I met an Irish friend for lunch recently who told me that teaching of history in Irish schools stopped at 1916 because it got too contentious after that. This made me think about the Irish civil war which took place in 1921-22 and this made me think about my family history and as, to think is to blog, here it is or some of it. As you know, this blog is not normally a place to think about such things so you may feel free to tune out here and come back another day when, doubtless, there will be more tales of small children and all the fun that goes with them.
Our friends in the North, in particular our nationalist friends are very fond of telling us that “the Southern state was founded on violence” which of course it was but it was all violence from a long time ago whereas their violence is that bit more recent. Though of course, some of us still resent the fact that the Black and Tans burnt Cork Also, in the wake of our violence, there was some serious hatchet burying. Ireland is a small island. Still, our animosities live on in our politics. In Ireland we don’t have left and right, we have what is affectionately known as “civil war” politics. Unusually, the losers in the civil war got to write history and essentially ended up in government most of the time since 1922. It’s not quite clear to me why this should be.
All of my grandparents were on the losing side in the civil war, so my parents could never vote Fine Gael. Even I would hesitate. My father’s father campaigned for De Valera in Clare in 1923 and my parents still have a rosette in the attic somewhere. My grandfather seems to have been quite a busy man in Cork during the war of independence and after. One day my aunt pointed to a set of steps and said “my father was nearly shot by snipers on those steps”. What with the war of independence and the civil war and everything, things seem to have become a little unpleasant for my grandfather in Cork so he decamped to California with my grandmother and his infant son. It was unfortunate that he chose to do so at the start of the Depression. I don’t think they were exactly on the bread line, though. My grandmother’s letters home to her sister are full of unhappiness about the quality of their maids. It’s all such a very long time ago. We have somewhere a sad picture of my father as a small boy with about 30 other small boys all holding hands except for one little black boy who’s standing off to the side on his own. Mind you, we would have done the exact same thing with the travellers in my primary school in the 1970s, if the nuns hadn’t made us hold their hands. See, the nuns, they’re not all bad.
Either because things had calmed down in Cork or because it wasn’t working out in America, my grandparents decided to come home with their now two children. [Imagine, had things worked out differently, I could have been a Californian girl, taller, tanneder and in the movies]. If you knew my father, you would be amazed that he once spoke with an American accent but apparently he was a source of great interest in his home town and people used to ask him to talk so that they could listen to the “little yank”. A lot of Cork people went to work in England, in particular to Ford’s in Dagenham and used to come home flush with cash. They were known, somewhat disparagingly, by the locals as “Dagenham yanks”. I suppose they were pleased to have access to my Da’s authentic Orange County accent. He used to enjoy pretending to be Al Capone whose activities he had followed in detail while in the US. It was just as well that they came back to Cork because at the ripe old age of 35, my grandfather died of a heart attack and my grandmother, my father and my aunt moved in with my grandmother’s unmarried siblings. I remember going to visit them when I was a small child. We would be bribed with taytos and allowed to put the packets in the fire and rescue them with a tongs when they reached the size of miniature tayto packets, it was tremendously exciting and done in silence while my father read the paper and had a gin and tonic and my two great uncles also read their papers. One of my great aunts was always a little strange which was explained as “she had a twin who died”. It never seemed a great explanation to me, particularly when she used to wallop me on the side of the head when I had a lollipop in my mouth and cackle “oh I thought that it was a gumboil”. My aunt assures me that they all adored me but I found them a bit unnerving. My father’s maternal grandfather was quite old when he married and he remembered attending a famine funeral when he was a young boy. It seems amazing to me that I have such a direct link to the famine.
When I was rereading “Emma” by Jane Austen recently, I said meditatively to my loving spouse “I wonder whether I’d have been able to draw, if I’d lived in the 18th century”. “No,” he said, “because you would have been a scullery maid”. I was deeply indignant and checked with my mother. She told me that until her grandmother had housed and fed an IRA battilion during the war of independence, which nearly beggared them, her family had been quite well off [please note that my mother's family's impeccable republican credentials are confirmed by the presence of one of my great uncles in the well-known painting "Men of the South" – well known in Cork anyway – where the artist’s subjects put the heart crossways on him by turning up to pose in his studio with their guns]. My grandmother’s grandfather had had a large farm the revenues from which allowed him to build a school and pay a schoolmaster following Catholic emancipation in 1829 so he must have been doing alright. One of his sons married my great-grandmother, the last Emperor. Stop sniggering. Her maiden name was Emperor and there are no more of them left in Limerick. I don’t know where the name came from but it is odd, you will concede. There were 11 girls and two boys in her family but the boys never married and the name died out. My mother muttered vaguely that she thought that her great grandmother’s mother was one of seven sisters who had all been married on the same night. A sort of Limerick version of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. The reasons for this are unclear, something about Whiteboys though since they were, as far as I know, Catholic, I can’t imagine why this should be.
My father says that my siblings and I were brought up too soft. It has never been quite clear to me what hardship he was hoping that we might encounter but maybe he just meant we were spoilt. My great grandmother said that my grandmother spoilt my mother and her brothers. My mother says that her middle brother was certainly spoilt terribly. When she was a baby, he went into hospital for an operation. The wisdom at the time was that children shouldn’t be visited by their parents as it would upset them. He went into hospital walking and talking and he came out 3 weeks later neither walking nor talking. My spoiling grandparents were devastated. The poor little mite was only 2. With all this spoiling in my background, is it any wonder that the Princess can wind me round her little finger?
I think that it was Saki said of some crowd that they “unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally”. I feel a bit like that myself, so I’m spreading it round the internet. Well otherwise, how will I remember it?