Saturday, 28 November 2015

Memory, History and Remembrance

In my mind I'm climbing a winding stair. The steps are cold and worn, and the only light comes in through narrow windows. I'm touching the curved wall with one hand, and with the other I'm hanging on to Marion's skirt. She is formidable and elderly, square and calm in her tweed coats and skirts, neat shirt-blouses and sensible shoes. Looking back now, I remember that day in Enniscorthy Castle. I was about nine years old. I remember her black leather handbag which always contained a white cotton handkerchief, and the fearsome bottle of Mercurochrome she used as an antiseptic to treat childhood cuts.

I never knew that in her teens she was  a revolutionary, trained in arms and ready to fight and die for Ireland's independence in the Easter Rising of 1916. 

A year after I finished university I left my home city of Dublin for London. My mother often came to visit me there and once, on a walk by the River Thames, she mentioned that though Marion had grown up in Enniscorthy and died there, she had spent time nursing in England. I remember asking why she had left Ireland and my mother shaking her head and saying that she didn't know. Marion, she said, 'didn't like to talk about the past'. I could well believe it. The Marion I knew in my childhood wasn't someone who would let her hair down, put her feet up, and engage in girly chats. She carried an air of authority and you didn't wriggle when she reached for the Mercurochrome. It was not as if I was unaware that she had been a member of Cumann na mBan. But along with that information, absorbed in my childhood, came an unspoken sense that questions about it wouldn't be welcomed. 

And so, although Marion lived to be eighty seven and died in 1983, when I could have had an adult relationship with her, I never heard her story. Like so many Irishwomen of her generation, she remained silent about her experience during the Rising and afterwards. And, like so many Irishwomen of my mother's generation and my own, I grew up with a cultural, social and political inheritance which, in the hundred years since the the Rising, has fostered misogyny, lack of communication and a lack of powerful female role models, both in Irish politics and society.

Last November I visited Enniscorthy Castle again, to take part in an RTÉ television documentary which begins Ireland's national broadcaster's 1916 Centenary programming. I was speaking about my recent book A Woven Silence: Memory, History & Remembrance, which maps my own family's stories onto the story of the founding and development of the Irish State. In an early draft of the book its working title was 'The Absence of Memory' and, among other themes, it explores that silence with which I grew up. 

The documentary, the first of a series of four called Ireland's Rising is a powerful piece of television and, as its trailer (link below) shows, it celebrates the beginning of a new era of awareness, discussion, debate and exploration of Ireland's national identity and values

I hope that the emphasis that Marion Stokes and her comrades placed on equality as the basis for a healthy society will form a central aspect of that debate. And I'm heartened by the fact that the children in this programme seem to believe that it should.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Memory and Potential

To the Celtic ancestors of peoples who now live all across Europe, the in-between spaces between one season and another were taut with energy. They were the points of balance between memory and potential, when the belief that all things contain all other things was expressed in communal ritual.   

This is the season of Lughnasa when the wheel of the year turns again and the world prepares to enter the   months of darkness which we see as cold and dead and the ancient Celts saw as pregnant with new life. It's a time for gathering in, for celebrating life and expressing mutual support.

The ancient Celts' rituals were held in in-between places - on beaches between land and sea, on mountain tops between earth and sky, and on water which is the basic necessity for life.

Here in Corca Dhuibhne memories of those ritual gatherings are still to be found at Lughnasa. All around the peninsula boat races are held, in which crews from the different communities pit their skills against each other.

On a beach near Ballyferriter called Béal Bán, a name that translates as The White Mouth, horse racing echoes the ritual races once held in honour of Lugh, the Celtic sun god.

To the ancient Celts everyone and everything in existence was interdependent because everything in the universe was sentient, and shared a living soul. The emphasis on community in their seasonal gatherings expressed the place of the individual within that worldview. And their annual celebrations of Lugh's union with Danú the Earth Mother expressed their belief in the interconnectivity of the universe in terms of the human family. 

Tomorrow, on Béal Bán when the tide is out, the drumming of horses' hooves will echo the ancient communal gatherings at which drumming and dancing promoted a world of harmony and balance.

Races at Lughnasa are life-enhancing family celebrations. Whole communities gather on the beach; mums and dads, babies and adolescents. People of all generations participate in the contests, lay bets on outside chances, make music, share stories, eat ice-cream or just hang out.

And this year, on other beaches in other parts of Europe, individuals and families who have been torn from their communities are also experiencing in-between spaces, praying for a restoration of balance, and giving thanks for life.



Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Dublin Table

First there was the Galway chair. There was a family story that it was made as a wedding present. I don't if that's true. I know that it once stood in my grandfather's home in Galway, in a room above his barber's shop in Eyre Square. I know that, when the shop was sold after his death, it came to Dublin with my grandmother, a charming, angry woman, who took to her bed on arrival and stayed there, in a temper, till she died.

I know that when I was born, my father shortened the legs so my mother could use it as a nursing chair.

I remember kneeling in front of it when I was five, playing house; I put a pastry board across the arms as a roof, and tucked my teddy to sleep on the seat.

When my mother died it went from our house in Dublin to my brother's house in Enniscorthy. On the twenty fifth anniversary of my own wedding I asked him if I could have it as an anniversary present and it crossed the the country again, from Wexford to Corca Dhuibhne

As I worked down through the layers of paint that had accumulated on it, the memories blurred and refocused. The top layer was white. That was put on by my brother after my mother's death. Beneath it, was a layer of Wedgewood blue. That went on when my father died. I remember my mother, alone in the home they had made together, afraid that even to change the colour of a chair was somehow to betray his memory. 
Underneath the top layers a creamy undercoat clung to the spindles and the seat, and needed digging out of the legs. I worked on it for months, revealing the knots and scratches, the marks of other, older tools, and the colours and grains of the different woods chosen by the man who made it. Beneath it I found the initials of his name.

Under the steady, repeated gestures of chipping and sanding, turning and dusting, my mind played with ideas for a new book. That was two years ago. Now the book is written and the Galway chair has been joined by the Dublin table.

It was made by a man who worked as a joiner in Ireland's National Museum. There's a family story that he used offcuts of timber from a display case. My father, who also worked in the museum, had responsibility for its Military History and War of Independence collections. The table was built for him to write on, though I never remember him working at it. I don't think it would have been big enough for his manuscripts and books.

At different times it stood against different walls in our Dublin house. I remember rubbing Ronuk Polish into  its mahogany surface and buffing it with a pad made from a worn cotton sheet. There was a pewter bowl of oranges that always stood on it at Christmas time. My mother guarded the table top carefully against heat marks, scratches and stains. When she died it went to my sister's house. When my sister died and that house was sold, her husband offered it to me. 

Yesterday Wilf and I drove from Dublin to Corca Dhuibhne with the table in the back of the car. The day before that we had been in Enniscorthy, talking about the book, which I've just finished editing. It's called A Woven Silence: Memory, History & Remembrance and it maps my own family's stories onto the history of the Irish State, seeking and exploring blurred communal memories and the reasons why they were lost. 

The cover shows a photo of my mother and her sisters taken in Dublin about 1915, when their father's cousin was in the British Army, fighting in Flanders, and their mother's cousin was drilling in the fields outside Enniscorthy with Cumann na mBan. In my mother's clenched hand is a coin. The memory of its story would have been lost forever had she chosen not to pass it on.

As  I reached the last chapter, I told my publisher that I couldn't finish writing the book till the marriage referendum was over. It ends with Pantibliss on the stage of the Abbey Theatre, crowds singing in the yard of Dublin Castle, and three faceless stones on an Enniscorthy hill.

Yesterday Wilf unscrewed the table top, so we could fit it into the car. Sixty years earlier, a man whose name I don't know fitted those ten screws, each an inch and a quarter long, into place, and fastened the top to the base. They came out easily when Wilf turned the screwdriver, having been put in with no more pressure than was required to do the job right. 

We carried the Dublin table into the house in Corca Dhuibhne in two pieces and reassembled it on the floor. Now it stands here beside the Galway chair. I don't know what will happen next to either of them.


               A Woven Silence: Memory, & Remembrance will be published by The Collins Press in September 2015

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Rough Month of The Cuckoo

Here on the Dingle Peninsula I am emerging from one book to the next in The Rough Month of the Cuckoo.
Scairbhín na gCuach is the name given in Irish to the uncertain weeks between mid April to mid May when chilly winds from the north and the east can blast the early growth in the garden and send us scuttling home from walks on the mountain to nights of music by the fire.
Yet bright sunny days can tempt us out for lunch on the stone table in the garden under the sally tree. And last year's chard, sprouting broccoli, turnip tops and rocket struggle gallantly on, offering new shoots and flowers for salads, while fresh parsley, marjoram, garlic chives and fennel are springing in sheltered beds.
Last week I was standing around in a t-shirt in Killarney National Park posing for photos to promote Enough Is Plenty. 

This week I'm wearing woolly socks under wellingtons and bundling up in a fleece. By the time we get to the book launch at The Dingle Whiskey Distillery on May 8th I'll either be shimmying around in crepe de Chine or wearing a Cossack hat. Feel free to join us if you happen to be in Dingle. Dress code will depend entirely on the Scairbhín.