American parcels and returned Yanks

Dear 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."

American Parcels:
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 cousin’s 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.

Gramophone Records:
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 years before.

Returned Yanks:
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" relation.

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 mind’s eye, the ghosts of those who had inhabited some of them, and to visit their parent's grave, brought some closure for them.

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.