My grandparents were both born in Miltown Malbay, a small town in County Clare, Ireland.
Bridget and John did not know each other when they both lived there. They met after emigrating to Boston.
When Bridget was being courted by her soon to be husband John, they took a day trip to Nantasket Beach. A day laborer, he had squirreled away some of his wages for weeks to make this surprise possible. They took the boat from Boston. The day was fair and clear (as the story has been recounted on numerous occasions). Imagine his consternation when upon arrival at their destination she burst into tears! It was the sheer beauty of the place that overwhelmed her. The frothy white water, the blue open sky, the salty whistling wind. It brought it all back. It all reminded her too much of home, and what she had lost.
At the end of what turned out to be a wonderful day, she pleaded with my grandfather to never take her back there again. She knew she could never live there. She had to go back to Lowell. To her job in a factory, and her room in a boarding house. The memory of Ireland was too strong and painful for her to bear.
She was a creature of County Clare, where the Cliffs of Moher are the very definition of a rugged cost. How many Irish transplants have felt that first jolt of recognition upon viewing our coastline, and then experienced that painful tug.
There is a Welsh word that has no direct English translation. That word is ‘hiraeth’.
The University of Wales, Lampeter attempts to define it as “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire for the Wales of the past.”
Oxford Merriam-Webster defines ‘hiraeth’ as a noun: “A homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or that never was.”
Is that fey word a possible explanation of why so many Irish came here to stay?
History tells us that Daniel Ward, an Irish immigrant, started the mossing industry here in the mid 1800s. He noticed the moss growing on the rocks reminded him of what he saw at home. Home. That word again!
He realized that, if harvested, the seaweed would yield carrageenan. This substance could be used as a food thickener. Thus, the Irish mossing industry was born. Soon, immigrants could be found in the Sand Hills area, moving to Scituate and establishing their families. The moss was dried on the sand, then shipped to factories to be processed as an ingredient in such products as toothpaste and ice cream. The Irish had arrived!
Scituate beckoned with its inherent charms. How would it feel to be Irish, having last smelled the sweet air and hear the sad lament of the crashing sea as your boat left port for the unknown. You arrive in a teeming city, perhaps staying with a friend or relative. How life altering would it be to have an opportunity of making a living in a community such as Scituate?
From the 1930s through the World War II years, wealthy Boston Irish built their summer homes along our coastline. With them came their help, often housed in small cottages. After the war, more people could afford their own getaways. Tourism flourished. Generations of families summering in the same house became commonplace.
My own family had a summer cottage, which fulfilled our dreams of seashells and sand. I am now fortunate to live here full time. Because it is home.
Several years ago I traveled to Ireland as part of a large family group to celebrate Christmas. We had settled on Doolin. Known primarily as a center of authentic Irish music, Doolin is quiet in the winter, its overflowing summer music festivals merely a memory. But it was its proximity to Miltown Malbay that drew us – the ancestral home of my paternal grandparents. We wanted to experience Ireland in its truest form, to enjoy its peacefulness without the distractions that everyday life demands.
We were immediately successful. The first night the wail of the wind shuddered through the house, making it easy to believe that the Banshee was hovering outside our door. Double rainbows greeted us several mornings, as sheep meandered over a rocky meadow. A Christmas goose was procured and cooked to perfection by my son, amazing everyone who was brave enough to eat it.
And, standing outside under a rare Irish full moon on Christmas Eve, we watched the moonlight dance on the distant sea. I thought of Scituate. Home.
The words of the Customs Inspector who greeted us upon arrival at Shannon Airport a few days ago came back to me.
“Welcome” he said. “Coming home for Christmas, are you?”
“No. We’re just visiting,” I replied blearily.
“That’s what I meant. You’re coming home!”
So, where was I when I visited Ireland those years ago? Was it my Irish ancestry that drew me ‘home’?
Or is it our shared Irish ancestry that draws so many Scituate dwellers to call this lovely, mystical, magical town ‘home’?
Perhaps it is that simple.
Suzie Quealy Ward is a Scituate resident who writes a bimonthly column in celebration of the people, places and things that make Scituate special on behalf of the Scituate Visitors Center. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured photo (top) by Henry Ward