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Sunday, 24 March 2013

Back Home to Sligo


“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
(L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between)

I had occasion recently to visit a part of my past, a period immensely important and formative for me, a place which was, for seven years, both focus and circumference of my whole world, the centrality of which was so self-evident to me that I could not then imagine that it would ever be otherwise in my life.

I was seventeen years old when I left Sligo. The leaving was a wrench, soul-tearing, ambiguous; on the one hand I was taking a self-chosen step into a different world, a new life, for I had decided to join the Dominican Order, on the other hand I was leaving nearly everything and everyone I knew behind me. The parting was all the more radical, for at the same time, my father was transferred and our whole family moved to the other end of the country. Although I was to return there frequently in the years that followed, the basic bond was broken; the continuous connection formed by the unity of family and place was gone. It meant that the inevitable decay of most youthful friendships was greatly accelerated in my case, for home had been sundered and the most basic part of it had moved elsewhere.

It hurt, that sundering. I remember feeling very aggrieved, with the unthinking, naïve selfishness of youth, that my parents had moved away from Sligo while at the same time being perfectly self-righteous about my own move into a new life, which also took me to other places. But I recovered. After all, in the following years, I still went back there, even if not as frequently or for as long as I might have wished, and I still retained my basic feeling of identity with and love for the place. Given my peripatetic history, the simple question “Where are you from?” has always been a little problematic for me, but Sligo still remains one of the default answers.

After I was ordained a Catholic priest, therefore, in 1985, it was completely clear to me that Sligo would be one of the places where I would celebrate a formal “First Mass.” And if someone had told me that day that it would be twenty eight years before I would return, I would have laughed in disbelief.

But that is what happened. In the following year, primed by the potent fuse of love, my life exploded into scintillating chunks and shards of new directions, possibilities, preoccupations and priorities. I found myself in a different country, living a very different life, with a wife and baby daughter, and practical decisions concerning job and career to be made and carried through. While I continued to visit Ireland throughout the following nearly three decades, limitations of time and practical considerations somehow never made the journey to the north-west of the country possible.

Another in my family had made a very different choice; my sister, Máire, had found her way back to Sligo and has lived in the coastal village of Strandhill, six miles from the main town, for many years now. So when she invited the whole family to join her in celebrating her fiftieth birthday this month I finally found myself on my way back to the town of my youth, on a journey into the world of my own memories and the contrast between their local background and the reality of the present.

Ireland has changed enormously since the mid-1980s. The country I left was still, for the most part, traditional and conservative. It was poor, in recession, unable to provide attractive prospects for many of my generation, who were leaving to find decent, interesting jobs and adventure in a world of much wider horizons. But then the Celtic Tiger came, nurtured in its infancy by a massive transfer of structural funds from Europe. It grew up, roared mightily for around ten years before becoming so bloated on a diet of hubris, fantasy and speculative funny games with international capital that it crawled into a corner and died – of a strange combination of economic gluttony and malnutrition.

The traces of all this were clear to be seen on my journey, from the new motorway leading out of Dublin to the empty property developments in towns like Carrick-on-Shannon along the way. Even the approach to Sligo was completely different to that of my memories; the towns of Collooney and Ballysadare bypassed, a new road to the town itself, leading to a new bridge across the Garavogue river.

The following morning, Saturday, I spent a couple of hours walking around town. It was very strange. The basic geographical skeleton remained as I remembered it but much of the flesh on the bones had changed; new buildings, new shops and businesses in old buildings. Deeper, stranger changes too; children of African and Asian backgrounds speaking with the distinctive Sligo accent, a Polish butcher’s shop – signs of the internationalisation of Ireland through immigrants, drawn by the boom of the Tiger years, something unimaginable in the mono-cultural world of my youth in the seventies when Ireland was a country which exported rather than imported people. In the past five years the export has begun once more.

I knew, of course, that things would not be as I remembered them; I had no expectations that the place would spontaneously open its arms to me, recognising and welcoming the long lost son. It was curiosity which led my steps, a desire to see just what had changed. But as my feet led me along the streets I had walked so often as a teenager, I found myself becoming more detached. The time elapsed was just too great, the changes – perhaps, most of all, the changes in myself – too profound. Though I had already intellectually known that there is no such thing as time travel, that the past is irrevocably gone, it was something more to really practically experience it in this fashion. “Something’s lost and something’s gained,” Joni Mitchell sings, “in living every day.” Over ten thousand days had past since I last set foot in Sligo, so much lost and so much gained in all that time that it had, I thought, become impossible to regain any sort of deep contemporary contact.

And so my urge to walk further waned. There was a Sligo which was real for me, that town which had been the stage for my life during those oh so intense years of the ending of childhood and the unbearably exciting and frightening growth into increasing adulthood, but it had little to do with the town in which I now found myself. Looking at my watch, I realised that I still had an hour before the next bus would leave for Strandhill where I was saying. Finding myself at the junction of Wine Street and Quay Street, I noticed that Lyons’ Café was still there and decided to spend the time I had to wait with a cappuccino.

Climbing the stairs to the hundred and fifty year old café, I discovered that here at least much remained as I remembered it. Oh, the menu is more extensive, sophisticated and cosmopolitan but someone has been careful to preserve the basic character of the place and the small tables and wooden chairs are still the same as they were in the seventies when this was one of the favourite haunts of the teenagers of the town. There weren’t all that many places where the boys from Summerhill College and the girls from the two nuns’ schools could meet on common ground and do all those things which are so important for teenagers; preening, flirting, talking, teasing, laughing, showing off, making dates and plans … just hanging out and wasting time. Lyons’ was one of the few establishments back then which tolerated us, though we were all experts in making a Coke or a coffee last for a whole afternoon, far more interested in each other than in giving custom to the café. Today the coffee was good and the place, I was glad to see, was doing a brisk business.

As I drank a second cappuccino, I tried to understand what I was doing; what I had expected of my perambulation and what exactly I had experienced. Perhaps some part of me had been hoping for the kind of epiphany described by Proust in his famous madeleine episode in À la recherche du temps perdu, where a particular taste throws his protagonist completely into a memory of the past. If so, it didn’t happen for me; sitting there in the café, many recollections of my youthful years did come to mind, but still far away and detached from me, the teenagers of the mid-seventies populating the room around me like barely perceived, transparent ghosts. Reality, I thought, was more like L.P. Hartley described it, the past is a foreign country.

And then, that evening at my sister’s party, I had an encounter which changed everything. One of the guests was someone I had known back in the time, the memories of which I had been attempting to recall with my walkabout through town. She was another member of that clique to which I had belonged as a teenager – to be honest, I’d had quite a crush on her when I was sixteen, but had been too uncertain and insecure to ever mention it to her then, or to attempt to move it beyond the confused desires of my youthful wishes into the realm of practical action. Now we were meeting again after more than thirty five years of life and all that it had done with us during that time. I had gone away and never returned; she had left for a number of years but had come back, and married another of my friends from that time. Our children are now older than we were back then.

And as we talked, I suddenly I realised that I had somehow come to the place I had been looking for that morning. Having exchanged the broad outlines of our stories of the long interim, we started reminiscing together about that faraway world of our youth. I discovered myself (and so, in a real sense, rediscovered my earlier self) asking about people I hadn’t thought of for decades and she (who had remained in – or, rather, returned to – Sligo) knew a lot of the answers. We found ourselves sharing memories of things that we had done together, of events commonly experienced. The past, which had seemed so irretrievably far away to me just a few hours earlier, was suddenly just around the last corner we had turned, the years between not negated but somehow bridged. It occurred to me later that I’d had this kind of experience on a number of occasions over the past decade or so, a period where I have had the great good fortune to reconnect with quite a few friends with whom I had lost contact. It’s what happens when you meet old friends and discover that you can, amazingly, just pick up where you left off.

And I realised a truth – at least something that is true for me. While place is important (and one would suffer from some kind of serious deficiency not to cherish the beauty of Sligo, magnificently set as it is on an Atlantic bay to the west, framed by the mountains of Benbulben to the north and Knocknarea to the south), in the end it is people and not place which are more central to a feeling of belonging, of home. And though in memory we organise things by assigning them a location, this is only background, the setting of the stage of life on which we perform the stories of our lives in interaction with others. In my case, I would wager (and I suspect that my mistake is not uncommon) that I had tended to confuse the importance of people in my life, and the stories we created together, with the place in which these stories took place. Setting is of course important – context is everything, as Derrida once remarked – but people, not place, are the most significant component of context.

It is a realisation with which I, for one, am quite content.

"Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea."

Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill




Pictures retrieved from:
http://www.blogspot.com/_paRKpxGMuCE/Sttfal6-u6I/AAAAAAAABpw/2MOzvtaXyz8/s400/0909_HSligoTown.jpg 
http://www.askaboutireland.ie/_internal/gxml!0/2ocqn930ubywvi8z0wl9dhefnm6z926$eb12sbh0qz22rny8m0x0tay0mjelewi 
http://www.menupages.ie/images/550x344/6585_lyons_cafe.jpg 
http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_paRKpxGMuCE/StGZmggzegI/AAAAAAAABnA/8Mi7feGEPz8/s1600-h/0909_FBenbulben.jpg





Sunday, 24 February 2013

Family Histories 1: The Cowboy



It was a fine Sunday morning in early summer 1865. James Hunt opened the door of his new home and looked south over the road and the downward sloping land towards the lake. He gave a sigh of contentment and muttered a brief prayer of thanks in Irish to the mother of God.

It had been a long, hard journey to this point of his life, but he could now allow himself a feeling of achievement that he had finally managed to be standing here this morning, on his own land in the townland of Smutternagh, on the shores of Lough Key, in the county Roscommon. Though the term “his own land” was a relative one; the land belonged to the King-Harmon family as did all the land in Smutternagh and thousands of acres more all around Boyle. Indeed, as far as his own family memories extended back, through the hard years scratching a living from a barely usable Curlew mountain allotment, back to the fabled days of comfort on good land in the townland of Eastersnow on the Plains of Boyle up to their catastrophic eviction in the 1830s, the landlords had always been the King family – whose place in the Anglo-Irish stratosphere had been achieved with the noble title of Lorton.

As his gaze moved across the green wooded islands on the lake, over to Rockingham House, the residence of the King-Harmons, he reflected that beyond lay the Plains of Boyle – and Eastersnow. He had been born there, but was only a little boy when Lord Lorton had decided that the holdings there were too small for modern progressive farming. He had evicted the smallholders, including James’ father and his family, to restructure his lands there into bigger tenancies, suitable for large-scale cattle farming. The growing cities of industrial England had an insatiable appetite for beef, and prosperous cattle-tending tenants could pay better and more certain rents.

His father, Thomas, had never really got over it. On his deathbed, he urged his sons to do everything possible to regain the family holding there. It was their birthright, he always claimed, taken from them by the heartlessness of English landlords. The tribulations of the Hunt family mirrored the tribulations of all the Gael, dispossessed and persecuted in their own country by a foreign invader.

Lord Lorton doubtlessly would have seen it differently. Had he not accepted responsibility for the evicted tenants and given them an alternative, land reclaimed from the mountain in the townland of Cornameelta? Thomas Hunt could only laugh bitterly – an exchange of land valued at 18 shillings an acre for land valued at 3 shillings an acre! Land where you could barely grow a few potatoes, good for nothing else except a few scrawny sheep and cattle, who could hardly find enough grazing there to put meat on their bones.

A blessing in disguise perhaps; scratching a living from the side of the mountain in Cornameelta, relying on scrawny sheep and cattle, may have helped the Hunts avoid the fate of millions of Irish who had been living on tiny tenancies and relying completely on potatoes for their sustenance. When the blight came, three years running in the 1840s, the whole family survived where a million others died.

James looked over the fields which were now his and considered the strange connection his family had with them. For, though his tenancy was new, he had memories of this farm from his childhood; after they had been evicted from their holding in Eastersnow, the family had spent a brief period here, sharing the land with a family called Brady. But the Bradys had sucked up to the land agent and had been awarded tenure while the Hunts had to move on.

You couldn’t trust the Bradys, his father had always said. During the Famine years, a Brady had led a group of desperate hungry thieves from Smutternagh to steal a bullock from the Hunts, drive it back here and slaughter it for food. It couldn’t be proved, of course, but the Bradys knew that the Hunts had a way with cattle and that it would be relatively easy to rob a Hunt animal from the sprawling common mountainside at Cornameelta.

Well, the Bradys were gone now, along with the Monaghans who had lived in the other half of the house at the door of which he was standing. One of the Monaghans, who had given up their tenancy earlier in favour of shopkeeping in Sligo, had told him that Brady had lost his taste for farming and wanted to emigrate. James had visited him, here in this house, and had agreed to pay the passage for the Brady family from Sligo to Scotland thus vacating the farm.

Just one expense among many involved in securing this new future for himself and the family he would found. Between the passage for the Bradys, the backhander paid to Lord Lorton’s land agent, the first year’s rent, the cost of the stock which would be the basic business of the farm, and even furniture (for the Bradys had left nothing in the house but one fire-iron), he reckoned the whole venture would finish up costing him ₤100, everything he had managed to scratch together over the previous fifteen years.

For, as a young man, in the years immediately after the Great Hunger, James had decided to try to earn his living by putting the one skill he had to practical use, his knowledge of cattle. Not that he had much choice. His brother Thomas would take over the paltry tenancy on the Cornameelta mountain; James was left with the option of either emigrating or trying to survive somehow in the collective trauma which was post-famine Ireland. He’d started to trade in cattle, travelling all over the north Connacht counties, Roscommon and Sligo, Leitrim and Mayo, buying store cattle from individual farmers or at small fairs and driving them to the port of Sligo, or Derry, or even occasionally all the way to Dublin, to sell them at a profit for export to the industrial cities of Britain.

Drovers they were called in Ireland, those men who earned a living buying and selling cattle. They were the original cowboys, though the Irish version didn’t ride horses. They walked, painstakingly gathering their herds and driving them along the narrow winding roads towards the larger fairs, sleeping in barns, or under hedges, walking behind the cattle, whacking them occasionally on the withers with sally rods to keep them under control and moving in the right direction.

In following this profession, James was living and acting in a way which went back thousands of years in Irish history. At the end of the 12th Century, Giraldus Cambrensis distainfully described the native Gaels’ reliance on cattle in his Topographica Hibernica, and the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the great Irish epic, comparable with the Ramayana or the Illiad, is, in essence, the story of a cattle raid. The story of the attack by the men of Connacht on Ulster to steal Cooley’s bull, the single-handed defence of Ulster by the young hero, Cuchullain, and all the other tales and destinies decribed in the saga, begins with Queen Maeve’s jealousy of the fine bull owned by her husband and her determination to obtain a finer one for herself. The Táin is traditionally dated as taking place in the first century A.D. Maeve’s capital was at Cruachan (today’s Rathcroghan) and is less than 20 km as the crow flies from Eastersnow. If there is an historical core event at the basis of the Táin, then it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a distant ancestor of James Hunt was a member of the raiding party which set out at the behest of their warrior queen to salvage her pride and honour by stealing a bull owned by a prosperous farmer in Ulster. Eighteen hundred years later, my great-grandfather spent around fifteen years of his life doing much the same thing, though unlike his ancestor (and the Bradys), he paid for the cattle which came into his possession.

His father’s dream had been a return to Eastersnow. Given the fact that the small tenancies there had been consolidated into much larger farms, James realised that he could not achieve this; but Smutternagh was an acceptable compromise and he was content.

As he stood there, surveying his new domain, a man came up the road and greeted him. In the way of the customary easy hospitality then common, James invited him into his new home to share his breakfast of boiled potatoes and a salted herring. The stranger accepted and the two ate together. When the meal was over the visitor remarked, “I must be a very humble man to sit down to breakfast with a new tenant and I married to Lord Lorton’s daughter.”

While most tenants had little or no contact with the Anglo-Irish ascendancy living in the big houses, there was of course one major exception; those who took positions in service. Lord Lorton had something of a reputation for an appetite for pretty young servant girls, so the visitor’s comment may well have been more than just an empty boast. If I had not decided to limit this account, as far as possible, to facts which were diligently researched by James’ grandson, my late Uncle Séamus, I might be moved to speculate as to the identity of the visitor, since he was certainly one of the neighbours. I might begin to wonder about the fact that the son of Odie McLoughlin (whose farm was a couple of hundred yards up the road from the Hunt place), Pat, who was born around 1860, was shown special favour by the landlord and was assisted by him to build the first two-story house in the townland. But as Pat McLoughlin was my other paternal great-grandfather, I am not going to continue my thoughts in this direction, which is, after all, nothing more than pure speculation …

Returning to verifiable facts, James Hunt ultimately had ten children, of whom six were girls. The five oldest girls all emigrated to the USA while in their late teens. None of them ever took a position in service to the King-Harmon family at Rockingham House on the other side of the lake.

Nearly a hundred and fifty years later, James’ small tenancy of twenty one statute acres now forms the nucleus of a much larger unit, farmed by my cousin, who has built himself a fine new house beside the one James Hunt moved into. That small Irish cottage still stands, though it is no longer inhabited. And while the population of Smutternagh has been decreasing for nearly a hundred years now, there are still descendants of James Hunt there. And will be, hopefully, for a long time to come.



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