Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A Toast To The Immigrants

St. Patrick's Day is coming, and every year around this time I start to think about the people I based my "Rose Of Skibbereen" series on. They are people from my family, my ancestors, and I learned about them through the meticulous genealogy research my mother did. She told me often about her old Irish grandmother, who died in the 1940s, and how she came over to Philadelphia as a young girl and worked as a servant in the houses of rich families. She had three sisters who moved here also, but she left a brother and a sister back in Ireland with her parents, and she never saw any of them again.
It was a hard thing the Irish did, the same as all immigrants do. They left their native land because of poverty, and they traveled thousands of miles to a new country, and often had to start out at the bottom rung of society, scrabbling to make a living the best they could. Many of them never had the money to buy a steamship ticket back to their homeland even for a brief visit, so they never saw their parents or the world they grew up in again. 
I think of that often when I think of my great grandmother, who is the person Rose is based on. She grew up in a rural part of Ireland in the 19th century, a place where there was no electricity, and none of the modern conveniences. I'm sure the first city she ever saw was Cobh, which was the town in Ireland where she boarded the ship to take her to America. Philadelphia, where she disembarked in the 1880s, must have seemed overwhelming, with all its traffic and people and sights and sounds. To make that transition, not only from one country to another, rural to urban, but also to live, like she did, for 60 more years and see all the changes that the 20th century brought, must have been a bewildering experience. When she died the world had been through two world wars, cars and airplanes had been invented, the telephone was a part of daily life, and there were a thousand other changes that must have made the world of her childhood seem like a dream. It's something I can hardly imagine, to see all that change in one lifetime, and even though I've seen some wonderful things in my life I haven't seen that rate of change. 
So, this year on St. Patrick's Day I'll lift a glass and toast my grandmother, and all the other immigrants who lived through so much. Because, through it all, they endured. 

I hope they found peace at their journey's end.