Irish-American Dave Rochford shares his memories of Independence Day, and growing up in the West of Ireland
I was twelve years old when I first attempted to memorise the American Declaration of Independence. It was not a school project, there were no prizes being offered, and I doubt if the other lads I hung around with knew a lot about that famous document, much less have even heard of it.
With me, the situation was quite different – I was the only ‘Yank’ in that tiny village on the west coast of Ireland. I had been absorbed (at the age of seven) into a society so very different from the one I had earlier known in New York City.
My memories of America remained vivid, and yearnings for my former life often filled my mind. I suspect too that I had a feeling of being somewhat superior (most certainly unwarranted), of my being a tiny bit better, of being one up on that bunch of friendly barefooted lads who so unreservedly accepted me as one of their own, despite my ‘twangy’ New York City accent and my ridiculous trousers (knickerbockers).
I was still bedazzled by my so recent visit to the New York 1939 World’s Fair, where I’d been given a glimpse of The World of the Future.
I’d seen all the great skyscrapers…crossed the great bridges…rode the subways. Still, I was just a confused little lad adjusting to a very unfamiliar environment. It was also the last week in the month of August. The year was 1939. And the world was about to change forever!
When my parents and myself set sail to Ireland from New York City, World War II was looming on the horizon. German U-Boats were already on station across the North Atlantic shipping lanes. Our vessel – the SCYTHIA – arrived unscathed into Galway harbour just days before Germany declared war on England. Another passenger liner sailing later wasn’t so fortunate – it had the grim distinction of being the very first ship sank in World War II. It was the ATHENIA, New York-bound on the war’s first day. It was torpedoed off the northwest coast of Ireland with many fatalities. Had the departure date for the Scythia been delayed just one week, I might not be writing these words!
Among the many treasured possessions my parents brought with them to our new home were books.
One in particular was to leave a lasting impression on my young mind – a 1939 copy of The World Almanac, that unique collection of figures, facts and copies of the world’s most history-making and world-changing documents. It was to become inseparable from me.
Not that my little Irish village lacked the means to satisfy seekers after knowledge – books there were aplenty, but nothing to equal the incredible avalanche of facts and figures available in the World Almanac.
My head became crammed with a vast collection of trivia. Yet there was something else! It just didn’t seem enough to be able to rattle off facts and figures and historic dates – that reduced a remarkable memory to the level of a parlour game. There had to be more. There was! Documents! Memorable speeches! That would be it! To be able to quote verbatim from some of the most world-changing documents in the history of mankind…to have others listen in awe as I recited, sentence by sentence, timeless passages uttered or written down ages ago. I was gifted with a retentive memory and already in love with the beauty of language.
War came to America in December of 1941. I was not that far removed from the Public Schools of New York City to have forgotten that timeless morning ritual at school: the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. I still remembered all the words – and I was still the only ‘Yank’ in the village! I was seized with a fierce fervor of patriotism – I even flew a small American flag from the chimney of our house.
Now I pored over my tattered volume of the World Almanac. I would find something stirring to memorise: a speech or document that had changed the course of history. Words that had rent the bonds of tyranny…something from Thomas Paine…The Easter Rising Proclamation…Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address…(tempting to memorise because of its majesty and its brevity).
I finally settled on that clarion-call to oppressed peoples everywhere while I was still in the grip of my boyhood patriotism: The American Declaration of Independence, as powerful a statement as was ever written. It would become the longest and most difficult piece of memorisation I had ever attempted.
Today, scores of years later, I can still quote portions of what must be the most world-shaking document ever penned – and by individuals the likes of whom we may never again encounter.
And when I quote those passages I can still recall, I am deeply stirred.
There will never be another document like it. Thomas Jefferson and all you patriots who put your signatures to the DECLARATION, America thanks you!