The Opposite of the Composite: How One Girl Became a Thousand

May 14, 2014 § 8 Comments


Sonja Livingston

Sonja Livingston discusses the origins of her recent Brevity essay, “A Thousand Mary Doyles,” and offers an intriguing writing prompt for other essayists:

When I discovered Mary Doyle hiding out in a family of French-Canadians, I was curious. Like nearly 60 million other Americans, I can claim some Irish ancestry. But that’s on my mother’s side, which is a hodgepodge of the sort found in New England. My father’s side (while murky) was thought to be mainly Québécois. But now I’d found a girl from Ballyhaunis blooming on one of the branches of the family tree. I wanted to know more about this Mary who’d left her homeland, eventually met a farmer from the St. Lawrence Valley, marrying, bearing children and leaving her trace upon this world as Mary Desormeau. Her relatively recent arrival convinced me she’d be easy to locate—how hard could it be to find a girl named Doyle who’d left County Mayo in the late 19th century?

This essay is, I suppose, a testament to the foolishness of that question.

A flood of Mary Doyles left Ireland in the mid to late 19th century. An enormous tide of Marys, Margarets and Bridgets. Not just Doyles, of course. The population of Ireland was gutted from 1840 to 1915, with five million bound for the United States alone, another million to Canada. Unlike other mass migrations to North America, many Irish were young women. I knew this. The Great Hunger, the harshness of English rule, the impossible poverty—I’d read of the history in books and novels, including one written by a friend, Elizabeth Osta. But it was not until I found and began to read the lists of Mary Doyles that I felt it. Something about her name repeated; the thousands of baptisms, marriages and funeral Masses. I felt the rush of their lives then, the leaving behind of everything in order to survive. And of course, many didn’t survive.

At about the same time, the daily news was filled with talk of immigration reform, of possible expansion of barriers along our southern border, of men and women and children dying in the desert while trying to come north. While traveling in Ireland, I found myself staring, looking for something familiar in the faces. All of this collided, so that as I combed through ship manifests and church records searching for my Mary Doyle, it hit me—what could the particulars of one Mary tell me that another could not? All those girls memorizing the shape of home before stepping into an unknown world. There was no Mary Doyle who did not belong to me. Every Irish great-grandma or auntie, whether or not she was called Doyle, whether or not she was tucked into families with a French or English surnames, whether or not any of us ever knew her.

Prompt: In creative nonfiction writing, there’s debate about the creation of composite characters, such as fusing three college roommates into one for the sake of streamlining. While I’ve never felt the need to create a composite, the opposite happened with Mary Doyle—one person became a thousand. Try researching an unknown ancestor (or walk around a cemetery to find the name of stranger). Use what you find (name, dates, place of birth and/or death) to explore, research and integrate a wider cultural or historic experience onto the personal, making one into many.

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§ 8 Responses to The Opposite of the Composite: How One Girl Became a Thousand

  • […] Essay Prize. Sonja teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Memphis. Sonja offers some background on her inspiration for this essay and an intriguing writing prompt at the Brevity […]

  • andreablythe says:

    I really enjoyed the original essay and this look at how it came into existence.

  • What a beautiful essay. I’m so intrigued by your approach and so moved by the content. It happens that I’m researching my Irish paternal grandmother and her family who I never knew — also from Canada. This is the little boost I needed.

  • debhagan says:

    I went to Ireland for the first time last fall, so this essay really resonated with me. I love this exercise you presented, and I’m inspired to give it a try.

  • Sonja Livingston says:

    Thanks for responding, I hope the prompt works for you!

  • luongojoannei says:

    Thank you for this inspiring essay. It has peaked my curiosity, in that my maternal grandfather’s ancestry is French Huguenot and he was orphaned at five years old after his parents and grandparents all died with a year of one another. I’m going to get busy.

    • Robert Hayes Foster says:

      My great great grandmother was a Mary Boyle not Doyle. I was surfing creative nonfiction and saw your title. Mary Boyle was from County Cork and married John Hayes from County Slago and came to the U. S. by Robert Hayes Foster

  • Rene Allen says:

    Thank you for a powerful look at what it meant to immigrate in the late 19th century. How hard it must have been to leave home. My ancestors were Mormon pioneers who left their homes in Scotland and England, came to America and were part of the handcart companies that walked to Utah.

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