Wednesday 21 August 2019

'Soft marriage meat' of our homesick Irish

Lay of the Land

'For after meeting those Irish men who wore American rings on their fingers, Healy discovered his true love for his homeland' (stock photo)
'For after meeting those Irish men who wore American rings on their fingers, Healy discovered his true love for his homeland' (stock photo)

Fiona O'Connell

It's no accident that John Murphy's play The Country Boy, about the grim reality of emigration from 1950s Ireland, features a main character with an American wife. For that was often the case, even for Irishmen who "had come to America 'just for a few years'... not to settle. It just happened". But it was neither random nor romantic. As John Healy writes in No One Shouted Stop!, "it was so easy for a lonely Irishman to fall in love with a determined American girl who was not as shy or coy as an Irish girl".

While these "Irish lads who carried their innocence as clearly as their lack of passion-pit sophistication on their broad foreheads" were "soft marriage-meat to a marriage-conscious American girl who did not have to worry about a mother who would look back on the bloodline and the political line of a prospective son-in-law for three generations".

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Facilitated by a courtship that was not "the furtive, covert thing that it was in Ireland" thanks to "a young and thrusting country, where traditions counted for nothing".

Healy suggests almost a spider's web enmeshing the homesick greenhorns; "it was easy to fall in love with a woman who would go on working and bring in an extra income until the first child came. The second and third rooted the man irrevocably to the soil of America: by this time, too late, he had learned about fundamental values the hard way and the American way of life".

Where everything was different, including relationships. "Back in Charlestown, he would never call his wife 'Honey' and we would merely walk in on her and let her flounder with an unexpected guest. Or more likely, he'd head to the nearest pub."

A glimpse into domestic life reveals an alien culture. "The kids came in, dressed in their pyjamas and said, goodnight Pop, we're going to a movie... Mom would drive them to the drive-in movie theatre, leaving Pop with his visitor from the old country."

Which is when "the cans of beer came from the ice-box" and "Pop was well on his way to 'tying one on'." His "glazing eyes are far away" when he discovers the woman in Ireland that he "really carried a torch for" had never married. Gone, too, was the inevitable "knocking session in which life in rural Ireland was hammered" and instead "you're goin' back... you're lucky".

Of course, there were exceptions but "the rule was too depressingly common" and Healy stopped visiting his old school friends, tired of "this sad, maudlin theme". But at least he now "knew my blessings, my Irish riches. I had a different perspective. In America I was forced to say 'my country'. It had a strange but lovely ring to it and it still has".

For after meeting those Irish men who wore American rings on their fingers, Healy discovered his true love for his homeland.

Sunday Independent

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