There’s an Irish lament sung in pubs up and down the country when people get a bit nostalgic after a drink or two.
It’s the tale of Noreen Bawn who left Ireland for America, returning only to die while still young. The writer of the song blamed the “curse of emigration’’ for putting the young lass into an early grave.
Today as Europe becomes weighed down by refugees and migrants from other lands, harrowing scenes fill our newspapers each day. Tragically, as we have seen, some never make it to Europe but drown on the way. Our history is littered with such tragedies and more laments, no doubt, will be written and sung.
When 14 young Irish people set out from the little village of Lahardane in Co Mayo on April 11, 1912 for a new life in another land they were not to know that only three of them would still be alive four days later. They must have been filled with such hope when they took a horse-drawn trap and sidecar firstly to Castlebar to get the steam train that would take them eventually to Queenstown in Cork where they would board the magnificent new liner RMS Titanic.
They became known as the Addergoole Fourteen and last week I happened to be in the area and was curious to see a Titanic Village sign. This led to a poignant little memorial garden depicting the event which had left the village heartbroken, unable to talk about the tragedy for years. A bronze sculpture representing four of the 11 and plaques recording the story has turned the garden into a tourist attraction since it was officially opened on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. The three Lahardane survivors, Annie Kate Kelly, Delia McDermott and Annie McGowan, never returned to Ireland. Annie McGowan, who had thought the Titanic “the nicest ship in the world’’, eventually married and was buried in Illinois. Delia had set out to work as a house maid, wearing the new hat and gloves her mother had bought her for the trip. She settled in New Jersey, married and had a family. Annie Kate Kelly became a teacher and Dominican Nun in Michigan.
Local man Davie Donohue, now in his 80s, said his father didn’t know for five weeks that his sister Bridget, just 21, had drowned. In fact 111 Irish people lost their lives when Titanic sank. Lahardane proportionately lost more lives in the disaster than anywhere else in the world. Each year, on the anniversary of the sinking, the Timoney Bell is rung in the local St Patrick’s Church at 2.20am, the time of the sinking. It gives 11 mournful rings, then three joyful rings for the survivors.
The deaths of so many of its young ripped the little community apart. But with all the names on a poignant plaque in the garden they are not forgotten. Lahardane today is a thriving village below the crags of Nephin Mountain with a hinterland of lovely new homes, good roads and where my mobile phone worked much better than it sometimes does at home.
Today’s migrant crisis, brought about by wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq threatens to upend what already is a fragile European Union. Its open border policy has been suspended and the barbed wire is back up in the countries feeling the biggest threat, Hungary, in particular. With winter setting in life can only get harder for migrants on the move.
Not everyone has sympathy for them and graffiti to that effect is beginning to appear in Britain, and yes, even in Belfast. Why are those who write it so sure that they or someone in their family will not be affected by the “curse of emigration’’ one day? This is no time for complacency.