Song for Our Fathers

Brooklyn (2015)

illustration by Karagh Byrne

Pull out a map of Newfoundland, Canada, and there is little likelihood you will find Cape Broyle on it. The population stands at 489 as of the last census; comparatively, the town of Witless Bay, roughly 18 miles to the north, houses 1,619 citizens. Unpredictable weather and craggy geology contribute to the character of its people: it is a place carved out of the earth, one for the stoic, not the faint of heart.

At least I presume so. That last detail springs from the depths of my imagination. I’ve never been to Newfoundland. My strongest connection to the island is through my grandfather, and the almost folkloric stories of his adventures. When Aiden O’Brien entered the world in 1917, Cape Broyle’s lifeblood resembled that of its fellow outports—cod fishing and adjacent maritime industries. Naturally, he joined his brothers  on the waters of the North Atlantic; the capricious, often dangerous work suited his innate fearlessness and industrious disposition. And when opportunity presented itself, he went along for the ride, even as it required a change of address.

Out of the nine O’Brien children, seven of whom survived to adulthood, Aiden was the only one to emigrate out of Canada. He settled in New York in 1952 as a navigator for the great ships sailing to and from South America and the Caribbean. Seeking a more stable and centralized lifestyle, Aiden transitioned into ironwork for an ever-growing metropolis. Quite literally, he built the city. And then he married my grandmother, moved to the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, and built a life.


Eilis Lacey, the protagonist of Brooklyn, arrives in the titular borough for the same reason millions upon millions of immigrants, including my grandfather, did—opportunity, or at least the potential for one. It is 1951, and the comforts of Enniscorthy have given way to a bleak reality: in Eilis’ hometown, she has little chance for a future.

But her sister, Rose, devises a plan, reaching out to an Irish contact, Father Flood, who’s currently stationed in New York. He replies to her letter with an offer for Eilis: come to Brooklyn, we’ll take care of you here. A leap of faith, nothing more substantial than a promise. Eilis accepts, though not without quiet trepidation.

The first act of the film demonstrates the growing pains and bone-deep aching that only a new, strange world can bring. The small indignities of a foreign landscape sit side by side with the crushing truth that the life you’ve lived up until now is forever gone, and that soon the person you were will be, too. Brooklyn portrays immigration as a literal and metaphorical illness; Eilis, unwise to the rituals of transatlantic travel, becomes seasick, only to be locked out of the bathroom by her cabin mates. On terra firma, Eilis recovers from her stomach bug, only to come down with an acute case of homesickness—an affliction so painful that she warns a fellow Irishwoman about it in the film’s last scene: “You’ll feel so homesick that you’ll want to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it…apart from endure it.”

Brooklyn wrings some exquisite poignancy from this fact; upon receiving a letter from Rose, Eilis breaks down, clutching the dispatch from home to her heart as she collapses into full-body weeping. She’s adjusted to the tidy, sophisticated work of a department store salesgirl and the clashing personalities at the boarding house where she resides, but it is the small details of life in Enniscorthy—life that has moved on without her, the family she loves reaching out across the miles—that destroys her. (For comparison’s sake, I sobbed for two days straight when I moved into my freshman-year dorm, and my campus was only an hour away from my childhood home. We are not the same.)

But it’s the Christmas luncheon that devastates me, without fail, upon every viewing. (Is there ever a more potently wistful time in New York than December? I think not.) Eilis’ time in Brooklyn thus far has toggled between her salesfloor gig and night classes for bookkeeping at the local college. With no close family or friends to celebrate the holiday, she joins Father Flood and housemother Mrs. Kehoe to serve meals to dozens of homeless Irishmen. “These are the men,” Father Flood tells Eilis, looking on with a gaze still and sorrowful, “who built the tunnels, the bridges, the highways. God alone knows what they live on now.”

A more politically charged film would have stayed with this theme a little longer, dug into the cruel irony of a city turning its back on the men who made it when they proved no longer useful—I would love to have heard my grandfather’s opinion here—but Brooklyn concerns itself with the emotional fallout instead. The afternoon proceeds with typical Irish merriment—lively conversation, traditional jig music, and steady helpings of Guinness—when Father Flood interrupts the festivities and asks one of the men, Frankie, to sing for the volunteers and his brothers-in-arms.

And then I begin to cry.


I think I was always destined to adore Brooklyn. For starters, it’s a worthy addition to my favorite oddly-specific subgenre: the midcentury character study. The Apartment, Marty, the under-appreciated Dogfight, Mad Men, In the Mood for Love—the interplay between the quiet, hesitant yearning of vulnerable, magnificent, lonely people and an era of advertised splendor and repressed desires.

It’s also just a beautiful film to look at, all cool pastels and gorgeous knitwear and Saoirse Ronan’s expressive eyes filling up the screen; the way a dash of red lipstick tracks Eilis’ newfound confidence in America; lovers lit by the glow of streetlights. But it’s the beauty of three consecutive shots of that luncheon ballad that transforms Brooklyn from a lovely period drama to a lifeline, as profound and identifiable as a fingerprint.

Literature on the song Frankie sings, “Casadh an tSúgáin,” is hard to come by. Quick internet research reveals more concrete results about the actor/singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, who plays Frankie, than the history of the ballad. What information exists mostly focuses on lyrical content, both in Irish and subsequent English translations. As with most traditional love songs, its origins are unknown; the earliest records date it to the 18th century, but it may be considerably older. And in keeping with the spirit of so many Irish melodies, the narrative is not that of a happy ending:

Ó do chuas isteach mar a raibh mo shearc agus dian-ghrá mo chléibh,
‘S chuir an t-seanbhean amach ag casadh an tsúgáinín mé.

Oh, I went into where my love was, my lifelong love,
And her old woman put me out, twisting the rope.

The song’s narrator describes falling in love with a woman, only to leave and travel elsewhere in pursuit of carnal pleasures. In the end he returns to win back her love and loyalty, yet her mother impedes their reunion. Ostensibly, it is a ballad of romantic love lost, but it is often interpreted as a metaphor of loving, then leaving, then being shut out of Ireland. Frankie does not perform this by coincidence.  

The camera cuts back and forth amongst different men in the crowd, a mid-song Frankie, and Eilis, taking this all in. When it comes to cinematography, I’ll take a reaction shot of a character over a sweeping wide frame any day, and Brooklyn rewards. There are only three unnamed men in this sequence who receive a close-up, and it’s the second and third men that sting the most.

Here lie two reasons why this scene cuts me open. I can easily identify the most obvious one: in the second gentleman, I see my grandfather, who I knew, and lost less than a year before the film’s release. In the third, I see his brothers, some of whom I met. And I see his father and his father’s father, who I did not know, over and over again in that room. I see them in the flat tweed caps, the soft jowls of their faces.

Brooklyn excels at capturing the minutiae of despondency in just a few frames; one man clenches his jaw, another indifferently blows out the smoke from a cigarette. The second Irishman looks downward, entranced in a memory, before blinking rapidly, the spell broken, mouth idly moving to the song, as if trying to recall the words, or recapture a thought on the edge of being misplaced forever. The third man seems to be blinking back tears.

The clincher, though, arrives when the camera returns to Eilis. That single shot—a slight zoom before the lens stops, as if in direct contrast to Eilis’ increased anguish—floors me. A couple of big breaths, steeling herself against the waves of heartache, eyes vibrating with emotion.

Upon my first viewing of Brooklyn, I can imagine my expression resembling Eilis’ (except that I was openly weeping). Underneath it all, there was something deeper, more visceral at work. For Eilis, Frankie’s song evokes a sense of loss, the homesickness she’s struggled with since stepping onto American soil. For me, it was a sense of homecoming, of recognition, a language from my ancestors’ tongues that I cannot speak, but nevertheless understood.

It’s a strange sort of reckoning: it all feels so familiar, somehow, like some nebulous, inarticulate flash of memory. The weight of my grandfather’s experience—and the experience of all who suffer the loss of things left behind to pave a greater future—conveyed in mere seconds of screen time. 


I visited Ireland for three days in 2018, two and a half years after I saw Brooklyn. It was a brief visit, just enough time to tour Dublin and the surrounding seaside villages of Howth and Malahide. I have not been to County Wexford, the region where the O’Brien lineage originates. I hope to make a pilgrimage there, and to Newfoundland, someday.

Cape Broyle may be home to just 489 residents, may not be a location trendy on travel blogs, but there is more to a locale than its eateries or boutiques or social media marketability. There’s a graveyard, which marks the final resting place of my great-grandparents, great-uncles and great-aunts, distant cousins, relatives who I never met. Relatives I owe and can never repay. And there’s a house, built by my grandfather, Aiden O’Brien, which still stands. He was, after all, always building things.