Sunday, March 6, 2011
The Irishman In Me
This song is one of the most beautiful, one of the most powerful that I know. And having chosen to make my life and build my family half a world away from my own family, I completely relate to the song on many levels.
The song was based on actual letters written by a father to his son who emigrated from Ireland to America in the mid 1800’s. Throughout the five verses I am particularly struck by several subtle (and perhaps not-so-subtle) points.
While the father obviously misses and loves his son, at no time does he berate him for leaving to find his fortunes across the sea. The same is true regarding the possibility of the son visiting home. According to the first verse, dated 1860, the son travelled to America with the intention of working for a while before returning home. The parents express typical parental concern of what type of work should be avoided.
By the second verse, dated 1870, the young man was married and had four children, so it was clear that he would be staying in America. In the following verses, the father mentioned how wonderful it would be if the son could visit – they would all love to see him and meet his family. No guilt, no rebuke – just love of a father who misses his son.
It is clear throughout the song that the son never did visit in his father’s lifetime, and the final verse, written by the man’s brother sharing that their father had passed away, also does not complain about the man living in America – rather the final line written by the brother is “Oh, why don't you think about coming to visit, we'd all love to see you again”.
Obviously there are several differences between the family featured in this very moving song and myself. For one thing, even before internet, Instant Messenger, emails, video calls and low-cost inter-continental phone calls, the communication available to me and my family have always been light years ahead of what was available in the second half of the 19th century.
Yet for all the differences and for however much easier it has been for me than for the son of the letters, this song still touches me to my core.
Sharon and I have been very lucky in so many ways. Like the father in the song “Kilkelly”, our parents have always been very supportive of our decision to live in Israel. Unlike many of our friends, we have never had to answer the “how could you abandon us” questions, or "when are you coming home" queries.
Also unlike the son in the song, we have also had plenty of opportunities to visit our families, and for our parents and siblings to know our kids – more important, for our kids to know the family in America. It has been made even easier by the fact that one of Sharon’s sisters lives in Israel, so besides the long-distance relationships with most of their cousins, our girls have been able to establish a very close and very loving relationship with the four first-cousins living here.
Yet even with the wonders of modern communications, living 6,000 miles from my family is not an easy thing.
Seeing our parents once or twice a year is a treat, but of course we would love for it to be more often. And Sharon and I see our siblings (except for the one in Israel) much less often - and that's hard for us.
The kids knowing all of their aunts, uncles and cousins from afar works as well as can be expected, but as we’ve seen with the family that we do have in Israel, it’s far from ideal.
And even with the ability to communicate, and see one another on webcams, the distance will be a real problem if there is ever an emergency. This lesson was driven home for me years ago, before telecommunications had become what it is today.
In the summer of 1991, while I was serving in the IDF, my mother underwent surgery for breast cancer. The surgery was successful, and after long treatments afterwards, she has been cancer-free for very many years, but at the time, I felt that my hands were completely tied while she was undergoing surgery.
I know – there is nothing that I could have done had I been there. But I would have been there – with her, with my family, just as I would hope my kids would be there for me if I ever go through something similar.
Instead, I was stuck on a base in the middle of the Judean desert, waiting to get a collect call through to America (pre-cell phone era) and finally reaching my father a day and a half later – and only being able to talk to Mom several days after the surgery once she was back at home.
So the song still resonates.
2010 is nothing like 1860, and moving from America to Israel is different in almost every way imaginable than moving from Ireland to America. I came to Israel for ideological reasons, tinged with cultural and religious overtones, whereas those who moved from Ireland to America moved for financial reasons – period.
Yet the longing and the love written from a father to his son in 1860, 1870, 1880, and 1890 still strike a chord with the guy who misses and loves his family in North Carolina.
Moving to Israel from America without family presents so many difficulties - financial, cultural, political, just to name a few. But the real price we pay is the distance from our family, our most natural support system. That is what we sacrifice in order to build the life in which we believe.