I love Nanci Griffith’s voice, and I love the songs she sings. For years I listened to one of her early albums, the one with songs about race hatred and about her sister (not very flatteringly) and about going down the road with the radio on. A few nights ago I started to play another album on Spotify. My favorite song from this one has a chorus, It’s a long long way from someplace to here. I couldn’t quite make out what she was singing: There to here? Where to here? I finally listened more closely to the lyrics, about missing home, about drinking to soften the pain. Clare.
It’s a long long way from Clare to here, it’s a long long way, gets further every day.
This is a song about Irish emigration.
The Irish were among the first of the immigrants to the U.S. in the nineteenth century, although for many Irish leaving their home was not an option they would have willingly chosen. They came in great waves, mostly with nothing, fleeing an island that was starving to death. Some were shipped away like so many cattle, given passage to rid the British of the dying. They landed in New York and stayed there or went the short distance to Boston. Others, mainly the ones who could afford it, spread out across the country, some to tie their fate to the goldmines and business prospects of San Francisco. Mostly they lived in ghettos and did the menial jobs, cleaning and mining and digging ditches and minding the horses. And all the time, they missed home, even though home was for these exiles a cottage or worse on land they didn’t own. They farmed it but couldn’t eat the food they cultivated—that was exported for profit by the English landlords– except for the potatoes that grew so generously in the loamy soil, until they didn’t.
There were signs all over America: No Irish need apply. Irish not welcome. No Irish. No Irish. They worked hard but they got reputations as drunks and brawlers. When discrimination kept them from success they resorted to dirtier politics. Ultimately they thrived, and they sent money home, to the few relatives remaining there, and then to the cause of Irish nationalism and a free state. And always, although few managed it—gets further every day–they longed to be rooted back on Irish soil.
It’s difficult not to see a connection between this longing and the over-exuberant and ultimately disastrous building during he Celtic Tiger period in Ireland. Houses built all over the island, now sitting empty. Ghost estates. Even in the new wave of prosperity, brought about after the Irish buckled to the EU’s insistence on an austerity plan and made it work, the houses are simply too numerous to fill, too isolated, not near jobs. A census completed this month identified 260,000 vacant houses a number called scandalous by the report. Nonetheless, the good news is that there are 170,000 more people in Ireland than there were in 2011. This is a small number to be sure, but in a country of 4,750,000 people a 3.7% increase is a good sign. The increase is nearly all in Dublin and its close environs; the counties of Sligo, Donegal and Mayo, all in the west, are continuing to decline, leaving populations of older adults who need public services but with few younger people to help provide and pay for it.
The houses were built because what Ireland loves, what the Irish fought for so passionately over so many centuries, is land. When the money was there the logical conclusion was to build, because who wouldn’t want to come home if the opportunity presented itself? When the Celtic Tiger collapsed, what was left were stone skeletons rising out of the earth all over the island, except in those places that needed them the most. What does a country do with 260,000 empty houses, built but mostly never occupied, but tear them down again?