The Song: "Thousands are Sailing," The Pogues. Words & music by Philip Chevron. Track 6 of If I Should Fall From Grace with God, 1988.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, 1989; purchased CD, c. 1992
The nation of Ireland has always been more powerful in diaspora than at home. I'd give you my theory about why that is, but W.B. Yeats put it better than I could: "Great hatred, little room." I grew up in a house where six children shared one bathroom. Apply that principle to nine million on a rocky island the size of Indiana, and you can imagine what the place was like in 1845, before the Famine.
I don't know a lot about my own family's arrival dates, but a couple of branches came over before the Famine, and as far as I know, no one passed through Ellis Island. They came through Castle Clinton, they came through Philadelphia, they might have landed directly in Charleston, SC. They worked hard and married people from their own part of Ireland, mostly Clare and Cork. The memorial plaque at Dysert O'Dea, in Clare, bears half a dozen of my own family names.
Generations away from Ireland, they lived in Irish neighborhoods and went to Irish churches and distrusted all things non-Irish. My great-grandmother Hogan, at the turn of the last century, ran an employment service that sponsored young Irish women to come over as domestic help for New York's wealthy families. (Her own mother had been the housekeeper for a girls' boarding school; my great-grandmother went to classes with the daughters of the Gilded Age, who became her clients.)
Friends of mine who are Irish are understandably annoyed sometimes by the foolish, sentimental, sloppy ways Irish Americans celebrate their heritage. But the whole culture is based on this longing for home, and I have always thought of homesickness as the human condition.
I first heard this album on a snowy weekend in February 1989, visiting my friends Scott and Nancy in Williamsburg. We played board games, drank at the Greene Turtle, and listened to this album almost non-stop, in rotation with John Hiatt's Drive South. As it happens, I am driving south today - first to Mechanicsville, then to Charlottesville for the Virginia Festival of the Book - and will make both these albums the soundtrack for the drive.
If you are lucky enough to be in New York today, the Irish Arts Center is handing out free books by Irish authors all day throughout the five boroughs. Somewhere in the city, they're giving away a few dozen copies of my friend and client John Connolly's magical novel The Gates; if you haven't read it, see if you can snag one for yourself. Details about the giveaway are here.