They left to escape the famine, poverty, an oppressive colonial government, then the violence of rebellion and civil war. They left to find work, to send money home to their families, to find opportunities in the big industrial cities far from their small rural cottages. Some sailed east to England, some west to America, and some south to Australia. Many, like my grandmother, never spoke of Ireland again. So I have had to piece together my Irish family’s history from snatches of conversation overheard in childhood, bits and bobs of story learned from relatives, facts discovered in online archives, and a box of documents and memorabilia left to me when my parents died.
I now know that both my great-grandfathers, born in 1843 and 1844, survived the famine as small boys, and that one of my great-grandmothers was born into the famine year of 1849. The circumstances of how they survived and the lingering effects on them are lost to history, but the suffering in County Mayo was especially severe, the population reduced by a third. All from farming families around Knock, my great-grandparents stayed in the country of their birth. It was their children’s and grandchildren’s generations that joined the exodus from Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
My grandfather Michael Byrne, born in 1892, was one of twelve children. He was the second in the family named Michael; his namesake and a girl born after him both died in infancy. Of the surviving ten three emigrated to America, the New Jersey area, Michael and one sister went to England, and at least one remained in Ireland. I have no information for the other four. The eldest son, Dominick, left for America in the same year Michael was born, so the brothers never knew one another.
My grandmother Bridget “Bridie” Carney, born in 1888, was the youngest of seven. One of her brothers emigrated to Boston while she and a sister and brother went to Manchester in England. Bridie’s eldest sister, Margaret Carney Kilduff, was one of three who stayed in Ireland. She married young and had seventeen children. Of them five emigrated to New York, one to Canada, and two to England. Four died in infancy and four remained in Ireland. The Byrnes, the Carneys, and the Kilduffs were typical of the large Irish families of those days who sent their sons and daughters off to try their fortunes in a new world.
The biggest surprise I had in researching when and why my own grandparents left Ireland was the discovery that they left not once, but twice. I knew they left some time after their marriage in Knock in 1917, settling in Manchester where there was a sizable Irish population. But I found that both had lived in Manchester earlier when they were single. Michael joined the Manchester Police in 1912 along with his brothers William and Patrick. According to a story from other Byrne family descendants the three brothers resigned in 1914 in protest at the British government’s refusal to grant Home Rule to Ireland. Perhaps that is true for his brothers, but Manchester City Police Service records show that Michael did not resign until November 1915, presumably when he enlisted for service in World War I. For on the 1917 marriage certificate his profession is given as Military Police Officer and his residence as “Knock during leave from France.”
According to the 1911 Census of England and Wales my grandmother Bridie was already living in Ashton-under-Lyne, a suburb of Manchester, in that year. The census lists her brother Thomas Carney, a railway guard, as the head of household. The other residents of the house on Kelvin Street were Thomas’s brother Michael, a labourer, his sister Bridget, a dressmaker, and an unrelated woman, a domestic servant. Just a year later, in 1912, Michael Carney left for America. My great-uncle Thomas is the only one of that generation of the family I met. In my teenage years he visited us several times, traveling down by train from Manchester to London.
Did my grandparents’ romance begin when they were both living in England at this time? I don’t know. I assume they must have known each other since childhood because their families lived in the adjoining Knock townlands of Drum and Eden. On the map they slot together like jigsaw pieces. What is documented is that by 1917, when Michael was serving on the Western Front, Bridie was living back in Knock. Michael came home on leave and they married in the parish church there on March 8th 1917. The marriage certificate contains a poignant detail. Bridie stated her age as 25, the same as her husband’s. In fact at 29 she was four years older, probably something women would rather not admit to in those days. Michael returned to the front and ten months later their first son Hubert Joseph, my uncle, was born.
Until recently I had only been able to date my grandparents’ departure from Ireland to between Hubert’s birth in January 1918 and the birth of a daughter, Philomena, in June 1922 in Chorlton, a suburb of Manchester. But Manchester City Police Service records give a more precise answer. Michael rejoined the force on January 16th 1919, such a short time after the Armistice on November 11th 1918. It certainly seems he was in a hurry to leave as soon as he was demobbed. The story passed down to the family is that he had to escape Ireland because he was a potential target of violence. A look at what was happening in Ireland at the time confirms that story.
The end of the war was a renewed impetus to the independence movement in Ireland. In the general election in December the Irish Nationalist party Sinn Fein won a sweeping victory. Meanwhile the IRA were recruiting and arming themselves in preparation for the War of Independence which broke out on January 21st 1919, just days after my grandparents left the country. In this atmosphere men who had fought for Britain were considered the enemy. According to an article published in The Irish Times to mark the centenary of the Armistice “these men were shunned, ostracised from Irish society and in many cases murdered by the IRA.” In one incident in Cork 29 ex-servicemen were shot dead as suspected informers. It was difficult for veterans to find work. The Ministry for Labour in London reported that the Irishman who returned from the front found “their own people have nothing but contempt to offer him for patriotism and sacrifice, and he is denied the right to work or live in the country for which he fought.” When one Irishman told his commanding officer he was returning home to Ireland the officer gave him two revolvers for his safety. As a former Military Police Officer Michael Byrne would no doubt be under more suspicion than most. He wasted no time in taking his wife and young son away from the volatile situation.
The County Mayo they left would be embroiled in violence for six more years as Civil War followed the War of Independence. In their new life in Manchester they endured different hardships. In June of 1923 baby Philomena died of pneumonia in my grandmother’s arms.
On the last day of my visit to Ireland in 2017 our guide took us to the ruins of a famine village. We drove into a narrow valley between rugged hillsides. It was completely deserted. The ruins of a schoolhouse by the road were the only clue that people once lived here. We hiked along a picturesque stream climbing to a ridge with a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside. Then a turn in the track brought us to the ruins, a small group of cottages now open to the sky, some no more than a jumble of stones. The former dirt floors were overgrown with vegetation and wildflowers. About a dozen families lived here once, but in the wake of the famine and emigration this village was abandoned. Now it was completely silent but for the wind, peaceful, a fitting memorial. Looking out over the view I caught a glimpse of the Atlantic in the distance, the way of escape for so many. Who would want to leave this beautiful place, I thought? Only the most dreadful circumstances could have driven so many away from such a lovely country. The evening before we had visited Yeats’ grave in Drumcliffe churchyard. Now a phrase from his poetry came into my mind, “a terrible beauty.”