November 15, 2022

HEREAFTER: The Telling Life of Ellen O'Hara
Vona Groarke

New York University Press
November 15, 2022
History / Biography / Poetry
Hardcover, 200 pages

"A groundbreaking way of investigating a traumatic period in history, not only Irish history, but American history too."
~Colm Tóibín
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 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 as many others like her, found a position as a domestic servant, working long hours and living in her employer's home to save on rent and keep. After an unfortunate marriage, Ellen was determined to win financial security and independence, and eventually opened a boarding house where her two children were able to rejoin her.

Vona Groarke builds this story from historical facts, drawing from various archives, Groarke also considers why lives such as Ellen’s seem to leave such a light trace in official 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.
Dear Reader,

In 1882, twenty-year-old Ellen O’Hara steps off the SS Berlin that has carried her from her family smallholding in impoverished, rural Ireland to cosmopolitan New York. Like many Irish immigrants of the time, she will find work as a domestic servant, a ‘Biddy’, cleaning, laundering, and preparing food for up to fifteen hours a day. As a live-in servant, Ellen will save much of her wages to send back home, where her remittances will be used to send out other sisters, pay the rent on the smallholding, and keep the wolf from the door.

Eventually, Ellen will become the mistress of her own Boardinghouse in Manhattan, marry (not altogether well), and have two children. But over time, the mark she leaves on the city will boil down to census entries, a couple of addresses in Polk’s Directory, various official certificates, and a grave in Queens.

Hereafter is my attempt to reimagine the life of Ellen O’Hara, my great-grandmother. Blending poetry, prose, and historical research, I try to build a portrait of a doughty, resilient woman. Whether you’ve had an Ellen in your family story or not, I hope the questions Hereafter sets out to ask will resonate with you. What happens to history after it’s already been written, who gets left behind or written out, and how are they to be rescued now for future generations?

Hereafter is a story of my Ellen and all the Ellens who, through hard work and perseverance, made such a difference to the progress of their families and their two countries, Ireland and the United States.

I hope you enjoy meeting Ellen, and that her voice and story, rescued from archival silence, will ring true with you.

Vona Groarke
Book Club Menu and Recipe
Soda Bread is a staple food of an Irish diet, be it 1882 or 2022. Whereas it would have been baked in an iron skillet over an open turf fire when Ellen was young, I make this bread in a modern convection oven: otherwise, the recipe is unchanged. Though many will know the recipe by heart, almost every baker in Ireland will have it in a recipe book, quite possibly written out in a hand that is generations old; the paper stained from usage, the ink faded here and there.

Serve it with vegetable broth: hearty, healthy, and delicious—and don't be fussy about which vegetables you use— broth will, accompanied by the soda bread, make several wholesome meals. If you happen to live where the weather thinks it’s someway Irish, broth is like central heating, warming you from the inside out.

And while the broth will nourish your body, the scent of baking bread will feed your soul. Any bread left over after lunch (as if!), will still be good the next day. Try it for breakfast with fresh butter for an authentic Irish taste, and homemade blackcurrant or rhubarb jam – a 5-star start to your day! This bread freezes beautifully, you can have a welcome quarter loaf at hand, any time of day or night. It’s also great with a good Irish cheddar and a slice of apple on top. Or, for continental flavor, try dipping the bread in seasoned, good-quality olive oil with a dash of balsamic vinegar.

Whatever your topping, this bread will conjure magic from basic foodstuffs, and make an Irish feast out of an ordinary meal.
For my menu, I’ve chosen characteristically Irish food that would have graced a table in 1882, and still does, today. 

The O’Hara family would have mostly eaten what they grew, reared, fished, or picked. There’s something simple and pure about self-sufficiency and, for my menu, I’ve chosen food that has, I hope, a similar purity: naturally organic, hearty, ingredients all readily available, inexpensive, and easy to cook. 

This food would likely have been accompanied by a glass of buttermilk, but that may well be taking historical accuracy too far for most readers: a glass of fresh cow’s milk would do beautifully instead, or water drawn from your very own spring. Or, failing that, there’s always the stable of modern Ireland – a big cup of milky tea!

In New York, Ellen would have encountered an array of food the likes of which she’d never seen or heard of before. Some of it might have alarmed her, I daresay, but some – such as oranges or peppermint puffs, perhaps - must have been a delightful surprise. No doubt she also cooked Irish food in New York City to evoke her lost home. I hope that magic trick of slipping through continents and centuries on the waft of bread in the oven or soup on the stove abides. 

And if it does, you won’t be the first person in America to taste food that might transport you back home, wherever that home might be. Home is itself a moveable feast that we conjure and keep safe in our hearts, and that nourishes us as the finest of food, made lovingly, will do.

-Vona Groarke
Book Club Menu: An Irish Feast

First Course: Vegetable Broth and White Soda Bread

Second Course: Fried Trout with Mushrooms. Boiled Potatoes, Green Vegetables

Dessert: Blackberry Oat Crumble with Cream
©Copyright 2022 The Book Club Cookbook