“Looking for That Pot of Gold”: The Transnational Life of Kevin Henry
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“Looking for That Pot of Gold”:
The Transnational Life of Kevin Henry

Flute player and piper Kevin Henry was born in 1929 on a small farm on the Sligo-Mayo border, the eighth of eleven children. Like many rural Irish families, the Henrys struggled to make ends meet, especially during the war years. In 1947 Henry left to join an older brother in Lincolnshire. Over the next ten years he lived in at least eighteen places in four countries, migrating throughout England, back to Ireland, across the Atlantic to Canada, and over the American border at Niagara Falls en route to New York City. From there he moved to Florida, Chicago, Butte, and back to Chicago, where he eventually settled down. He worked as an agricultural laborer, miner, tunnel digger, waiter, dance-hall musician, carpenter, and iron worker. At the beginning of an interview in April 2013 he reflected on his childhood and the impetus it provided for his migrations:

Nobody believes in fairy stories and that stuff anymore, but in my part of the country ’twas a big tradition of telling fairy stories to us kids. When you grew up looking for this pot of gold, if you know what I mean, and through this pot of gold in your mind you went out into the world and you started looking for that pot of gold, you didn’t look for anything but the best, especially the money part of it, if you know what I mean.1

In these words Henry articulated a worldview that originated in rural Ireland, tying him to his roots and concomitantly explaining his physical movements away from them. While Eamon de Valera dreamed of a spiritual nation of people “satisfied with frugal comfort,” the fairy [End Page 92] stories as Henry understood them recognized life’s material necessities and aspirations.2 The mythical pot of gold may partially refer to money, but it implies more than that. It represents a state of mind more than an object. It suggests an unwillingness to be satisfied with his lot in life as it was given. A pot of gold is not something one receives, but something that must be sought. Henry framed his life story around that quest, showing the continued relevance of the values and traditions from his youth.

When I visited Henry in Chicago to interview him for my Ph.D. research on postwar Irish migration and music, he and his wife Pauline generously shared their stories, tunes, and lunch, and I left with about four hours of recordings. Henry has much in common with other migrants of his generation: He comes from a rural background; he left school at age fifteen; he migrated first at age eighteen, destined for England; and for many years he worked in a variety of unskilled laboring jobs. In other ways he is an exception. He was the most mobile of my interviewees, and despite his deeply felt connections to Ireland, he expressed no desire to return permanently. Instead, he constructed his life story in a way that reconciled his strong sense of Irishness with the fact that he has spent most of his life outside of Ireland.

Focusing on even a single oral-history interview can deepen our understanding of the movements, motivations, and meanings contained in the stories of individual migrants.3 It allows “for bringing actors and agency back into the analysis, something that is usually missing in macro-social analysis of cultures or societies.”4 Henry left Ireland to improve his circumstances, and while this could be read as a straightforward case of involuntary economic migration, he did not frame it that way. Instead, he chose to emphasize his own agency and the continued relevance of values from his youth, using them to justify his mobility and to compare the places and jobs along the way. [End Page 93] While oral history affords access to the stories of “ordinary” migrants such as Henry, transnationalism offers a means of interpreting those stories. In the introduction to their book Transnational Lives Desley Deacon, Penny Russell, and Angela Woollacott write that “individual identity and attachment have long been shaped by the...