By Kevin McDermott
There is a family photograph that I particularly like. It shows a group of twenty people in festive form smiling for the camera. My mam is in the centre, with a big open smile, her hair slightly wild and unkempt. She is thirty-five years of age, vivacious, energetic and beautiful.
The photograph was taken in 1951, five years before I was born. It is an image of my family, without me, indeed, with little need of me. It shows the family functioning beautifully, just as it was then, in its existing network of relationships.
When you come, as I do, at the end of a big, sprawling, Irish, working-class, Catholic, family, you exist on the margins, both part of and sperate from your tribe. And being part of and separate comes to define your way of being in the world or, at least, it has come to define my way of being in the world.
And that’s what I want to explore – the ways in which I belong and don’t belong to the intersecting communities of family, class, and nation. (I am going to leave religion for another day.)
Take the nation part of that description of my family, ‘an Irish, working-class, Catholic, family’. In April 1966, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising was celebrated. And the commemorative events helped define a version of Irishness that was influential, even pervasive, in defining a communal, national identity. I was nine years of age at the time. I remember the television series Insurrection,a docudrama, that aired on RTE that Easter. It was written by the late Hugh Leonard, and was, by any standards, daring and inventive. With great skill, it brought the events of 1916 to life. I remember, in particular, Ronnie Walsh’s James Connolly and Eoin Ó Suilleabháin’s Padraic Pearse.Yet, despite the fact that I attended a Christian Brothers School, and the Brothers rehearsed a narrative of the heroic sacrifice of the leaders of the 1916 insurrection, and we learned the proclamation by heart, I never really felt that 1916 was my rebellion. I didn’t connect to it in any deep, emotional way. In fact, from an early age, I think I was afraid of nationalism, or the version of nationalism offered to us in school and in the national celebration of 1966. As a child, I was a cowardy-custard, a mammy’s boy, in fear of a getting a hiding from some of the rougher boys in the area. I was never physically brave, and I am sure this coloured my view of the Rising. I feared and continue to fear, the potential for violence that I saw in the nationalism my school companions and I were expected to admire and glorify. In the language of my adult understanding, I feared its tendency to dehumanise the Other, whoever and however that Other was perceived to be.
In more recent years, I have attended the official 1916 commemoration in O’Connell Street, on Easter Monday and enjoyed it. Latterly, I have come regard the Rising as an elaborate piece of public theatre – politics as performance art, if you like, the declaration of the Republic a symbolic gesture that resonated with a majority of people in the country. And the willingness of the leaders to sacrifice their lives conferred a kind of purity on this symbolic gesture. But it was also a performance which involved one person taking the life of another and, in effect, saying: ‘My cause, my community, my symbolic gesture is of more value than your life.’
In her book, Frames of War, the philosopher Judith Butler poses questions about the lives that a community deem worthy of mourning, and the lives the same community deem ungrieveable. For me, the 1966 version of Irish nationalism deemed too many lives to be ungrieveable.
And, so, ask me am I an Irish nationalist, and I hesitate. I have always admired Yeats’s poem ‘The Stare’s Nest by the Window’, written during the Civil War, with its memorable stanza:
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
I love the image of the honey-bees tasking possession of the empty nest of the starling and beginning their patient work of creation and re-creation. And yet the individual bees work blindly for their community and follow the instrumental discipline of the hive. Images and symbols are tricky, aren’t they?
And then there is the working-class part of the description. Being a cowardy-custard also had an influence on the tentative nature of my allegiance to my class. Growing up in Dublin, in the 1950s and 1960s, social class was inextricably tied to the physical and social geography of the city. To be working-class was to live in certain places. To live in certain places was to be working class.
And I grew up in a housing project in which the vision of the architects matched the ideology of the state. I am not talking about Stalin’s Russia; Tito’s Yugoslavia or Ceausescu’s Romania. No, I grew up in De Valera’s Ireland, in Crumlin, in one of the many post-war housing schemes built by the state which, effectively, eliminated slum dwellings from the city of Dublin.
In creating this scheme of public housing in Crumlin, the architects fashioned a surreal religious landscape. Seen from the air, the new housing estate, or scheme, as it was called, resembled a Celtic Cross. Many of the roads were named after ancient episcopal dioceses of the Catholic Church: Clonmacnoise, Bangor, Downpatrick, Armagh, Clogher, Raphoe.
In its conception Crumlin was transcendent. However, at street level, things were somewhat more venal. The few public spaces created in the built environment never felt hospitable, to me. They were not free spaces, spatial gifts, something extra and generous in our lives, to use the language of Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, the curators of the 2018 Venice Biennale for Architecture, whose theme of free space set me thinking about the free spaces in Crumlin. I remember the Pitch and Toss school in the public park near my home; I remember youths lounging on the corners of cul-de-sacs, whom I feared. In memory, the public spaces of Crumlin had an air of disrepute about them, exciting, perhaps, but dangerous, too. Threatening. I don’t believe they were ever fully appropriated by the community as places of meaningful contact and exchange. Except, perhaps, for the church grounds, where people mingled after mass. At least, that is how I remember it. And I remember the wariness and vigilance which characterised the way I inhabited the social spaces of my world.
My mother and father moved to Crumlin from Ranelagh, where they had been renting a one-roomed flat, after their marriage in 1938.
I imagine my mother, walking out her door in Ranelagh, with her infant children, into the carnival of village life. Friends and relatives were all around. Her husband, my father, worked in the grocery shop down the street. Her in-laws were minutes away, in Pembroke Cottages in Donnybrook. She herself was from Newcastle in Wicklow, but in Ranelagh she told me she felt part of the community.
A year later when she stepped outside the door of her new Corporation house, she found herself in a vast complex of houses with no centre, unless you count the giant roundabout at Clonmacnoise Road as a centre. I imagine, she must have felt lost, almost like a refugee. An archetypal fear of all refugees relates to the loss of identity in a new place, where nobody knows who you are. In Ranelagh, the people who rented the room next to my parents were cousins. My father’s bother and his wife were neighbours. His extended family were all around them. In accepting a new house, my parents, like all their new neighbours, had no idea about the people with whom they would be living in close proximity, and they were far away from the part of the city and the people they knew and loved. Brendan Behan famously likened Crumlin to Siberia, when his family moved there from the inner city.
Of course, new friendships were made in the new suburb, and alliances were formed and a community, of sorts, was formed. But for me, growing up, Crumlin always had a provisional, temporary feeling, a place to be before you could move back home, wherever home was. On Sundays when my father brought me to visit his sisters, we always ended up in Herbert Park, a stone’s throw from Pembroke Cottages where he grew up and where the family still lived.
I am aware that my family, my parents and brothers and sisters, have reason to be grateful for the low-rent housing the state provided for us. But in all honesty, I feel little connection to the place where I grew up – the history, the culture, the land, the families – in a way that I imagine someone from a townland in Laois or someone from Cong and its hinterland night feel connected to their home place or a Venetian might feel connected to their quarter of the city.
The Corporation scheme was a pop-up project that erased all traces of what had been there before. We might as well have been living on the moon. And I think you need to feel an emotional connection to a place, and a sense of psychological security, to truly belong there.
And I did try to belong. I played soccer for the local club. And when I was sixteen or so, a young priest, Dave Roughneen, came to work in the parish. He was a community activist. Under his prompting, a local development council was established. I got involved in some of the council’s activities, co-ordinating the first two Summer Projects, in 1977 and 1978, while I was a student in UCD. Looking back, the experience put me in touch with good people while, simultaneously, strengthening my resolve to escape the constrictions of life in that place. It convinced me that there was a better world elsewhere, though I had no clear conception where ‘elsewhere’ was.
I think my mother also believed that there was a better world elsewhere. When her family was raised, she moved back to Wicklow. She wanted to be near her surviving siblings but also close to the landscape – the mountains, the sky and the sea – that she remembered from her childhood. Crumlin provided her with a house, sturdy and well-built, where she and my father raised their children. But, for her, it was a place without deep roots, that invisible network of rhizomes that bind people to a place.
It is universally acknowledged that now, in Ireland, the state needs another systematic programme of public housing to tackle the current housing crisis, such as those undertaken in the 1930s and 1940s. We need affordable houses for families, especially in Dublin where the crisis is most acute. We are told that there is enough state-land available for this purpose. But I think we will need something more ephemeral but no less vital, than houses: a sense of place; the psychological geography of belonging, and the spiritual geography of connection to the place where you live, the place you call home. And creating the conditions in which a sense of belonging and connection can flourish may prove the greatest challenge of all.
And so, I envy friends and acquaintances whose family have lived in the one place for generations; who know the lie of their land; the sloping hills and marshy borderlands; the fields they identify by name; the fairy fort and the ancient trees; the network of paths and trails that crisscross, and pull together all the strands of the land, and the landscape, that they call ‘home’.
In the Outer Hebrides they have a word for a deep-seated sense of belonging to the family place, the place of your ancestors; the place where your roots run deep: The word is ‘cianalas’.
One of the consequences of coming at the end of a big family, the last of eight children born over three decades, is that I have few recollections of my grandparents. In fact, on my father’s side, both my grandparents had died before I was born. Maybe this absence explains why I have become something of the family historian and genealogist, the one who searches for the roots of the family.
And my searches have brought me to interesting places. My father was reticent on the subject of his parents. Although born and raised in Dublin, my father loved horses and livestock and each year brought me and my brother to the Spring Show in the RDS. His father, my grandfather, was the stableman for the bakery firm, Johnson, Mooney and O’Brien, and exhibited horses in the Industrial Classes at the show. Before coming to Dublin, my grandfather, the son of a landless agricultural labourer, worked as a farmhand on an estate in County Cavan. My grandmother was the daughter of the Church of Ireland Land Steward, who managed the estate. In as much as I can piece together the story, my grandfather and grandmother eloped to Dublin and married in a Catholic Church. For the rest of her life, my grandmother followed the rule of Rome, and had no contact with her Protestant family.
My grandmother has intrigued me all my life, with her crossing of religious and class boundaries. Was the life she led worth the sacrifices she made? Was the family she created compensation for the family she left behind? A few years ago, in trying to answer these questions, I traced the place of her birth to an estate near Inistioge in County Kilkenny, where her father, my great-grandfather, was then the Land Steward.
I don’t know what I expected to discover as I stood in the farmyard of the house where my grandmother was born. But, however much I wanted to, I did not identify that spot, that patch of earth, as my home place or feel connected to my ancestor, as I stood upon it.
Since then, I have traipsed the countryside in search of other places of origin. In the case of my paternal grandfather, this brought me to a wet field in a townland near Ballyconnell in Cavan, where a dwelling once stood, a labourer’s cottage, according to census records, but I found no trace of it, and felt little psychological or spiritual connection to that boggy acre.
And I have stood before a cottage in Merrion, County Dublin, that was once a gardener’s cottage for an estate that no longer exists, where my maternal grandmother was born. In Kevin Street, in Dublin, there is an empty space and the spectre of a building where my maternal grandfather was born. His mother and father died young and he was sent to the Industrial School in Artane and, later, was sent from the school to work as a farm labourer in County Meath.
An orphan, a farm labourer and a land-steward’s daughter, cut off from her family – these are my ancestors. They owned nothing and there is little trace of their presence in the places where they were born. I have no way of knowing but I doubt they had any deep-seated sense of belonging, any ‘cianalas’, much as they might have desired it.
I often think the Great Famine inflicted a psychic wound on the nation, which has yet to be fully healed and which still affects the descendants of those who were displaced and made homeless and landless, in the social and personal upheaval, and the social engineering that followed that catastrophe. I think my family history of landlessness and displacement is a common one.
In writing about the later poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney suggests that when he (Kavanagh) writes about places, they are less real places and more luminous spaces within his mind. I often wonder is there such a thing as a placeless home? An imagined somewhere that is luminous in your mind. |And if there is such thing as a placeless home, can you feel a longing for this homeplace that never existed in the real world? Can you grieve for your imagined ancestral home, though your ancestors never inhabited such a place, except in your imagination?
In the end, is belonging a matter of will and imagination, as much as biography and family history? I have little choice but to think so. And I feel at one with the Medieval poet who made the simple declaration: I am of Ireland. Or further back to Amergin, the mythological poet of the Milesians. Arriving in the Bay of Kenmare, he stepped from his ship onto the holy land of Ireland with a poem that both claims possession of the island and twins his soul to the spirit of the place:
I am the wind of the sea, he says
I am the rolling wave
I am the voice of the ocean
I am the hawk above the cliff
I am the sunlit dewdrop
I am the finest of meadow flowers
As for me, well, I am of Ireland. And the homeplace I never knew, because it does not exist, is a luminous space in my mind.
So, where does that leave me? Well, here in Cong, for starters, engaged in making a community. And this is the kind of community in which I feel secure: a community that is linked to a place; a community that is loose-limbed, inter-personal, inter-subjective. A community that is provisional, improvised, in many ways, and temporary; a community which demonstrates a mutual commitment to dialogue, critical thinking and empathy. A community that exists for a purpose.
For me, the temporal or the temporary aspect of this community is important. When we work together on a project for a short time, we are less likely to sabotage our best instincts for empathy and connection; less likely to split off into factions and rival groups.
There is something about the scale of the gathering that facilitates the relationship-building upon which the project depends, and the sense of security, belonging and connection, which underpins it. There is something about conversations that are open, other-seeking, personal and potentiating that allow a sense of community to flourish; that allow connections to be made and sustained. And there is something about the social virtues of goodwill, good faith and friendship which cultivate solidarity.
And I feel energised by the opportunity to contribute to this temporary, robust community, a community that inspires, all the more so for being transient and provisional.
I don’t know if I have a single metaphor that adequately conveys my sense of this community. And so I offer this one, not as an all-encompassing and definitive image but as something partial yet, I hope, no less powerful for that.
It is the image of the murmuration of starlings, that dazzling choreographed dance, where all the individual birds act in concert, with an apparent unity of purpose, that is instinctive, inspiring and beautiful. And which ends as suddenly as it began.
Until the next time when the individuals come together to Congregate, to act in concert, to inspire.
Kevin Mc Dermott, August, 2019.