For he comes, the human child
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand.
—“The Stolen Child,” WB Yeats
My time in Ireland continues to pass, and it becomes harder for me to believe that I have spent over four months on this island. As classes recommence following travels in Europe and a Cork Christmas spent with my in-laws, a sense of the ordinary begins to take hold. However, this past weekend reminded me that the opportunity to live in Ireland for an entire year resides strictly within the realm of the extraordinary.
My younger brother, John Patrick, will enroll in Officer Candidate School for the United States Navy in several weeks. I am very proud of him for this noble undertaking, but I realize that opportunities for him to visit will dissipate once he joins the Navy. Therefore, I was very pleased to learn in December that he would be visiting us during the first week of January before his schedule becomes significantly more restrictive. When I asked him what he wanted to do during his visit, he unhesitatingly answered with one word: “Easky.”
As I wrote in my previous post, my patrilineal Golden ancestors left Ireland for America in the 1840s during an Gorta Mór, the Great Famine. Every July, my family gathers for a reunion in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, where the Goldens settled when they first arrived from Ireland. This year we celebrated the 76th Annual Golden Family Reunion. The reunion begins in St. Patrick’s Church, Middletown, where everyone attends a memorial Mass for the members of the family who have died during the past year (as my grandfather passed away last year, it was of particular importance to me to attend last summer; I also wished to introduce my new wife to this long-held family tradition of ours). Following the Mass, we always explore the multitude of Golden family tombstones in the graveyard beside the church. The oldest of these tombstones, a thin slab of white marble with faded yet legible writing, reads, “Here lies William Golden, deceased in 1860, aged 65 years, born in the parish of Easky, County Sligo, Ireland.”
William was my fourth great grandfather, and he was the first Golden to emigrate from Ireland to the United States. Born in 1795, he is the eldest ancestor of mine that I have been able to trace. When I came to Ireland with my family for the first time in 1998, we visited the small coastal village of Easky. We also visited the old cemetery in the village, where we were able to find burial plots of several Goldens dating back to the mid 1700s. My brother, who was only 6 at the time of that trip, wanted to return to Easky, the old home of our forebears, to explore the village and the cemetery once more as adults. I had been meaning to ride up there for some time, and my brother’s visit provided the perfect opportunity.
My wife, my brother, and I departed early this past Saturday morning, as the drive from Cork to Easky takes approximately four hours. All throughout the drive, we enjoyed the Irish landscape unfolding before us: the rare stillness of Cork City early on a Saturday; the emerald pastures that stretched to the horizon; the gushing rivers that in some areas had breached their walls and flooded; and finally, the snow-capped Ox Mountains surrounding the harsh ruggedness of the Atlantic coast in Sligo. Easky is a small, coastal village, and though in recent years it has become a popular destination for surfers (even in January), it remains quite remote and removed from the comparatively frenetic pace of places like Cork and Dublin. We walked along the beach and enjoyed the sight of talented surfers gliding over ten foot waves. We stopped in awe at the sight of the remnants of the O’Dowd Castle, built in 1207, and we realized that our forebears would have looked upon the same stone tower during their walks along the coast. We walked along the Easky River, and I remembered the fun I had jumping along the river stones with my brothers nearly twenty years prior. And finally, we arrived at the old graveyard, where we found the tombstone marking the burial site of several Goldens.
That evening, the three of us attended Mass at St. James Church, the Catholic parish of Easky village, the same parish where William Golden was born and raised two hundred years ago. As we sat and prayed, I reflected on the hardship that previous generations had endured for me to arrive at this exact moment. I thought of the courage it took to leave home and begin a new life in a new land. I thought of the determination it took to maintain one’s faith against penal law persecution and attempts at coerced conversion while battling starvation. I was grateful for the traditions, values, and faith passed down between successive generations of my family, and I was reminded of the extraordinary nature of this present opportunity.
The following day, we hiked to the Glencar Waterfall. W.B. Yeats immortalized this waterfall in his poem “The Stolen Child,” from which I quoted the final stanza at the start of this post. I read the poem at the foot of the waterfall, and the words struck me with particular meaning. I thought of William Golden, leaving a famine-ravaged Ireland, a world “full of weeping,” embarking for the “waters and the wild” of the United States. I also thought about a passage from a book about the Great Famine I recently read; the passage noted that the famine created over one million refugees from Ireland who had to leave their home due to disease and starvation. I had never before seen famine emigrants referred to as refugees, and the phrase highlighted the similarities between the crisis that forced my ancestors to seek refuge in a “wild” land and the present day conflict in Iraq and Syria that has similarly created so many refugees in search of somewhere new and safe. I have often wondered what kind of greeting William and his family received when they arrived in New York Harbor; was it one of welcome, or the one popularized by the nativist movement: fear, xenophobia, and verbal assaults on the dangers of the immigrants’ non-mainstream religion? I find some of the rhetoric in the current presidential debates around immigration and refugees alarmingly similar to that line of thinking around the Irish in America 150 years ago. Yet William Golden, that stolen child, eventually found success in America for himself and for his descendants. I pray the same holds true for all those currently fleeing from persecution and distress.
Slán go fóill.