On a soddy, drizzly afternoon, which could have matched Galway´s worst if it wasn´t so warm, I found myself heading for Panama City´s excellent Canal Museum.
Among the exhibits is a section dealing with the construction of Central America¨s first (and only) railway from Panama to the troubled city of Colon, where tourists are warned not to even go out in the middle of the day.
The railway, which linked the Atlantic with the Pacific, was constructed in the late 1840s and early 1850s and, guess what, the country which had the biggest representation among the manual workers was Ireland ... and that´s despite the fact that it was considered part of the ´British Empire´ at the time.
Just imagine what life was like for the thousands of labourers who left their villages in Galway, Mayo, or Offaly behind, crossing the Atlantic on the infamous ´coffin ships´ in order to begin new lives alongside tough men from all over the world.
Of course, the museum did not refer to the fact that the railway was built right after our Potato Famine, when Ireland (or its British masters) spat out its young men and women, forcing them into exile.
Uneducated, penniless, and facing yellow fever and malaria, life in the tropics must have come as a huge culture shock to the thousands of Irish men who found themselves in Panama a century and a half ago, working for a pittance as they traversed dangerous country.
To my knowledge, RTE has never made a documetary about these unfortunate men, or no major study has been undertaken in Ireland into their lives.
Because in Ireland it´s more convenient to ignore or forget about the people who were forced out of our wet and rocky isle in search of a living.
Panama City, my introduction to Latin America, was an incredible experience. I did not feel a bit unsafe wandering the streets by day, although of course it pays to be careful (or take taxis) at night.
The Casco Viego (or old town) is undergoing a massive revival and wonderful old colonial buildings are being restored. It´s like Havana, but without as many crumbling old abodes.
During two days of wandering its streets, I probably met a dozen foreign tourists in Casco Viejo. It really feels like an unexplored gem.
The museum, which is in the heart of the old town, also showed the appalling conditions in which slaves were brought from Africa to the Americas, which might just explain why the ghettoes of LA or Detroit are troubled to this day. The ancestors of America´s poorest had a horrid introduction to life on the other side of the Atlantic.
Seeing the Panama Canal, with the huge ships lined up to enter it, reminded me of how insignificant little ol Ireland is in the wider scheme of things.
And, as the Banana Republic spits out its young again, just as it did in the 1980s and 1950s, our wonderful leaders will probably care as little about their stories, their futures, as the Brits did back in the 1850s.
While the pigs who took over the farm continue to knock back the porter and defy the smoking ban in public places, while bailing out their banker buddies, Ireland´s youth are searching abroad for jobs again.
Thankfuly, they are probably a lot better prepared for the big bad world than the West of Ireland peasants who fled starvation at home in order to work on the Panama railway a century and a half ago.
A day in the life of our volunteers
4 days ago