Thursday 21 November 2019

Migration and remembering the family priest burning cousin Edna's book

Denis Sampson, author of A Migrant Heart
Denis Sampson, author of A Migrant Heart

When Denis Sampson was a boy, growing up on a lakeside farm in Co Clare, he became aware that his much older cousin, Edna O'Brien, had written a scandalous book.

Drawn to literature from an early age, Sampson yearned to read The Country Girls, Edna's book that had been banned in Ireland and burned in public by the family's parish priest because of its shocking content. He also learned that Edna had emigrated to London, where she was being feted as a literary star.

It was the young Denis Sampson's first inkling that in order to achieve something significant, you might have to leave home. Migration is an important and recurring Irish theme. The reflections of modern Irish emigrants on their new country, wherever that may be, and their view of Ireland from a distance, is a regular topic for newspaper articles. Sampson explores not only the effects of being a migrant on a personal level, as he moves ceaselessly, both physically and in his mind, between his childhood hinterland of Co Clare and his adopted city of Montréal, Canada, but also casts back to the previous generations of his family, who were both emigrants and immigrants from and to Ireland.

This account of a childhood in Co Clare is beautifully articulated. Sampson loves the memory of the lakes and countryside, his parents and extended family, the parish and the people, in which he was embedded, but understands too how breaking free of what he loved, in order to find the essence of who he is, mainly through the lens of literature, was always going to be necessary.

In those two competing realities - loving where you come from but needing to live someplace else - lies the existential issue at the core of migration. And we Irish, perhaps more so than other people, tend to hold those twin poles in suspension for all of our lives.

Denis Sampson's lifelong journey of self-discovery drew him to the writings of such migrants as Naipaul, John McGahern and Brian Moore. He was an early admirer of the work of Irish political philosopher and politician Conor Cruise O'Brien.

In Montréal, as a teacher of English literature, he was thrown into contact with other migrants, like himself, some of whom intimidated this young, sometimes faltering, Irishman with their New World self-confidence, some of whom became his friends.

Throughout his travels to volcanic craters and exotic destinations, he found himself ever comparing these exciting new places to the Co Clare landscape of his childhood.

In a period spent in France with his family, he gradually became aware of how his waypoints were changing and how his life could not be ruled by what might be described as a disproportionate sense of attachment to another place.

This is a memoir of keenly observed and hard-won truths. Sampson explains to us, as he searches for the elusive Ireland of his imagination, how many of the turbulent currents that we carry within us, wherever we go, can find peace through the balm of literature.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham's novels, Capital Sins and The Taoiseach have just been re-released as ebooks.


A Migrant Heart

Denis Sampson

Linda Leith ­Publishing, pbk, 246p, €13

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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