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  • I sometimes wonder what my great-great grandfather, Patrick Gatons, was thinking as he breathed his last breaths in his house next to the river in Cleveland, Ohio in 1910; so far from the coast of Toberkeen in Co. Donegal, Ireland where he was born. Perhaps he was thinking about the journey across the unpredictable Atlantic he had made some twenty-six years earlier as a young man, or what he had left behind, and what it meant to him and his children and to the generations who would come after him. I can’t help but hope that he did.

    It took about an hour of driving around and turning around and consulting the map and consulting thirty-year old memories but when we found my great-great grandfather’s cottage, we knew we had found it. It was a traditional Irish cottage: long, narrow, one floor. It had originally been one room, but from what we could see through the windows, it had been through a disastrous modernization. The paint on the outside walls was peeling and the rough brown grass had not been cut in at least a year. There were two small stone out buildings and a stone fence enclosed the entire property. The cottage was quite obviously derelict. Thirty years earlier on my parents’ honeymoon, they had knocked on the door of this cottage to have it answered by a young boy and met some distant and decrepit cousin on her sick bed. She had said to them something along the lines of, “Oh so some relatives of Paddy McGettigan have come home, now.” Now it had been abandoned for reasons unknown. I suppose in the romantic sense, we all wondered why anyone would leave the beautiful, windswept, western coast of Donegal, Ireland. As we faced the west we could see the sun beginning to set on the salty bay, which began about 1,500 yards down the hill from where we stood. The water was a deep azure, but the wind that came in off the bay was harsh and relentless and all of the thigh high grasses, which grew in the area, had been bent by it. The ground was not the type for agriculture. I don’t know how animals could tolerate the constant wind coming in off the bay. I don’t know what kind of life could be made in a place like that.

    I have always wondered what the many Irish Catholics who made the dangerous journey to The New World thought they would find. Maybe they really did believe that the streets were paved with gold and that they would find their fortunes here. Did they really not know that they would encounter the same level of poverty and racism in their new “home” that they did in their last? I suppose that they knew that a bad chance is better than no chance. For the Protestant Irish, life was good because they had upward mobility. For the Catholic Irish, they were looked down upon as drunken apes. There was a lot of competition between African Americans and Irish Catholics for the lowest jobs that no one else wanted to do.

    Cleveland was not a very clean place at the turn of the 20th century. No place really was. The Catholic Irish were living in shantytowns such as Irish Town Bend along the slag filled Cuyahoga River or on Whiskey Island on the edge of the putrid Lake Erie. They worked in one of the many steel mills that used to dot the flats along the river and fill the air above Cleveland with smog and fill the waterways with chemicals and garbage. To get clean water, the city’s water works extended a long pipe out about a mile on the lakebed. They kept extending it to get to cleaner water, but Typhoid fever caused by drinking unclean water was rampant. Something had to be done and their solution was the “Five Mile Crib”. Five mile crib sits on Lake Erie about five miles from the Cleveland pumping station which it served. The idea was that a tunnel beneath the lakebed would be built so that clean water could more easily be pumped into the city. While the intention was noble, the cost of building the tunnel was paid for in many human lives. Many of the men who died were Irish Catholics just trying to support their families. The causes of death ranged from exhaustion to pneumonia to dying from exposure to natural gas when the tunnel digging hit pockets of the silent killer. In the 1900 Cleveland census, Patrick Gatons is listed as a “saloonkeeper”. However, at some point it seems that this business went under and he went to work on the crib. Whether his death from pneumonia was caused from working on the crib or not, it is certain that he lived a hard won life.

    I have been to Ireland twice in my life so far, and both times I have stepped off the plane desperately trying to feel some connection to the land; to feel as though I were going “home”. I love the country immensely, and I yearn to go back; but it is not my home, and no matter how hard I try I have never felt that Ireland is my home. My ancestors come from there, but I do not. I come from Cleveland, OH, from a long line of Cleveland Irish. The part of me that was still tied to that place died with Patrick Gatons in 1910. I’m okay with that, though.
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