parcels and returned Yanks
Danny, I'm taking the pen in me hand,
To tell you I'm just out of sight of the land
On the big ocean liner we're sailing in style
And we're sailing away from the emerald isle.
Our young boys and girls, who emigrated to the U.S.A. in
the 1920s seeking employment, arrived there at the worst
of times; jobs were few and far between. The American optimism
and drive had gone out of the economy and signs of "no
men wanted" were appearing outside factories and business
establishments. The stock market was beginning to nose-dive
and culminated in the "The Wall Street Crash"
in October 1929. A decade of economic depression followed.
In October, to enter the United States, our young emigrants
had to be "claimed" by relatives already well
established there. These relatives supported them until
the economy improved and jobs became available; in the meantime,
they worked at anything to survive and often sent remittances
home from meagre wages. Eventually, when they got well-paid
employment, they increased their remittances, and on occasion,
paid the fare to the Unites States for a younger sibling.
All this gave the impression back home that the streets
in the U.S.A were "paved with gold."
As time passed, and dreams of returning home with "
fortunes made", ebbed away, our boys and girls became
resigned to settling in the United States. Many of them
married and had children of their own. Occasionally, they
mailed home an odd parcel of clothes for the children of
a married brother or sister; the parcels became generally
known in Ireland as the "American parcels"; in
parts of Cavan and Leitrim, they were jocosely referred
to as the "American Progs." They contained an
assortment of items of various sizes and colour - shirts,
blouses, dresses and slacks, some flashy and far from keeping
with the Irish country fashion.
Each item was given to a family member it fitted. It was
like Christmas whenever a parcel arrived; the excitement
was enormous as a mother opened it and held up each item
for viewing by the assembled children; they shouted, "it's
a blouse," "it's a skirt," and "it'll
fit me," sometimes a small voice would scream, "no,
its too small for you, it'll fit me, its mine!" Initially,
the relatives in Ireland thought that the clothes were their
American cousins cast-offs, but as many items appeared
new or well laundered and pressed, it slowly became obvious
that some were purchased. On occasion, a parcel might contain
clothes that fitted a teenage lad, such as, a brightly chequered
sports coat and light blue pants, the sizes, ideal for a
well-fed American lad but not for a skinny Irish gossoon.
The poor gossoon's mother would have him try them on and
then convince him they were "grand" and a"a
perfect fit" and ideal for wear on a fine summer evening.
The veiled salutations of his pals quickly dissipated the
convictions his mother had instilled in him when he joined
them later at the village corner, attired in his Yankee
Doodle outfit. Not commenting directly to him on his flamboyant
and ill fitting attire and keeping straight faces, they
would quietly greet each other with "Howdy, grand bright
salubrious weather some of us are expecting;" and "have
you brought your sun glasses?" Needless to say, such
rigouts had only one outing. Girls had no such inhibitions
and proudly appeared in their American ensembles, dispersing
rays of sunshine and brightening the day for young and old.
On a rare occasion, a parcel would contain a vinyl record
of songs by an Irish music hall artist accompanied by lively
music. These recordings appealed to the sentiments of our
emigrants and had themes ranging from, the curse of emigration,
longing for homeland, work and the singer's relationship
with the new society, death of a loved one at home, lost
love and scenes of childhood. A record received by a Glangevlin
family in the 1940's was typical of the type. The following
are verses from one of the two songs recorded on it.
Where the river Shannon Flows
There's a little spot in Ireland
It's a place they call my "Sire land".
Where the dew is on the Blarney
and the river Shannon flows.
It's the land of the shillaghlee,
and me heart goes back there daily
to the girl I left behind me,
when we kissed and said goodbye.
And the dear auld Shannon's flowing
where the three-leaf shamrock grows.
Sure, with me heart set I'll be going
to my little Irish rose.
And the moment that I meet her
with a hug and kiss I'll greet her.
Sure there's not a colleen sweeter
where the river Shannon flows.
As the years passed and the Irish economy improved, relations
at home (many of whom were now reasonably well off) still
received and expected to receive American parcels. In fact,
some vied with each other to elicit the maximum "presents"
from their poor generous American relations who assumed
that Ireland was the same poor country they had left many
Some of the emigrants of the early 1920s returned for the
first time for a short holiday in the 1950s, more than thirty
years since their departue. They were referred to as "Returned
Yanks". They probably had saved several years to fund
the trip. A thoughtless and covetous well off relative here
might resort to extremes, even pretending to be poor, in
an endeavour to wheedle substantial gifts from the "rich"
The parents of returned emigrants would, by now, have gone
to their eternal reward. But to walk the roads and streets
they walked with their parents, and see again the houses
of relatives and friends, and in their minds eye,
the ghosts of those who had inhabited some of them, and
to visit their parent's grave, brought some closure for
They would reconnect with brothers and sisters now scattered
in Ireland, visit scenes of youth, including the local school,
and perhaps distribute sweets to the children, who were
shy and respectful, as in their own school days, and unaware
that the emigrant ship awaited many of them. They met with
old childhood friends still around, in a spirit of genuine
exuberant Christian friendship that avoided awkward questions
and comments as regards changed appearances and altered
accents. No doubt, reconnecting with vibrant people they
hadn't spoken to for 30 or 40 years brought a rich dimension
to their later years and some closure for all. Resolutions
were expressed to visit again in a future year and meet
those still around.
Though many of them, by perseverance and study, held good
jobs in the States, they had no hesitation in admitting
to hardship during their early years there. A case in point
is that of a refined bespectacled emigrant who held a very
responsible administrative job in the States, and returned
on his first visit to the "old sod" in 1952, after
an absence of 30 years. He stayed with his sister and her
family in Gowna. He was small in stature. One day his nephew
was astonished when the man took took off his loose fitting
jacket and shirt to help with a manual task. "Where
did you get those muscles?" asked his nephew, espying
for the first time the bulging arm and rippling muscles
across the broad chest and back of his American uncle.
"Lifting 2cwt bags onto lorries for my first four years
in the States" was the brief response before continuing:
"When I arrived in the States I lived with an Aunt
whose husband had died some years previously; I was 19 years
old; there was no work; so I went from pillar to post seeking
any sort of employment; on they odd occasion when heavy
manual was available, I was rejected; they said I was too
small and wouldn't have the strength. One day I strongly
rebutted this reason and asked for a trial; the foreman
was astonished when I lifted two cwt bags onto the back
of the lorry. I became a great friend of the foreman; he
won many a bet on me; I'd stay in the truck until he was
asked if he had brought someone to load it; he'd confirm
he had and then called me; I'd hop out to shouts of- "that
little guy couldn't lift one bag, never mind twenty. My
foreman would reply, "care to bet; I've 20 dollars
says he can". Yes, he won all the bets; gave me a few
dollars each time; I guess for the first six months I was
tired and sore each night."
Before departure, the "returned yanks" would invite
nieces and nephews to come to work in the United States.
Some were glad to take up the offer.
An evening of song and dance was usually held for the returned
Yanks prior to their departure again for the States.