“Those in power write the history, those who suffer write the songs”
Irish emigration is represented in numerous songs and ballads. Among the best known are "Skibereen", "Sailing Off To The Yankee Land", "The Green Fields Of America", "Poor Pat Must Emigrate", "By The Hush", "No Irish Need Apply", "Lone Shanakyle", "Lough Sheelin' and "City Of Chicago". Many of these songs blame English oppression and injustice for forcing the emigrant to leave. They invoke eulogies to hearth and home and castigate the ruling classes and landlords who forced them to flee. Some of the most emotive evoke memories of final partings with aged parents particularly mothers.
Letters were a feature of many poems and ballads. For example “Kilkelly” is based on letters written to John Hunt by Patrick McNamara, a school master in Tavrane School, Kilkelly, County Mayo between 1858 and 1893. They capture the emigrant experience of a father writing to his son who has left the home country and is unlikely to return. They are wistful and poignant as he relates how “the house is so empty and sad” and pleads with him to “come for a visit”. The full text of the letters can be found on the Mayo Ireland website (external link: opens new window)
Kilkelly Ireland, eighteen and sixty, my dear and lovin' son John
Your good friend the Schoolmaster Pat McNamara, so good as to write these words down.
Your brothers have all gone to find work in England, the house is so empty and sad,
The crop of potatoes is sorely affected, a third to a half of them bad.
And your sister Bridget and Patrick O'Donnell, are goin' to be married in June,
Your mother says not to work on the railroad, and be sure to come on home soon.
Kilkelly Ireland, eighteen and seventy, my dear and lovin' son John
Hello to your missus and to your four children, that they may grow healthy and strong
Michael has got in a wee bit of trouble, I suppose he never will learn
Because of the dampness there's no turf to speak of and now we have nothing to burn.
And Bridget is happy you named the child for her, although she's got six of her own
You say you've found work, but you don't say what kind, or when you'll be comin' home.
Kilkelly Ireland, eighteen and eighty, dear Michael and John my sons
I'm sorry to give you the very sad news that your dear old mother has gone.
We buried her down at the church in Kilkelly, your brothers and Bridget were there,
You don't have to worry, she died very quickly, remember her in your prayers.
And it's so good to hear that Michael's returning with money he's sure to buy land
For the crop has been poor and the people are selling, for any price that they can.
Kilkelly Ireland, eighteen and ninety, my dear and lovin' son John
I suppose that I must be close on eighty, it's thirty years since you've gone
Because of all of the money you sent me, I'm still living' out of my own
Michael has built himself a fine house, and Bridget's daughters have grown
And thank you for sendin' your family picture, they're lovely young women and men
You say you might even come for a visit, what a joy to see you again.
Kilkelly Ireland, eighteen and ninety two, my dear brother John,
I'm sorry I didn't write sooner, to tell you that father has gone.
He was living with Brigid, she said he was cheerful and healthy right down to the end
And you should have seen him play with the grandchildren, of Pat McNamara your friend.
And we buried him alongside of mother, down at Kilkelly churchyard
He was a strong and a feisty old man, considering that life is so hard.
And it's funny the way he kept talkin' about you, he called for you at the end
And why don't you think about comin' to visit, we'd all love to see you again.
Select this link to hear an audio sample of the song "Kilkelly" (external link: opens new window)