Last week I attended the much anticipated premiere of the film adaptation of Colm Toíbín’s novel Brooklyn in Enniscorthy.
It confounded my expectations. I was enthralled with Saoirse Ronan’s depiction of Eilis Lacey a young girl who left her hometown in Enniscorthy in the 1950s to seek employment in Brooklyn.
Nick Hornby’s interpretation of Toíbín’s novel resisted the temptation to present us with a chocolate box image of Ireland in the 1950s.
The dancehall scenes in the Athenaeum and the interiors of the house on Court Street and Pugin’s Cathedral have an air of sophistication. Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan’s performances were believable and realistic.
What resonated with me was the personification of Immigration through the eyes Saoirse Ronan. Director John Crowley achieved this by incorporating close ups of Saoirse’s face at pivotal points in the film and the impact was stunning.
I felt every breath she took, anguished over the decisions she had to make as if they were my own. I even agonised over the loss of her dead sister.
Brooklyn rattled my senses. It felt as though a thread had come loose and the hem of my skirt had begun to unravel.
I began to think of my own identity and how it had been carved out of the rock of immigration.
Both my parents left Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s and moved to England to find a new life, a chance of employment and a future. Both came from rural Ireland.
I had often wondered what impact England had on their senses when they first stepped off the boat. It must have smelt different, looked different and felt different from their homeland. Steel buildings dominating the skyline and replacing mountains and coastline. Overcrowded streets and unfamiliar accents. Crowley captured this beautifully when Saoirse Ronan first stepped of the boat in America.
The duel narrative in Brooklyn, the ghost of what if? is played out masterfully. We get a glimpse into what Saoirse’s life would have been like had she stayed in Enniscorthy and it wouldn’t have been a bad life by any means just different. It was a life preordained for her rather than one she made for herself.
What interests me about immigration is the way that people hold onto their own identity which is intrinsically linked to memory.
My own experience was of growing up on a street in Manchester where every family was Irish. The boys played hurling and Gaelic football and the girls took Irish dancing lessons. When I started school the teachers questioned my pronunciation of the word three which sounded more like tree.
I was immersed in the Irish way of life or indeed an idealised form of Irish life tinged with nostalgia and longing and I didn’t fully realise that I was living in England until I reached secondary school.
It came as quite a shock to me that I might be considered English. The trajectory of this left me in a cultural no mans land. I suppose you could call it an identity crisis.
I was in a place where I could identify more with a culture and a land that I had never lived in than the one where I had grown up. English people identified me as Irish and Irish people viewed me as English.
There is a narrative that Brooklyn leaves open and one that I would like to consider.
What happens to the children of Irish Immigrants that grow up on foreign shores?
When I reached my twenties I decided to move to Ireland, indeed to Enniscorthy the departure point for Eilis Lacey. The country I moved to was different to the one that my parents left, however, there was a real sense of coming home. The ghost of what if does not haunt me in the same way that it haunted Eilis Lacey.
As a writer of fiction people often remark upon how it amazes them that I am able to capture the essence of rural Ireland in my work that they would not expect, it is as though I have lived in Ireland all my life.
I grew up amidst a generation of Irish men and women who left Irish shores in the 1950s and 1960s. They were hard working people, a forgotten generation.
As a child I would sit in on a bar stool sipping a can of coke through a straw, munching a packet of crisps and I would listen to them talking of villages in Mayo and of wakes that they never made it home for. Then someone would start to sing and I would be asked to dance a slip jig or a reel.
I almost cringe at the sentimentality of it all now – but then I stop myself before I recoil into my contemporary Irish shell. I catch my breath, regain my poise, allow for the gravitational shift between heart and mind the tug of war between past and future. Now I realise that I do have an identity and it is one that I can be proud of.
Colm Toíbin, myself and Elizabeth Whyte – At Brooklyn Premiere
Me, Carmel Harrington, Maria Nolan and Staci Holtzman – At Ravenswood House