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Carmel Mc Mahon
Ireland/New York. Longreads, Irish Times, Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction, A Woman's Thing, etc. Currently studying Biography & Memoir at the Graduate Center (CUNY)

Brigid, Magdalene, My Mother, and Me

Getty / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Carmel Mc Mahon | Longreads | November 2019 | 13 minutes (3,226 words)

The body of a young Irish woman was found outside Saint Brigid’s Church in Manhattan’s East Village. The city had not yet awoken on the frigid Sunday morning of February 20, 2011. Earlier that month, on St. Brigid’s feast day, she had turned 35 years old. The news reports cited alcoholism, homelessness and hypothermia as contributing factors in her death. They said she wanted to be an artist. They said her name was Grace Farrell.

Grace. Origin: Middle English via Old French from Latin, gratia, from gratus, meaning “pleasing” or “grateful.

The following week, I met “Dublin Kevin” at the AA meeting on East 10th Street. “Did you know her?” he asked. We’d left Ireland for New York when she did, in the mid-’90s, right before the economic tide turned. The background noise of sectarian violence, mass unemployment and rising emigration got dialed down. But there remained other things, muted maybe, things that take generations to rise up and reach the throat.

We ran away with a few hundred dollars and a few vague connections to join the lineage of emigrants from Ireland. People used to say, “Could the last one to leave, please turn out the lights!” A joke to lighten the burden of history. In New York, I gravitated to the East Village to be with the other immigrant kids who were writing poems and working in the cafes and bars. I knew, or half-knew, the ones from home, so how did I not know Grace? And how could this happen to one of us, in our own back-yard, at a church built by our own ancestors?

In an Irish radio interview, a cousin says Grace came to New York to find her mother, who had emigrated shortly after her birth. The young parents were not married in the Catholic and conservative Ireland of the 1970s. Grace was given up for adoption; she spent her early years in foster care, and later, in Saint Vincent’s Children’s Home in Drogheda, County Louth.

I do not know the particulars of Grace’s mother’s situation, but I think about her, and my mother, and their mothers before them. The general climate of Ireland was hostile to women. Divorce, abortion and contraception were illegal. Married women were sometimes not permitted to work, and they had no rights to property in a marriage. There was no such thing as marital rape, and the choice, in cases of abuse, was either to remain with their abuser or become homeless. This is the world we were born into. This is the world that shaped us in ways that are continually being revealed.
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