A friend of mine, a motivational speaker and coach, once suggested that, as an exercise in identifying or defining my goals, I should write my obituary! That pulled me up “fairly lively, like”, as they say in certain parts of this island. For a moment, I felt like a new job applicant, squirming under the scrutiny of the interviewer’s question: “So how would you describe yourself?” The question hung about in the ether for a couple of years and then I forgot about it – until my grandmother’s photograph showed up recently and a bigger question crept in: one that I should have been asking myself before my children were born: who am I? What am I passing on to my children and grandchildren by way of a history?
Living in an ancient land, on the edge of an ancient continent, we cling to the past, often unknowingly: observing traditional rituals, cherishing ruins and monuments, wishing we owned a Rembrandt or a Vermeer, happy to settle for a print, even a postcard. Art galleries, museums, old books, vintage cars, antique furniture, weapons, jewellery and other personal effects engender wonder and curiosity about the lives of their former owners and the stories they tell. Yet, our personal history often dies with us; we tell ourselves that no-one would be interested.
In recent years, all forms of media have carried stories that have touched us deeply – of adoptees searching for their birth parents, seeking a family, a bloodline; an identity, craving ancestry; a back story. Listening to and reading these stories, I realised that I am blessed, having any sort of history. Although there are many gaps, much of it is accessible, through photographs, local history and through word of mouth.
Lately, I have been refining my definition of the area of the past in which I am most interested – social history, described as ‘a broad branch of history that studies the experiences of ordinary people in the past’. Among the ‘ordinary people’ whose life stories I have dipped into, while dotted with the odd adventurer or devil-may-care, may not hold the same interest as those of royalty, film stars, famous explorers, or even famous criminals. None of these features in my lineage – as far as I am aware – but the cultural, social, political and economic environment in which my ancestors lived and how the circumstances of their lives determined the extent of their means and affected their health and well-being has intrigued me for many years. My interest also lies in any inherited characteristics, traits, foibles, faults – and gifts – that crop up in later generations. Being a mother and grandmother, I am especially interested in the lives of those of my own gender, chiefly the mothers and grandmothers. I gaze into the features of these women and try to remember fragments of their stories that I heard, growing up. Behind the formidable stiff poses I try to imagine what their lives were like and although I will never know what dreams, hopes and aspirations they held in their hearts, I sense their influence, even their characteristics, that have come across time. The fabric of their story is as much about me – and future generations – as it is about them.
In one old sepia photograph of Esther, my great-grandmother on my mother’s side, her face is impassive, her age a mystery. Genealogical searches revealed that she was born into a farming family on a 150-acre farm across the river from Avondale, the home of the Member of Parliament, Charles Stewart Parnell who was elected the first President of the Irish Land League. History records that from her marriage to a grocer in 1879, to 1882, the ‘Land War’ raged in Ireland and that widespread upheavals and extensive evictions were accompanied by several years of bad weather and poor harvests. I can only guess that the Land League and the weather must have dominated conversation on the street, in the pubs and around dinner tables.
Just one generation separated her from the famine that wracked the country, filling the ‘coffin ships’ to America and filling others with starving men, women and children, many convicted for stealing food and deported to Australia, and I wonder how Esther’s family survived those years unscathed. Thanks to documented records, I found that through the Land League, my great-grandmother’s siblings bought their 150-acre holding from their landlords, the Bayley family, in 1888. By this time, my great-grandmother had moved with her husband to set up a number of businesses in Dublin but by 1899, they had returned to their home town and established a grocery business there. Tragedy had struck with the loss of two of their children: an infant son and a daughter, aged fourteen. Neither genealogical records nor history can tell me how she felt. One of their two surviving children, Marianne, my maternal grandmother, was fair-haired, blue-eyed with soft features. She was superstitious – she didn’t like the colour green, for instance – and in her younger days she possessed good literary skills, embroidered, painted and played the violin. She married a blacksmith, in 1907 and, having spent four years in the United States, the couple and their three children returned to Ireland and took up residence on a farm holding where six more children were born, among them, Annie, my mother.
Marianne returned to an Ireland on the cusp of political and economic change. Many women of her class were already making their presence felt: From 1900 many were involved in Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Erin) under the leadership of Maud Gonne. The Irish Association of Women Graduates had been established. Trinity College was admitting women to its campus for the first time. The Women’s National Health Association was formed and other universities opened their doors to women. The Irish Women’s Franchise League – a militant Suffragette organisation – was gathering momentum. The United Irishwoman and The Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians were established and by 1911, women were allowed to serve as County Councillors, Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation (IWSL) was set up to co-ordinate emerging smaller associations and the Irish Women’s Reform League was formed.
But, despite her privileged background and her formal, boarding school education, Marianne’s life in rural Ireland evolved in a parallel universe, untouched by the social advances taking place, mostly in larger towns and cities, unaffected by the conflict of the dying years of British Occupation and the attendant horrors wrought by the ‘Black-and-Tan War’, the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 and the ensuing Irish Civil War. Her home was filled with children, household staff, my grandfather’s co-workers, visitors, farming activity and music. But, as the fledgling nation began to find its feet, her mother, Esther died, her father’s businesses failed and Marianne’s health was in decline. She died from a brain hemorrhage, aged fifty-seven, in 1943.
Earlier this year, I visited my father’s family homestead and was shown a photograph of my paternal grandmother that I hadn’t seen in sixty years. Like Marianne, she had died many years before I was born. Bridget was a hardworking, no-nonsense type, who was a ‘dry wit’, with strong facial features. She was a short, stocky-built woman, with a mane of jet black hair and dark brown eyes. Along with mothering eleven children, she ran a little shop, selling milk, butter and eggs from the farm. In contrast to my mother’s parents, who employed farm-hands and household staff, my father’s mother appears to have been of an earthy disposition, a ‘hands-on’ woman, resilient as well as enterprising, taking advantage of the commercial opportunity provided by the lead-mining that had brought miners and their families into the valley in which she lived. But, like Marianne, Bridget did not live to see her sixtieth birthday. She died from complications arising from gall bladder surgery or infection, aged fifty-nine, in 1946.
My parents met while working at a country house hotel and married in 1948. My brothers and I arrived in 1949, 1952 and 1960, respectively, into an era of post-war change that was sweeping across the developed world. We would benefit from other influences, like television, emphasis on further education, foreign travel, and a loosening of the shackles of social and religious constraints, slowly eroding tradition and ‘the way it was always done’. My father used to say, “It’s in the pedigree and it will never change.” That one remark was probably enough to spark my interest in another kind of tradition – genetics. Not the study of the medical science, but a curiosity that has served to alert me to the power of ancestral influences and the need for vigilance.
Thirty-three years, to the month, after her mother, fifty-seven-year-old, Marianne died from a brain hemorrhage, I received a message, via a neighbour, from my father. “Your mother’s not well,” he said. “Your father wants to know if you can call over.” My mother, then aged fifty-seven, had suffered a stroke. “She won’t hear of a doctor,” my father told me when I arrived at the house. “I’m just like my mother,” she mouthed, resignedly. “It’s in the pedigree,” my father declared. Reluctantly, she agreed to a trip to the doctor’s surgery. An examination confirmed what I already knew. “If she starts hemorrhaging, I will call out to her immediately,” the doctor said. “But there will be nothing I can do.” My mother recovered and lived for a further eight years, having seen the arrival of my two sons: her first grandchildren. When my brothers married, she welcomed the arrival of four more grandchildren before she died, aged sixty-four, in 1984.
Among these younger generations of the family and extended family, I notice greater vigilance, self-awareness and freedom of expression. I notice too, the resurgence of innate talents, skills and abilities that go back to the ‘old people’. Full of vibrancy, beauty, a sense of adventure and determination, this mix of the old and the new finds expression in many parts of the world as with optimism and hope, they travel and work abroad and take change in their stride, benefiting from the experiences and qualities inherited from ancestors on all sides.
On my side, there are many more: great-grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers whose stories, bar a few sketchy details in census and church records, are lost in the mists of time, leaving more questions unanswered.
When I achieved the status of grandmother through the arrival of my beautiful granddaughter, in 2001, I realised that to the next generation, I am their past; at some point they, will dig out ‘old’ photographs –of me – and tell each other ‘Grandma’ tales. I am a great believer in transparency; I loathed the unnecessary half-truths and riddles that seemed to permeate the lives of my parents’ generation. But will I unwittingly leave unanswered questions? Maybe the young ones would prefer a story with a hint of mystery? Do I even know enough about myself – even to compose an obituary?
Whether through nature or nurture, I do know that I have inherited certain personality traits from both sets of ancestors. A lifetime of hard graft, resilience, practicality, punctuality and a methodical approach to everything comes from my paternal lineage. According to a former employer, I am also endowed with common sense, although, looking back on some of the spectacular faux-pas that I managed to engineer, I doubt it. I have also inherited my mother’s dreamier side. Hers was the line that produced a love of the arts, the gift of enquiry and an appreciation of nature and the collective love of laughter and enjoyment and a strong sense of the spiritual – on both sides – is also firmly entrenched in my psyche. The ancestors still whisper across time.
I am not exactly an exemplar of dizzying accomplishment, but I hope that I have added something of value to the heritage, culture, knowledge, love and the collective wisdom of those who have gone before me. Like the millions of ordinary and extraordinary inhabitants of this known world, I am the past alive – right here, right now. We are the embodiment of our forebears: parents, grandparents, our great-grandparents and others beyond.
My friend, the motivational speaker and coach does not yet know that I have neglected to do the exercise; the obit remains unwritten. Maybe this will do – for now: