Monday, 25 January 2016

Rebel Women Betrayed

It was not as if I was unaware that Marion Stokes had been a member of Cumann na mBan, the women's militant nationalist organisation that took part in Ireland's Easter Rising in 1916. But along with that information came an unspoken sense that questions about it would not be welcomed. Marion, my grandmother’s cousin, lived to be 87 and died in 1983, so I could have had an adult relationship with her. But, as it happened, I didn’t. I left Ireland for London in the late 1970s. My mother often came to visit me 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 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 was not someone who would let her hair down, put her feet up and engage in girly chats. My mother said she had always been like that and I suppose that, when she told me so, I assumed it went with a lifetime of responsibility, starched aprons and hard work. 

Most of my teenage years were spent locked in silent conflict with my mother about everything and anything, but I had long conversations with her as an adult. In the years after my father died, she and I took several holidays together and many of the family stories she related come back to me now coloured by the sound of waves slapping against the prow of a Rhine boat or the scent of salt and wildflowers on a high cliff on one of the Scilly Isles. I wish now that I had asked her more questions about Marion. But I doubt that I’d have got more answers. 

When I was a child my favourite season was autumn. My mother’s favourite was spring. I once asked her why that was so, and she told me that she loved its sense of expectation. The memory of that conversation still touches me and leaves me faintly angry, because she was one of a generation of Irishwomen whose legitimate expectations for herself and for her children were betrayed. 

In the absence of written or oral record I cannot be certain what exactly caused 20-year-old Marion Stokes to go out and fight in Easter Week 1916, when she was one of the three women who raised the tricolour over the rebel headquarters in Enniscorthy town. Her primary motivation may have been nationalist, feminist, political or purely cultural. In the absence of memory I am left with inference. But two things I do know. One is that the Proclamation of the Irish Republic issued at the outset of the 1916 Rising “claims the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman” and “guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”. The second is that a statement issued afterwards by Cumann na mBan asserted that by “taking their place in the firing line and in every other way helping in the establishment of the Irish Republic” its members had “regained for the women of Ireland the rights that belong to them under the old Gaelic civilisation, where sex was no bar to citizenship, and where women were free to devote to the service of their country every talent and capacity with which they were endowed”.

That reference to “old Gaelic civilisation” is questionable: it ignores, for example, the fact that for centuries, if not millennia, native Irish society, like many others, used slaves of both sexes as units of currency. But, setting aside bad history and concentrating on political aspiration, it seems fair to assume that Marion and her companions, male and female, were prepared to sacrifice their own lives to secure a state founded on the principle of equal rights and opportunities regardless of gender. Yet I grew up in a state with a constitution that declared the proper aspiration of women to be marriage, our proper function to be child bearers, and our proper sphere the home.

That constitution, drafted for – and to a large extent by – Éamon de Valera, who had been a leader of the Rising, passed into law in 1937. So in only 25 years the aspirations of 1916 had been eroded to the extent that the rights of half of the State’s citizens were reduced. And that is the terrible part. When one section of society effectively becomes second-class citizens, the balance and health of the community as a whole are affected. Among the visible results in Ireland were levels of state-sanctioned institutional brutality which have only recently begun to emerge. Another was the fact that my mother, along with thousands of women of her generation, was told that marriage should be her highest aspiration, childrearing her only creative outlet, and that economic dependence was her civic duty. That in its turn produced levels of misogyny, emotional sterility and civic immaturity still evident in Ireland today. 

Many women protested in public and in private during the drafting of de Valera’s constitution. The Irish Women Workers Union many of whose members had been involved in the 1916 Rising, expressed outrage; a letter from the secretary to de Valera, quoting the clauses which referred to the position of women, said: “it would hardly be possible to make a more deadly encroachment upon the liberty of the individual”. But by then women no longer held significant positions of influence in Ireland. The constitution was accepted. And a combination of revisionism and isolationism in the years that followed left the majority of Ireland’s citizens ignorant of the legacy we had been denied. And as I write this now, Irish citizens are still protesting about gender inequality, homophobia and the denial of Irishwomen’s basic human rights. Yet, in theory at least, the battle for equal rights was fought and won in Ireland 100 years ago. 

That anomaly, the mixed messages of the Ireland in which I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, and the knowledge that the rights for which my grandmother’s cousin Marion was ready to die were denied to my mother’s generation and my own, all inspired my book A Woven Silence: Memory, History & Remembrance. The silence surrounding the aspirations of the women who took part in the early political life of the Irish state did not come about by accident: though, as the title of my book implies, its genesis was complex. As the centenary bandwagon lumbers up to the starting line, we should examine that complexity and take steps to counteract its continuing pernicious effect on contemporary Ireland.

The children whose photo appears on the cover of A Woven Silence are ( l to r) my aunts Cathleen and Evie and my mother May.

 A version of this piece appeared in November 2015 in The Irish Times.

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 month 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.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Happy New Year - in Ireland it's Oíche na Coda Móire.

Happy New Year, everyone. Here at the westernmost end of the Dingle Peninsula it's still Oíche na Coda Móire, a name which means The Night of The Big Portion and is pronounced Eee-heh Nah Cud-ah Moir-eh. Well, not quite like that but something like it.

The idea is that you eat the largest meal you can manage to ensure plenty of food and prosperity in the coming year.

So, even though I've written a book called Enough Is Plenty this seems the proper occasion for a post focusing on the pleasures of the large portion. Enjoy!

Fógraím iarsma oraibh uilig. Good luck to you all in the new year.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

A (Virtually) Traditional Irish Christmas

It began at The Charles Dickens Museum in London which happens to be down the road from my agent's office and serves seriously good lemon drizzle poppy seed cake in its café. Which makes it the perfect place for a meeting.

My agent and I discussed the novel I was writing and talked about sales figures on another book. And then we got down to the coffee and cake stage which is when seeds of new ideas quite often emerge, apparently from nowhere. 

That day, prompted by the fact that we were sitting in what once would have been Charles Dickens' back kitchen, we chatted about his little Christmas books.


Just the right size to be stocking fillers, they'd been mood setters for Christmas each year in my childhood home in Dublin. I still have two worn copies, 1886 and 1903 editions, bought for sixpence each by my father from a bookstall on the quays in 1947.

I was describing my annual ritual of curling up with those books at Christmastime and remembering how I'd  heard that they'd produced the same fizz of festivity round Victorian firesides when Dickens first published them.

And then, between one sip of coffee and the next, an idea emerged. I'd write my own little Christmas book.

Christmas at the end of Ireland's Dingle peninsula has its own particular traditions, some of which are very different to the Dickensian images of jolly innkeepers welcoming rattling stage coaches, bustling city streets, and overworked clerks wearing woolen mufflers struggling with Scrooge-like employers.

Here we walk long beaches on frosty mornings, and at nighttime single candles flicker in the windows of high mountain farmhouses. Holly and ivy are traditional decorations but, until recently, Christmas trees weren't. A salted fish dish of ling with onion sauce is eaten on Christmas Eve. And December 26th,  known as The Wran's Day, is celebrated with rituals that reach back to the ancient Celts' midwinter festival. 

So, Christmas at the end of the westernmost peninsula in Europe has resonances that are very different to those I absorbed in my Dublin childhood from Dickens' little Christmas books.

Yet some things about the feative season are universal and timeless.

Hot, comforting food after chilly winter walks. Time to relax by the fire.

And the urge to reach out to neighbours, friends and family, to share music, stories, food and good fellowship.

These days Skype and Facebook draw Irish emigrant families together at Christmas time, and my neighbours here on the peninsula send texts to arrange their music sessions and festive gatherings. 

And as I sit here at my desk in a stone house on the side of the mountain, there on my computer screen are people I've never met and who've never met each other, sending me messages and sharing stories sparked by my photos on The House on an Irish Hillside's Facebook page. 

That day, sitting with my agent in what used to be Dickens' back kitchen, we talked about that warmth and conviviality engendered by the internet. I said that I reckon that if Dickens were alive and writing today he'd be the king of social media. And, between one forkful of cake and the next, the idea for my own Christmas book suddenly crystallized.  

Here it is, a Kindle Short, available exclusively for download. 

I see it as a virtual stocking-filler, to be read with with a large piece of cake to hand and a pot of tea at your elbow.   Available worldwide on Amazon, you'll find the US link HERE and the UK one HERE