The pain of emigration runs through Ireland’s story like a thread. Very few contemporary books capture the ordeals faced by emigrants as vividly as Annie Proulx’s 1996 Accordion Crimes. Set in America over many decades and generations, it is not sentimental. It is chastening, challenging and, most of all, a powerful reminder of how hard an emigrant’s life and death can be. Joesph Tuohy, from Tipperary, who died aged 87 and single, in a London nursing home this summer, could be a character from Proulx’s book. He spent most of his working life in London, but died with no known relatives. That his mother was placed in a Magdalene laundry after he was born, sadly, but typically, deepens his tragedy.
After his death, an appeal was made so his death might be marked. An unexpectedly large response in Ireland and Britain shows that emigration is still an open wound and our conscience can still be pricked, but it also shows that, all too often, we leave it until it is too late to express the kindness, fellowship, and intimacy we depend on to get through this world. Make that long-promised call before it is too late.