My mother, Nora Thornton Hughes, died some years ago at the age of 87. She was simply worn out by the vicissitudes of life. In many ways, especially considering her last years of illness, she welcomed death.
“Oft in the stilly night, ere slumber’s chain has bound me. Fond memory brings the light of other days around me,” wrote the great Irish poet, Thomas Moore (1779-1852), in “The Light of Other Days.”
Born in the village of Tavanaghmore in the County of Mayo, in the west of Ireland, she was one of six children – two boys and four girls. One of her brothers, Patrick, died in his youth with the flu. The other, Mickey, a lovable rebel from the days of the Irish Civil War, died a few years before my mother in Ireland at the age of 88. Mom was destined to be the last of her clan.
The remains of her ancestral home, rocky and weather-battered, still sit on top of a hill, near the Pontoon bridge, overlooking pristine Lough Conn. It’s a truly lovely place with a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside and of the usually snow-capped Mount Nephin. The town of Foxford, once world famous for its woolen mill, is only a couple of miles down the road.
And, the Irish Bard continued, “the smiles, the tears of childhood years, the words of love then spoken.”
But the stunning beauty of the wild landscape, (like for some of today’s Irish), wasn’t enough to sustain life for her. Her father’s decision, unfair as it was, was made for dire economic reasons: The girls had to go! The farm couldn’t sustain a living for all of them, and only Mickey’s help was needed to make the farm viable.
And go they did, one by one. Mary married and moved to the next village over – Stonepark. The other two girls, Katherine and Anne, left for Scotland to find jobs, preparing the way for my mother to follow.
It must have been a painful time for her, as it was for her sisters. Through no fault of her own, except the accident of birth in a country for centuries dominated by an alien power, she was required to turn her back on everything she had come to cherish. Even to her last days, she could hardly speak of it without filling-up with emotion.
“Sad memory brings the light of other days around me,” said the poet.
There she was: a farmer’s daughter, with a basic education received in a one-room school house, being torn away from the bond with family, friends, and her native land. Her parents took her on that fateful day by donkey and wagon to the local railroad station. She was then put on a train for Dublin, and from there onto a ferry to Scotland to meet her sisters. From that sad day of departure and farewell in 1915, she was never again to see her loving and broken-hearted parents.
In the 1920s, after settling in Edinburgh, she made her way to America, working, as many of the “greenhorns” did in that era, as a live-in domestic in a fashionable neighborhood of Baltimore. Later on, she would meet my late father, Richard Patrick Hughes, a longshoreman. They would marry and raise a family of nine children in the South Baltimore neighborhood of Locust Point.
As the fates would have it, my father’s parents were also from the village of Tavanaghmore.
Despite a mostly comfortable and good life in America, and one joyful return visit to Ireland in her later years, my mother never quite got over her abrupt loss of the world of her youth. That became clearer to me as the years flew by. The forced leaving had cut a deep wound-a spiritual sort of trauma.
“The eyes that shone now dimmed and gone. The cheerful heart now broken,” concluded Moore.
So that, when the Grim Reaper finally did call on her on October 8, 1988, my old Irish mother was waiting and ready for him. The final exile held no fear at all for Nora Thornton Hughes, a tired, bone-weary, but gallant daughter of Erin.
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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Western People newspaper back in the 1990s. It can be found in Bill Hughes’ book, Baltimore Iconoclast.
Bill Hughes is a native of Baltimore. He’s an attorney, author, professional actor and hobbyist photographer. In his salad days, he worked on the docks as a longshoreman. Bill also played on three championship soccer teams: sandlot with Jules Morstein; high school at Calvert Hall; and college at the University of Baltimore.