They pay their rent to James Hunter. On the day of the census, Thomas and Rose are found at home with their adult daughter Rose, son Patrick, and two young granddaughters. Another family, Pat and Catherine Smith and their daughter share the Farrellys’ land. In the 1821 census, the town land of Currghmore has 14 dwellings. Some families live on lots as small as 1/2 acre; others like Thomas Farrellys’ range between 6 and 15 acres. In every house but one, the occupation of the man of the house is “farmer,” the wife and daughters “spinner,” the sons “laborer.” Nearly everyone in this tiny neighborhood is occupied with the appropriately named “cottage industry” of flax work. One house, on more than twice the acreage, where no spinners live or work, belongs to the family of Nixon, a English landowner. Thomas and Rose’s daughter, Elizabeth, is one of four house servants working for the Nixons when this census was taken.
The Farrellys’ look to be moderately secure, able to share their space with another family. But their stability and survival was precariously tied to a plant we barely think about anymore: flax. Linum usitatissimum.
It was a labor intensive crop, as this video on Irish flax farming demonstrates. Curraghmore had the prerequisite for flax growing: a lovely stream running along it’s border, which ran the mill and also served as a way to create the flax dam or hole to “rett” the plant, enabling the fibers to be separated and worked into what would eventually become linen. Sometime in the late 1700s or early 1800s the mill was built along the stream and the fibers were “scutched” then by machine in preparation for spinning. The mill must have been a wonder at first. But it heralded the coming demise of the Farrellys’ tenuous economic security.
This fall, when we were exploring the area, we followed the old “flax road,” a winding lane running along the stream near the Curraghmore bridge, wide enough for only one car or tractor. We suddenly came upon the old flax mill, noted on a 1901 map of this little area that we’d miraculously discovered in the basement of a rare books shop in Dublin just a week before.
Hard to see until you come right up to it, overgrown with vines and whitethorne, it was at one time a thing of glory – it must have hummed with life, its wheel turned by the cold, clear water, the beating heart of the local industry.
I imagined people working here, walking down this road, hearing shouts and noise – this strong stone edifice that expressed the vitality of the community.
As the industrial age gained speed and the demand for linen in England and North America increased, larger mill complexes were built in the major port cities of Belfast, Dublin and Cork. Home spinning could no longer keep up with demand. At first, the younger women spinners left home, moved to the cities to work at the mill on spinning machines; eventually the machines took over the spinning. Ironically, to create more and more linen, the fabric of these small townland communities began to tear. No longer anchored by the linen trade, living conditions for the small farmer and the laborer quickly began to deteriorate. In spite of this, population continued to expand as food and land grew scarce. The stage was being set for the calamity to come.
It’s likely that there were Farrellys living on this land (Curraghmore townland, Lurgan parish, County Cavan) long before that first census in 1821. Rural Irish families identify strongly with their townland. Thomas Farrelly of the 1821 census might have still been alive when his grandson, my great-grandfather, Patrick, was born in 1836. Their family can be found in the parish records through the late 1830s; the baptisms of my great-grandfather, his sister and brothers are all recorded there. After that Fr. Tom, the parish priest, told us “they seem to have just fallen off the books.”
And so, the Farrellys migration journey had begun. It isn’t that their story is so unique but that, looking into it – getting a glimpse however imperfect, of the personal cost that outside and often arbitrary influences took on the lives of my own migrant ancestors – opens my eyes to see the cost of the journey of others.