Vona GroarkeJan 29, 2023
The Telling Life of Ellen O'Hara
New York University Press 2022
Ellen O'Hara was a young immigrant from Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century who, with courage and resilience, made a life for herself in New York while financially supporting those at home. Hereafter: The Telling Life of Ellen O'Hara (NYU Press, 2022) is her story, told by Vona Groarke, her descendant, in a beautiful blend of poetry, prose, and history.
In July 1882, Ellen O'Hara stepped off a ship from the West of Ireland to begin a new life in New York. What she encountered was a world of casual racial prejudice that characterized her as ignorant, dirty, and feckless, the butt of many jokes. From the slim range of jobs available to her she, like, many of her kind, found a position as a domestic servant, working long hours and living in to save on rent and keep. After an unfortunate marriage, Ellen determined to win financial security on her own, and eventually opened a boarding house where her two children were able to rejoin her.
Vona Groarke builds this story from historical fact, drawing from various archives for evidence of Ellen. However, she also considers why lives such as Ellen's seem to leave such a light trace in such records and fills in the gaps with memory and empathetic projection. Ellen--scrappy, skeptical, and straight-talking--is the heroine of Hereafter, whose resilience animates the story and whose voice shines through with vivid clarity. Hereafter is both a compelling account of an incredible figure and a reflection on how one woman's story can speak for more than one life.
Hal Coase is a PhD candidate at La Sapienza, University of Rome.