Immigrants' stories tell of an Ireland past

Staff writer

It is said that to be Irish is to remember. The faces of the mothers who stayed. The voices of the sons and daughters who left.

In the book "I Could Read The Sky,'' novelist Timothy O'Grady plumbs the memories of Irish immigrants and lays them on the page in a spare prose that leaves little room for nostalgia. His fictional story of a migrant laborer's journey from a small farm in Ireland to the potato fields and factories of England is laid out next to photographs by Steve Pyke. The result is an unusual combination of fiction and photography, two stories intended to complement and complete.

When O'Grady set out to tell the story of the Irish who went to England in the 1950s, he figured he would write some sort of nonfiction documentary piece. After all, he'd started on the project with the suggestion from a publisher that he collaborate with Pyke.

O'Grady started visiting Irish centers in London where older Irish immigrants gather for an inexpensive lunch. He listened to their stories. He took notes, especially when the women spoke.

It seemed to be the women who could remember the look of a place, the smells, the sounds.

O'Grady took notes instead of using a tape recorder. It made people treat it as more of an occasion, he said, instead of freely spending words the way they might speaking into a recorder. It also forced O'Grady to listen for the details he wanted, the ones he would eventually use to describe an Ireland he had never known.

Lovely baskets filled with eggs and straw, he writes of an Irish town in the 1950s. Crate of butter kept fresh with cabbage leaves. Cakes. Herrings. Mackerel. Dulse. Men with their backs to the wall, smoking. Has no one in the town anything to do?

As O'Grady listened, the immigrants' stories started to weave themselves into a narrative in his mind. The result was a character: one migrant laborer whose life told the stories O'Grady was hearing.

"It is the major demographic story of the century,'' O'Grady said. "But the one that is the least visible.''

"I Could Read The Sky'' is a combination of the immigrants' tales and O'Grady's imagination.

"I remember when I first thought of it,'' he said. "There was a man that I met, he didn't give me a lot of imagery, but I got the sense of a life lived. When I thought of writing it, it was his face that I saw.''

The story is told in the first person as the character lies in bed and remembers his life.

"I started thinking about memory,'' O'Grady said. "Memory is so ever present in life in Ireland.''

The memories -- the smell of pigs rising up into a loft, the feel of a man's fist falling on his face "like having logs land on you from the sky'' -- are not O'Grady's own.

He was born in Chicago in 1951. He lived a Catholic schoolboy's life in a quiet neighborhood on the North Side. He went to Northwestern University where he never dug ditches, potatoes or anything thing else for that matter.

O'Grady went to Ireland when a friend offered to loan him a house there and then made his life in London for many years as a writer, editor and actor.

O'Grady's voice -- in a telephone call from Spain -- is a mix of Chicago and London. When the narrator speaks in "I Could Read The Sky,'' it's in another voice, not O'Grady's own.

That voice speaks of cold damp floors, muscles that flame from hard labor and life under the eyes of men like Animal, the boss of a crew of laborers.

When he steps down from the van he will take his coat off even in winter for he wants everyone to see his arms. From the back he looks like a turf sack and from the front he is a fright. He's a scar like a trench running down from his eye, the eyes two halfpennies. In the center is the nose. It's like a big potato breaking up through the ground.

And so O'Grady's story goes, until the narrator's life is just a memory.

After O'Grady finished the book, he went to a bar where he had collected some of his stories. He was looking for the man whose face he had imagined as his character. He asked the bartender about him.

"He died right there in that chair on Easter Monday earlier,'' O'Grady remembered the bartender telling him. "He had read your book. He use to bring it into the pub.''

When the boat pulls into the harbour we put away our instruments and folded up the chairs. The big iron doors they left open to give us air draw closed, the grey water churning. The sky looks like pork gone off. The noise of the engine crashes through the hold. The lorries are dark and still as cows waiting for rain. There were six of us playing tunes like we were all raised under the same roof, and another thirty maybe watching. We go up onto the deck to have a look at England, the vile taste of the tea they gave us on the the boat still with me. If you could see the brightness on their faces when the tunes were playing you could see nothing now. Just the look of waiting. The look of people waiting in a hospital. -- from "I Could Read The Sky,'' by Timothy O'Grady

First published on Tuesday, March 9, 1999


Copyright 1999, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Timothy O'Grady