BOSTON — John McGlarry knew he had a story – he just wasn’t sure of its shape. It took awhile for that story to take hold. But when it did, it didn’t let go for 20 years.
“I think I wanted to write first, and then it came to me what I wanted to write about. I had been writing other things, as well, but they didn’t hold me like this book did.”
And after two decades of research, writing and re-writing, what has emerged is “The Leaving,” a historical romance about young Liam McGinley, left to care for his ailing grandmother in 1840s famine-stricken Ireland. When he receives word that his father has suffered a debilitating injury, McGinley leaves his grandmother and his home for New York City. But before he can set foot on foreign shores, McGinley must make the journey across an ocean fraught with danger on a ship peopled with the hungry, the sick and “the blue eyes of the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.”
McGlarry said he wanted to write a personal story about the pain of leaving home.
“I don’t know of any stories that personalize the individuals leaving Ireland,” said the author. “Everything that I ever knew about them were the millions that did this or the hundreds of thousands that did that. But it was never put into perspective, where a person left his family and the ones you love and everything he ever cared for because he had to.”
McGlarry said his own family suffered that same heartbreak of separation.
“My father’s sister came over to this country [from Ireland] in 1966. He’s been in this country since about 1920. So, 44 years later, they see each other again. She stayed with her mother. My father and his father came here,” McGlarry explained.
The author’s research took him to Ireland many times, where he got to know the people he would write about.
“When I started writing this stuff, I was writing about Ireland and I was writing in generalities.Things just came to me along the way, and I started clarifying and focusing and knew that what I was writing about, which turned out to be the people living in Ireland during the famine years, how they were when they were leaving Ireland to get to the ships and the actual voyage itself – that’s why my story is about. The whole thing.”
The ships they took were a source of great inspiration for McGlarry – and great misery for those in the holds.
“The ships that they [the Irish immigrants] came to America on were cargo ships. They shipped primarily lumber. And these ships would come from Canada, Maine and places, and go to Ireland and England. And now they had nothing to export back because the U.S. wasn’t buying anything. So, now they have these empty ships.
“They would put plywood down in the holds [of the ships] and maybe some temporary provisions of some kind or another. They put bathroom equipment at either end and then they loaded up the ships with people. They had stoves up on the deck to cook for the people and they had to get in line, because everybody cooked their own food.
“The ironic thing about this is, previous to this, the English government was shipping English and Irish people to Australia, as their penalty for whatever crime. They simply kicked them out. But – I don’t know how it came about, some uproar about the conditions – but it became important that there were a limited number of convicts on the ships, a limited amount, with all sorts of accommodations – food, clothing, bedding, etc.; all this stuff was mentioned by law. And each ship had to have a doctor. In other words, they treated their prisoners better than the Irish immigrants.”
McGlarry’s own family were farmers in Ireland and emigrated to the United States and settled in Albany.
“They wanted a better life,” he said. “Times were hard back in Ireland. There was never any money there for very many, many years because anything that was made there was taken from them, basically, so they had no business of their own. They had no land anymore; that was taken over. It was really a poor, agricultural country. There was no industry. There was the whiskey industry, but that was English-owned. Guinness beer is English-owned. Waterford Crystal is English-owned, although it wasn’t originally. And so on.”
The author himself now calls Boston, N.Y., home. A 1960 graduate of the State University of New York at Fredonia, McGlarry met his wife at school and the two settled in Western New York. For years, McGlarry worked as a music teacher, and is a tuba player.
“I don’t think of myself as a writer,” he said. “To me, what was important was the story.”
“The Leaving” was published by No Frills Buffalo and is sold on their website, www.nofrillsbuffalo.com
, local bookstores and the SUNY Fredonia bookstore.