And because of immigrants’ intense devotion to “home,” their children and grandchildren have had a fascination for a nation thousands of miles away from their own birthplace.
In the weeks leading up to a transatlantic trip on the RMS Mauretania, writer Alice Carey’s mother said over and over again: “O Alice M’rie, we’re going home.”
And when they arrived at her mother’s birthplace — Killarney, Co. Kerry — she asked: “Well then, Alice M’rie, what do you think of home?”
In her memoir “I’ll know it When I See It: a Daughter’s Search for Home in Ireland,” Carey writes: “Everybody says it. No one can say boo in Ireland without sticking ‘home’ in somewhere. They imbue it with meaning. Home…and they lower the voice as if they’re saying God.”
When Michigan native Thomas Lynch arrived in West Clare for the first time in 1970, his cabdriver asked him: “How long are you home for?”
“He assumed I was away for a couple of years or a couple of generations,” said Lynch, who has written of his relationship with Ireland in “Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans.”
“I never figured out if it was a plot of Bord Failte’s or if was just the way people spoke of it,” said the undertaker, poet and essayist.
Lynch now lives part of the year in the homestead that his great-grandfather left over a century ago, but he doesn’t claim to have found “home” in Ireland.
Nor does Carey, who divides her time between New York’s Greenwich Village and a house she and her husband bought and renovated in West Cork. She said: “I think everybody carries ‘home’ internally. It’s wherever you were loved.”
“Mary,” a U.S. citizen since 1961, might agree. “I refer to Clare as ‘home’ and especially the village where I was born and reared,” she said. “However, when I think of Ireland, I am thinking of ‘home’ and I refer to Ireland as ‘home.’
“My apartment in Queens is ‘home’ but it does not have the same permanence in my mind as when I speak of Ireland as ‘home,'” she added.
Said novelist Tom Phelan: “When I am asked for my address, I give Freeport, Long Island, without thinking about it at all. But when I think of home, I think of my townsland in Laois, the lane outside our house, all the fields, the names of which I still know, and the few scattered houses.”
He is less sure, however, about extending the notion of “home” to “homeland.”
“Being taken as Irish in America and as American in Ireland had left me with the feeling that I do not have a country anymore, that I am neither here nor there, in the middle of something, in the middle of nothing,” said Phelan, who’s 64.
Mary, though, directly relates her notions of home to nationality, religion and history.
“Several years ago I learned that I could have dual citizenship and I quickly took steps to get my Irish passport. It was almost like feeling whole again,” she said.
“Being patriotic was also instilled in us and the fact that Ireland and the Roman Catholic faith was always undergoing some type of persecution, loyalty to both was imperative for us, I guess,” Mary said.
Other groups had experienced persecution and perilous economic conditions, but had much less emotional attachment to their homelands.
Italian immigrants referred to the South, where 90 percent had come from, as “La Miseria” (misery), associating it with unspeakable poverty. And the North — which regarded Southerners as inferior beings — dealt brutally with rebellion and labor unrest in Sicily and other regions in the latter decades of the 19th century.
Similarly, East European Jews were confined to their own towns, or shtetls, without basic political rights, and lived in constant terror of pogroms.
While ultimately tens of millions made an economic decision to leave an overpopulated Europe for an America desperate for labor, historians say that the Irish were far more likely than others to view themselves as involuntary political exiles.
And Irish immigrant identity was usually bound up with place of birth, in a way that Jewish and Italian identity was not.
Scholar David N. Doyle has said that Irish-American Catholics had done remarkably well by 1900 yet notes that their community was characterized by a “self-indulgent communal morbidity.”
The Irish, who like Jewish people rarely went back, longed for Ireland. In contrast, Italians — who didn’t think of themselves as “Italians” or even as “Sicilians” or “Calabrians” or “Neapolitans” — returned in significant numbers. The so-called “birds of passage,” for instance, could make several transatlantic trips in a lifetime – to America for work and back to family in Italy.
In his landmark 1985 work, “Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America,” Kerby A. Miller argues that the exile motif derived from a “distinctive Irish Catholic worldview” that “long preceded the English conquest of Ireland and the mass migrations of modern times.”
In the 19th century, archaic Gaelic ideas were reformulated as an “ideological defense against change and misfortune” brought by the commercial and industrial revolutions, he says, and, contrary to Doyle, believes such ideas retarded Irish progress in America.
Over the past 50 years or so, Irish Americans have seen new changes, resulting mainly from suburbanization and prosperity – and this has spurred some to look for “home” back in Ireland.
Genealogist Anne Rodda, who was raised in Brooklyn in the 1940s and ’50s, said: “We can’t go home again to the neighborhood we knew.”
She contended that many people have found rapid technological change disorientating and as a result have lost a “sense of self in the context of the past and the future.”
Back in their ancestors’ hometowns, Irish Americans meet people who seem “so very much like their grandparents and relatives, it is like being with those people again.”
In this way, Rodda said, they have experienced an “overwhelming feeling of homecoming.”
Of course, the “old country” is also the place where one’s ancestors are buried.
Said Phelan, whose latest novel, The Canal Bridge,” is set during World War I: “In my mind, from where I stand in the Limekiln Field, I can see our parish cemetery. When I stand in the center of that cemetery, I can see the headstones of all my relatives back to my great-grandparents.”
Phelan, a former priest who is no longer a Christian believer, added: “And in that same cemetery there is a three-by-six plot that my wife and I have bought for our burial. So I think I would have to say, even though I have no wish to go there to live, ‘home’ to me is Mountmellick, Co. Laois.”