Thousands Are Sailing

Tomorrow is Saint Patrick’s Day.

I wonder a lot about America, where (I have read) Irish-Americans are the second-largest ethnic group. Americans have no native dress and no native traditions, save the ones that were destroyed when white people arrived here. To me, American culture feels glossy and creepy when compared to other nations with deeper roots. I’ve always been glad that I live in the American South, which has a very strong sense of place, and pride in and attachment to that place. I’ve always liked being provinicial. Being provincial doesn’t mean that I’m ignorant; it just means that I’m from somewhere. That I am attached to and associated with some specific part of the world. I think provinciality is something to be envied, really. I’d call my personal goal enlightened provinciality. Be from somewhere, but know other places, too. Have the best of both worlds.

I was actually born in Pennsylvania, raised in Florida until age nine, and then dragged to North Carolina by my parents. This resulted in me not knowing for years if I was Northern or Southern, a conflict very much like the one that I have heard the Anglo-Irish in England describe. (European friends, the American North and South are culturally pretty different, and are historical enemies, having fought the American Civil War against each other.) Eventually being a Southerner won out in a big way. I’ve been here for nearly 30 years, and when I say the word kids it almost has two syllables sometimes. I dearly love bluegrass music, and I know just how good homemade biscuits with honey are for breakfast.

I am Southern, but what else am I? The name Saylor has nothing to with sailing. It’s a corruption of the Bavarian name Seiler, meaning rope-maker. My maternal grandmother, whom I strongly resemble, was Irish, Scotch and Welsh. (A friend told me I had the face of a BBC historical drama actress, and as a fan of the genre, I have to agree. Put me in a lace dress and let me frolic all over the moors with all four of the McGann brothers, I say. There’s a fine drama in there somewhere, I’m sure.) My grandmother’s surname was Reese, which I figure is an alternate spelling of the Welsh name Rhys. My maternal grandfather was a real-live French Canadian pro hockey player named Henri Lauzon. My dad’s mom was a plump, blue-eyed German-American woman who wore her hair in braids piled on her head. Her surname was Hartsough, which is surely a corruption of the German Hertzog. My father’s father, from whom I get my last name, was a thin, ascetic and scholarly-looking Presbyterian minister who wore glasses. He was English, Jewish, Portuguese, Native American, Welsh, Hungarian and German.

Even for an American, I am really an ethnic mutt. But I identify with Irishness because I look the part, love the music, and have a Catholic mother and uncles named Pat, Michael and Joseph. (I also have a godfather called Pat, a total of 29 great aunts/uncles and 16 first cousins. And have I mentioned that my mother is Catholic?)

Last year at about this time I was driving my mutty self around downtown, listening to the Pogues. One song in particular struck me with its lyrical power: Thousands Are Sailing, a song about Irish immigration. And then I realized that it was St. Patrick’s Day, and that I myself was a descendant of one of the thousands (millions, actually) that sailed away.

Because of the way our country populated itself so recently, white Americans don’t really have an ethnic identity, do we? Maybe that’s why some of us choose to identify so strongly with our heritage, with the places that our people came from.

ireland_flags.gif

Like with most Americans, my own ethnic heritage is a half-forgotten mix. I might know where my people came from, but I know nothing of their culture. I’m a just another ethnic mongrel who hears bitter, beautiful music on St. Patrick’s Day and wonders at America’s lack of roots, at its patchwork soul. Don’t misinterpret me; I believe that America is the land of opportunity. It delivered on its promise to my ancestors from all over. And I love this county’s unique racial and ethnic weave. But I am bothered that I don’t know where my family’s old tradition of making corned beef and cabbage for New Year’s Eve comes from. I am bothered that there are so few readily identifiable American cultural traditions. Sliced cheese? Good dentistry? Ranch dressing? Driving everywhere instead of walking? T-shirts? Beer and television? Summer cookouts?

Is there a real cultural richness to these things? What are America’s traditions? Never having been from anywhere else, I don’t have anything to compare my experiences with.

*****

The island it is silent now
But the ghosts still haunt the waves
And the torch lights up a famished man
Who fortune could not save

Did you work upon the railroads?
Did you rid the streets of crime?
Were your dollars from the White House?
Were they from the five and dime?

Did the old songs taunt or cheer you?
And did they still make you cry?
Did you count the months and years,
or did your teardrops quickly dry?

Ah no, says he, ’twas not to be
on a coffin ship I came here
and I never even got so far
that they could change my name

Thousands are sailing
Across the western ocean
To a land of opportunity
That some of them will never see

Fortune prevailing
Across the western ocean
Their bellies full
Their spirits free
They’ll break the chains of poverty
And they’ll dance

In Manhattan’s desert twilight
In the death of afternoon
We stepped hand in hand on Broadway
Like the first men on the moon

And “The Blackbird” broke the silence
As you whistled it so sweet
And in Brendan Behan‘s footsteps
I danced up and down the street

Then we said goodnight to Broadway
Giving it our best regards
Tipped our hats to Mister Cohan
Dear old Times Square’s favorite bard

Then we raised a glass to JFK
And a dozen more besides
When I got back to my empty room
I suppose I must have cried

Thousands are sailing
Again across the ocean
Where the hand of opportunity
Draws tickets in a lottery

Postcards we’re mailing
Of sky-blue skies and oceans
From rooms the daylight never sees
And lights don’t glow on Christmas trees
And we dance to the music
And we dance

Thousands are sailing
Across the western ocean
Where the hand of opportunity
Draws tickets in a lottery
Where e’er we go, we celebrate
The land that makes us refugees
From fear of priests with empty plates
From guilt and weeping effigies
And we dance

copyright 1988 Phillip Chevron

Listen to Thousands are Sailing here. Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig.

(This post is lovingly dedicated to the memory of my grandparents, the memory of my Uncle Mike and my Aunt Leslie, and to all my aunts, uncles and cousins everywhere. It’s not too late for us to be closer than we are now.)

6 responses to “Thousands Are Sailing

  1. Someone should dig up and save all these forgotten stories of ancestors coming to America. It is quite existing, when thinking about it… All these people came from somewhere, following a dream of a better life…
    (same with Australia)

    Maybe they had to be so focused on survival and were so busy with achievement in their new country, so they had to leave the past behind mentally. or maybe they just took their stories and cultures for granted and did not consider the value for future generations in knowing their cultural roots.

    It must be quite fascinating to be such a mix…

    I am a Dane, and everybody in my family are Danes. On my dad’s side, my inheritance is known back to year 1600. Except from a single Swede, they were all Danes, and almost all from the same part of little Denmark, namely Northern Jutland, same size as … well… I suppose I should use an example from the US here but I am not that good with geography… but small. Most were farmers, a few were priests, one was marine biologist, a few were school teachers… I have copies of very old family photos, from 1800 and up til now. I seldom look at them, but they are nice to have…

    When I come to think of it, a few of my ancestors immigrated to America and Canada. At that time, when people migrated, they would eventually slip out of the family story. Times were different, it was not easy to keep in touch or visit each other. Probably I have some distant family in America now who know that some of their ancestors were Danish but nothing more than that.

    For Americans, the story about migrating ancestors is the story of their grand grandparents who came and settled in a distant past. For Europeans, it is the story of those who left and were never seen again…

  2. Anne,

    I never even thought how things must be from a European viewpoint — of course it would be about people disappearing from the family story.

    Thank you for your comments, which are always thought-provoking and well written. And thanks for expanding my worldview yet again.

    Jennifer

  3. “to all my aunts, uncles and cousins everywhere. It’s not too late for us to be closer than we are now”

    Yes, good to realize that, and to try to do something about it. When my cousin Paul died, that was my biggest regret, that while we had been close as kids we weren’t as adults, and now the chance was lost. Learning from the past and improving the future… rock on!

  4. Hi Jennifer,

    Thank you for you nice compliments. Said before, I also find your writing very inspiring, it tend to sparkle interesting conversations on our balcony accompanied by good (but cheap) read wine and the nice view over the roof tops of Maroubra.

    Immigration is quite fascinating, especially if it has anything to do with one’s own inheritance.

    In Sydney, there is a black wall built by the Australian National Maritime Museum, which is named “A National Tribute to All Immigrants”. The wall is decorated with citations by Australian immigrants, from old books and interviews. Some citations are from ship logbooks dated 1700something, when botanists and other researchers saw the south eastern coast of Australia for the first time – back then, wild, untouched land in the eyes of Western civilisation. They described the strange, different smell of the vegetation (that is still true) and the excitement of discovering the new land.

    Later on came the convicts. I remember one convict citation describing the country as hell, a living nightmare with all kinds of creep. Later waves of immigration saw Australia as a land of opportunity. Many citations are small snapshots of broken illusions. Eventually people survived the dry, snaky land and created “the Australian lifestyle” which Europeans are so crazy about now.

    Australians are so proud of being uniquely Australian and believe their closest family, nation wise, is UK. However, in my view Australia appears to be culturally closer to the US than Europe. The destiny of Australia’s native population, the favourite types of sports (if you forget about cricket), food, the genetically mixed populations, politics, and many cultural traits. Nations of immigrants, vs. nations with roots…

    Anne

  5. I’ve always loved that song. Even though I don’t believe I’m of Irish descent, my wife is. I’ve always been amazed by the power of that song to transport me to a different time and place. You almost get a feel for what it was like to be an immigrant. I’m glad someone else noticed!

  6. Hey Mason,

    I’m a HUGE Pogues fan, and that song is amazing. It’s a sort of underground American anthem, a subtext for our culture. The ultimate song of emigration. Did you read Anne’s amazing comment that in other countries, the stories are not about going away but about missing the people who left?

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