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Emigration and Ireland The evolution of how we say goodbye

The folklore of the emigrant – from Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore to The Fairytale of New York.

FOR CENTURIES, emigration has been to the forefront of Ireland’s current affairs and, if you’ve any doubt, you need only scan the vast repertoire of Irish folk songs that have passed from generation to generation.

These songs can act as voices from the past, historical reference points. For me, recordings that come to mind include Paul Brady’s version of Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore, Len Graham’s version of The Green Fields of America, Paddy Tunney’s The Green Fields of Canada, Robbie McMahon’s Spancil Hill, Paddy Berry’s Weary On It and Weary O, all the way up to the modern classics of Micheál Marrinan’s Island of Australia, The Wolfe Tone’s Streets of New York, Paul Brady’s Nothing But the Same Old Story and of course The Fairytale of New York by The Pogues.

I could fill these pages with names of emigration songs alone. Songs with haunting titles like Lone Shanakyle, The Boys of Barr na Sráide, There’s a Path Across the Ocean. Songs that document the desolation left behind, the fear of the foreign, the pining, politics, landlords, religions, tithes, press-ganging, wars and even gossip of the era they were written.

What if my dreams, and my parents’ dreams fall flat on their face?

But it was The Fairytale of New York that touched me most back in 2010; eventually prompting me to write a short story entitled ‘I Wish MacGowan Hadn’t Written that Song’.

In it, there comes a moment when a mother and her son are alone in their Irish kitchen on the night before the son is to emigrate. The year is 1990. The son has just returned from the pub, from his American Wake (the title of a Black 47 song), when he tells his mother that, as he was leaving the pub, his father was singing The Fairytale. But what the son can’t say is that, on hearing its lyrics, he just had to leave that pub. He simply could not listen to his father, of all people, sing about passing on his dreams to his son, and it was as if those words had stirred in the young man a deep nostalgia that was yet to dawn.

There is also a truth in that song that can be all too frightening. What if I end up the drunk in a drunk-tank? What if my dreams, and my parents’ dreams fall flat on their face? Or course there are, and always will be, fantastic emigration stories of success, but on the other side of the coin we’ve heard all too often the heartbreaking tales of bad luck, as in a recent documentary about ex-pats who will live out their lives in Arlington House, a hostel for the homeless in London. For me, whenever I think of those ex-pats, I hum to myself Murphy Can Never Go Home, as learned from the singing of Frank Harte, made by Mick Curry.

The migration of country and small town youth

When listening to these songs of the emigrant, it’s hard not to conclude that these are the songs of rural folk. There’s rarely a mention of a city, unless it’s a destination. But, these days, rural Ireland is not only threatened by emigration, there is another option for our youth – closer to home but still just as stark for our shrinking rural communities. Within the last generation it’s become clear that the migration of country and small town youth to big cityscapes on this island can now offer just as rewarding opportunities as those found in Australia or North America.

Of my own schoolmates, many of who now live and work away from home, perhaps just as many are in Dublin as in Sydney. Science and technology in particular have facilitated this over the last 20 years. Ireland has become a popular a hub to Europe, but with the steady growth of cloud computing surely there’s a remote opportunity – as well as tourism – for rural Ireland to retain its youthful vibrancy and regain some balance as a result of this (relatively) new form of employment. There is an opportunity, if only it had the resources to exploit it.

Irish news is no longer limited to this rock

As factories close, as manufacturing migrates to Asia, as rural GAA teams amalgamate, as shells of churches cram on Christmas Eves with youth and families home for just a few cold days, as our youth #boattovote on issues close to their heart, our media have become expert in reporting on the global Irish. Columns with hash tags like #GenerationEmigration now contribute daily to national headlines. Irish news is no longer limited to this rock, is rarely carried by letter or lyric alone.

In many ways these feeds and forums in the cloud – these exciting new storyboards of the migrant – have already earned their place alongside published essays, stories and songs, plays and poems as important contributors to our emigration folklore. In years to come, it is likely that many will be regarded just as highly.

‘The Girl Missing from the Window’ is the debut collection of short stories by Paul O’Reilly. The book is published by Doire Press and is available at a cost of €12.00 – from


When I left Ireland, I thought I wouldn’t be gone long. But emigration sneaks up on you.

Poll: Is the government doing enough to bring emigrants home?

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