“An elegantly written and convincing love story, with a rich seam of wit and wisdom, and a cast of unforgettable characters: a novel to lighten the lives of its readers.”
“The Leaving Coat is a big, bold, generous-hearted delight: a female Western, an intimate epic, a story of adventure, of loss, of self-discovery and of love.”
This photo is of a road in north Kerry, not far from Ballyduff. It evokes the traditional valediction “May the road rise with you!” and it’s pinned to my noticeboard because it reminds me of a story I was told about my grandmother. When she was a little girl she stood for hours at the top of a road like this, waiting for the return of an elder brother from a fair. This fond brother had gone to the fair with the intention of selling his horse to pay for a passage to America. When, at last, she saw a man in the distance with a saddle on his shoulders she howled with grief because he might as well have died on her.
For the people left behind the emigrant’s farewell was like a funeral. For the leavers, of course, the sadness was leavened with the promise a new life, and a chance to shake off all kinds of shackles. These days, when there is little or no premium, visa-wise, on youth and rude health, that freedom is enviable.
The Leaving Coat begins with the departures of the women who wear the eponymous coat, first Lizzy Doolan and then her sister Norah. They are fictional female emigrants and if they weren’t living – in my imagination – in the 1890s, some sort of disclaimer might be called for: “any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” As it happens, any resemblance between the stories of Lizzy and Norah Doolan, and the lived experience of at least some of those many thousands of young females who left Ireland for America in the last decades of the nineteenth century, is entirely deliberate.
Lizzy Doolan sees herself as a cut above the steerage girls in their lumpy outfits and as a schoolmaster’s daughter – and a fictional character – she does have more options. She’s dreaming of the bright lights of America at a time when artificial light was as phenomenal as it was urban, and the reality, for most female emigrants, was dismal. While the men were making it heroically, in gangs, the women disappeared into kitchens and factories, evolving in due course into the stereotypically slovenly, simple-minded or (at best) stalwart “Biddy”. The “cringe factor” of stories like Typhoid Mary’s is, perhaps, one reason why it is still not widely appreciated that more women than men emigrated from Ireland to America in the second half of the nineteenth century.
These colleens were braver than they knew and they deserve better than the condescension of posterity. They had heads as well as hearts and wombs. The Leaving Coat is not a thesis: I made it all up. But I don’t think it’s too much to imagine that, like Norah Doolan, many a “true-life” female pioneer discovered the saving truth: to live and love in a new world you must take your chance on the virtues of strangers.