In summer 2002 I made my first visit to Ireland, where I observed the one year anniversary of my mother’s death in the place she had wanted to bring me for so long. I never seemed to have open time that coincided with the dates of tours she wanted me to go on with her. Instead, my husband and I explored Ireland in our own way, but after she could only observe us from across the veil. Our journey began with my own two weeks at Anam Cara Retreat, which I chose sight unseen due to my love of the writings of John O’Donohue. Paul came at the end of this, rented a car in Cork and drove out to fetch me. Then we spent another week primarily exploring the southwest area and meandering back to Cork, from which we left. It was a magnificent time! Upon return home I put up a detailed web site with photographs and a travel journal, (which perhaps I’ll resurrect here at some point).
At Anam Cara I became friends with another of the women staying at Sue’s place, and Linda and I began a nightly habit of watching together one of Sue’s large collection of videos. We focused on the Irish films, alternating between lighter ones and those that caused tears or otherwise tore out our hearts. These films were the beginning of my real education about the history of Ireland.
Later, Frank Delaney’s book, Ireland, whet my appetite for delving further. Sitting on a shelf with other paperbacks at a grocery store, it caused a double-take and sent me down an aisle I don’t usually visit, becoming the first book I recall ever buying while shopping for food. Ireland was a wonderful read, gently introducing snippets about important events that shaped the future of this infinitely complex place. Told in the tradition of the shanchie, the novel helped me visualize the practice of the wanderer who was welcome at every hearth, whose visits were eagerly anticipated and brought the whole neighborhood together, and whose popularity was assessed by the quality of his tales. Its intriguing parallel story, like so many among any nationality, was that of a family secret.
I quickly followed this book with his Shannon and Tipperary, which I also enthusiastically recommend. In a similar way, I gained a sense of the entry into Ireland of the Vikings and Normans, and the subsequent centuries of rebellion and upheaval through Edward Rutherford’s The Princes of Ireland, and The Rebels of Ireland, which made up his Dublin Saga. I instinctively felt that the stories told were ones in which my own ancestors actively participated. With this basic groundwork, over the next several years I proceeded to inhale an increasingly scholarly mountain of books, eventually focusing on the kind of minutia that I needed to discover in order to unearth particular details of relevance to my research. Throughout my eclectic learning curve, novels and films helped immensely to clarify much in visualizing Ireland’s history and individuals within it.
Every creative or scholarly work, by its very nature, is presented from an author/artist’s chosen point of view. As in life, there are extreme sides to any event, shades of gray in between, and any number of related tangents. When discussing Ireland it is necessary to consider the century, the literal circumstances regarding the people involved, and the socio-political-religious constrictions that factored in. These days some find it helpful in any conversation to explain their own potential prejudices with caveats such as, “As a white, middle-class professional female who was raised Catholic in a traditional New England community” for example, before offering an opinion about a topic at hand. We can state our frame of reference up front to prevent misunderstanding in discussion with someone whose background may have been entirely different. So too is it necessary to consider one’s perspective when discussing Irish history, as we all enter from different precise points in relation to it.
Everyone’s family story begins somewhere and is filtered by what we experienced or heard growing up, how recently our ancestors emigrated or did not, and what our own attitudes are about an entire range of subjects currently. We need to consider all of this before making any generality. Importantly, we also need to know what era we are discussing. Are we referring to those whose roots reflect later nineteenth or twentieth century emigration or land acquisition or are we actually discussing, perhaps without realizing, something that occurred much earlier, having a different tone and consequence at that point in time? In a recent conversation with friends in Connecticut the confusion around this became apparent to me when we were talking about one place, but our references about it were actually from completely different decades or centuries. It reminded me of the famous example of the attempt to describe an elephant when one person could only touch the tail, someone else had a hand on its snout and another stroked its belly.
For these reasons I continue to try to clarify my own ever-expanding sense of Irish history and my ancestors’ imagined place within it by absorbing content from many different sources. None, so far, has taken me so much by surprise as Ken Loach’s film The Wind That Shakes the Barley. I became gradually so overcome throughout the film that I had to struggle to gather myself together after the credits finished rolling in order to simply walk out of the theatre. (Masochist that I am, I proceded to buy the DVD and have watched it several more times, keeping it as a favorite in my books and film “library.”) The film depicted the turning of the tides from those rebel patriots who saw their actions as sacred nationalistic sacrifice to those who sought to compromise for the larger goal of a sustainable peace. As in the American Civil War and other political conflicts, families were split apart for their allegiance to one side or the other. Here was a concrete vision of our own ancestries, which aligned with some aspect of this pivotal time in Ireland.
We learn about the Tithe Wars, the Catholic middlemen, evictions, emigration after a neighborhood party that felt like a wake for someone the community would likely never see again, and we hear about those who left “under cover of night” for whatever reason. We may not know which specifics actually belonged to us, yet every shred of detail helps to bring the picture we try to imagine for our families more into focus. We may consider the various factions and actions presently in the Middle East and also wonder, is this not more history repeating and repeating, and weren’t some of our own ancestors perhaps as radical or as helpless?
Recently I watched the film, Ned Kelly, for the first time, streamed from Netflix. Not only did this reveal more to me about the time period that I have been studying in Connecticut and in Ireland, but it brought in the specific lens of a comparable time of settlement in Australia. One scene struck me as a visual explanation of how a large family, grown into young adulthood, managed to live together in a one room house. Another made clear deep kindred ties when brothers looked after the welfare of their sister who was being “courted” by someone against her will. The HBO series, Deadwood, likewise helped me to visualize the settling of the American West and the complex interrelationships of those who sought riches or adventure, or were brought into an existence that proved to be unbearably other than what they had anticipated.
At the end of my journey to put together a coherent narrative in which members of my own family were among the characters, I am once again reading for pure enjoyment. It seems fitting that a book I cannot remember buying, used—even inscribed by the author!—seems to wrap up my project in a perfect parallel to how it began. Kevin O’Hara’s Last of the Donkey Pilgrims: A Man’s Journey Through Ireland, is a gem! It is the tale of a young man who took a year’s leave from his job in the States in 1979 and traveled with a donkey and cart around the perimeter of Ireland, completing the journey in time for Christmas Eve. O’Hara was among five children born in England to Irish parents, the family settling in Massachusetts during his adolescence. Three more siblings were born there. His relatives and friends in Ireland considered O’Hara to be a “Yank,” although he felt entirely connected there, having grown up on tales of the individuals and the place his mother so missed. His wife was willing to bless his seemingly cockamamey idea, hoping that a year in Ireland, expanded into an entire journey around it, would “get Ireland out of [his] system once and for all.” Twenty-five years later, and thirty years married with children, O’Hara completed this book about his great adventure, portraying the spirit, generosity and grit of the individuals he met in fine detail and beautiful storytelling. Like a goodwill ambassador following the traditions of both the shanchie and the tinker, innocent and inexperienced O’Hara was guided and supported by townspeople who anticipated and welcomed his arrival from point to point all the way around the country, about 1,720 miles.
This is a story of soulful connections between living beings—the author and his animal companion, and individuals who acted in concert with their best and most authentic selves, doing their part to help the journey of a stranger succeed. One woman who shepherded O’Hara to his next destination through a severe storm one night commented, “This is surely a comedy…here we are, heading into a forbidding wind, me an old Protestant mother on her way to a Union meeting, and yourself a Catholic lad, a fine rebel no doubt, arm-and-arm together in the face of the storm…’Tis unimaginable to think of the heartbreak religion has caused this country…Ireland, North and South, should be a beacon of light upon our troubled world, not another open wound.” (p. 355) At the end of his journey while his family and friends welcomed his return and O’Hara recounted the aid he had received all along the way, another noted, “Despite our history of heartbreak, we can’t be too bad, can we, when a young man can step out and do what Kevin here has done, meeting with nothing but kindness throughout the country, North and South.” (p. 379)
I savored this book, a few short chapters a night, as O’Hara and “Missie” meandered the majestic country counterclockwise, through each of the four provinces and speaking on each of the Irish language radio stations. Historic details are scattered throughout the tale, some that further clarified things I had studied or written about myself. I intend to immediately start it over and enjoy it even more thoroughly now that I’m not eager to find out what comes next!
In addition to all that I’ve mentioned, among some of my favorite novels about Ireland are: Peter Behrens, The Law of Dreams; Lisa Carey, In the Country of the Young; Mary Pat Kelly, Galway Bay; and John Maher, The Luck Penny. Also on my list of recommended Irish films are: Paul Greengrass, Bloody Sunday; Neil Jordan, Michael Collins; John Sayles, The Secret of Roan Inish; Jim Sheriden, The Boxer; In America; In the Name of the Father; The Field; Masterpiece Theatre, Kidnapped; Paul Quinn, This is My Father; (or, dare I say?, pretty much anything with Aiden Quinn or Daniel Day Lewis in it!); Martin Scorcese, The Gangs of New York (steel yourself!); also the BBC series Ballykissangel and Monarch of the Glen.
To novels and films, food for the soul!
©2012 Janet Maher/Sinéad Ní Mheachair
All Rights Reserved
Purchasing My Book – From the Old Sod to the Naugatuck Valley: Early Irish Catholics in New Haven County, Connecticut:
I have ordered a purchase of more copies of my book to sell, and will post when I again have it available. For now I can take orders and will ship it when it is back in stock. The list price is $65.95. I will cover packing and shipping in the U.S. and will sign it if you’d like. If you order three or more at one time, the price is $60. You will also be able to order the book securely through this blog using Paypal, or you can send me a check at this address:
Janet Maher, Department of Fine Arts, Loyola University Maryland, 4501 North Charles Street, Baltimore, MD, 21210.
It is also available from Amazon.com (which sometimes discounts it). Please note that I see not one penny from books sold this way. Still, if you have purchased it online and would like me to sign it, you can mail it to me at the above address and include a self addressed stamped padded envelope for its return. Thank you for buying it in any case!
If you live outside the United States, you can also purchase it from me, but will need to include the postage with your check. (My post office determined that postage and handling to Ireland or England was about $20.) It is possible to purchase it abroad here: Amazon.com Canada; Amazon.com UK; Waterstones.com.
I welcome reviews of my book. You can include yours in comment sections of my blog, and/or on the spaces for that on the Amazon or Barnes and Noble sites.
I hope that everyone who reads From the Old Sod to the Naugatuck Valley will enjoy it and will have found it helpful in their own quest to learn more about the earliest Irish Catholics of New Haven county and the Catholic history of Ireland. Thank you for your interest in my labor of love!