My task was to find activities for the Young at Heart seniors group in the Aisling Irish Community Center, Yonkers, New York. When I suggested a creative writing workshop, they asked, ‘Will we bring our jotters?’ Our journey began.
Their first prompt was ‘I remember.’ The kitchen fell silent, as they released a barrage of memories onto the pages. I remember my first day at school; my first job; the first time I saw myself in the mirror; the awful snowstorm of 1947; coming to America on the boat. This triggered a torrent of recollections around the table. I came on the SS America, SS Washington; Britannica; Franconia; Olympia; Saxonia; SS United States, Queen Elizabeth.
There were that many boats?
The next prompt was: write about the boat. Further discussions led to the jobs, the ballrooms, the sweethearts. They returned to their childhoods in Ireland; to the families, villages and parishes they had left behind. The only sound in the room was the ticking of the clock, as they wrote and wrote and remembered. I was transported back half a century, to places forgotten about by the time I had arrived in 1987.
“These stories have to be preserved,” I told the Director who not only agreed, but sought other contributors from beyond the confines of the Center.
Participants poured in – military veterans; musicians, band players, GAA Presidents, nurses, nannies, waitresses, telephone operators, typists, a Bank Manager and NYPD officer.
“When did you come?” I switched on the Digital Voice Editor, as they recalled the thrill of making money; the boyfriends and girlfriends left behind, the pillows wet from tears.
In my basement office on McLean Avenue, I ploughed through tapes, transcribed them into text and crafted their stories, preserving the voice of the speaker. References had to be checked and citations researched. Members were contacted to confirm accuracy of detail.
“It was fifty years ago,” they exclaimed. “Our memories are shaky!”
These men and woman had left home at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years of age, travelling thousands of miles to a new world. Poverty made them go, I heard over and over. They wondered if families had missed them and I wondered how they could not have. One mother held onto the car that took her daughter away; a father stayed out in the field rather than say goodbye. Some parents never saw their children again. Ireland’s heart must have been broken.
While Mem’ry Brings us Back Again is a collection of thirty-one memoirs from Irish immigrants who left for America, 1929-1964. It was launched by the Irish Consulate, New York, November 2006, and sold over 6,000 copies for the Center. Recordings are stored in Glucksman Ireland House, NYU. The title is from Thomas Moore’s poem, As Slow Our Ship, and the cover is a 1957 menu from the SS Britannica. A boat took them over and memory brought them back.
In 2008, a DVD was compiled and nominated for a Grammy documentary and a book of photographs taken by Cork photographer, John Minihan, To Love Two Countries, has since been published.
A story does not have to have an elaborate plot, intricate language or sophisticated vocabulary. A story must come from the heart. And never underestimate the power of the prompt to bring it to life.
Frances Browner, February 2020.