Remembering not to remember

‘It was as if the collective unconscious of the old people had made a communal decision in the privacy of their souls’

Ernest Blythe, poet Brendan Kennelly and poet Austin Clarke in a picture from 1970. photograph: kevin mcmahon/the irish times

Ernest Blythe, poet Brendan Kennelly and poet Austin Clarke in a picture from 1970. photograph: kevin mcmahon/the irish times


“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

I had a teacher at National School long ago. She was a brilliant teacher. This was the era of prefabs and caravans when the schools weren’t big enough and the classes were overflowing with kids. Sometimes she had to teach more than one class together and we had to literally climb over desks and chairs to get out of the room.

And yet anytime I meet someone today who was at school with me fadó, fadó – (many don’t live here in Ireland anymore – the school was in the west of Ireland) they all say that this teacher was the best of them all. She kept discipline without us even realizing it and although, like the rest of us there, she wasn’t from the Gaeltacht she gave every boy in that class a love of Irish and a positive attitude towards a language which many only associated with a dead and forgotten time.

We had a nature table with sycamore spinners and old bird’s nests. It was over near the window so that those of us with poor sight could always take a break or sneak a peek at the magical items it contained. This teacher’s two favourite subjects were Nature Studies and History and she was a very proud of her Irishness. She was unashamed of it. She told us about all the heroes and idealists of old and we had those black-and-white posters of the 1916 leaders on our walls at home.

I can still see them in my mind’s eye Pearse, spotless and neat in his jacket and tie, Kevin Barry in his football jersey, his face staring out into the future like a child that has waited patiently for the fateful moment to reveal itself.

One day our teacher asked those of us who had elderly relatives leaving nearby or at home with us – (and there were many of us who had) – about the past, to ask them what they remembered from their childhood – the War of Independence, or the Civil War or the Black and Tans or any stories they might have heard in turn from their parents and grandparents about the Famine or when the nation was in its period of greatest crisis.

It was an oral history project. Over the next few days, our teacher waited patiently for the results to come in. There was nothing. None of us could prise any information from the older generation. Not a word about the past. Not a gig out of them. The project went nowhere. The past was the past. It was gone.

The closest we got to an explanation for the veil of silence that engulfed the older people was that it was a sad time, a different time. It was time when the people were very poor and had suffered a great deal. No-one needed to remember this time or be reminded of it. I will never forget the look of disappointment or hurt (almost) on my idealistic teacher’s eyes as she asked the lads in my class each day if they had any stories. It was as if the collective unconscious of the old people had made a communal decision in the privacy of their souls.

For them, the past belonged to the era of forgotten voices and even forgotten languages. What was said back then – all those countless words, they were best forgotten. Our teacher shrugged off her disappointment and within a week or two it too was a thing of the past. We had other topics to study, other projects to complete.

Visual era
We live in the visual era today anyway don’t we – rather than the era of the “word”? We have news 24/7. We have the web. The “word” isn’t what it once was. I was reminded of all of these things recently while reading a memoir by Ernest Blythe relating to the incarceration of Republican prisoners in Reading Prison immediately after the 1916 Rising. The memoir – Gaeil Á Múscailt (Sáirséal agus Dill/Cló Iar-Chonnachta) – was written in Irish and published for the first time in 1973, a long time after the events described in the book took place.

At one point in the narrative Blythe describes how, having been arrested and imprisoned immediately prior to the Rising, he was stressed and agitated for weeks as he waited to hear word about what had happened to his Irish Volunteer and IRB comrades back in Ireland. He had a hint that something momentous had happened back in Ireland but his British captors kept him isolated from anyone with an Irish connection and didn’t allow him to read any newspapers; they gave him romantic novels to read instead.

He was in Gloucester Prison for a short time before being transferred to Reading where he met many other Irish prisoners – members of the Irish Volunteers, the IRB and the Citizen Army. He didn’t know whether his friends were alive or dead and as he was one of the last of the Republican prisoners to arrive in Reading Jail, he was the last to know the details of what had taken place during Easter Week and the subsequent executions.

It was “old news” by the time he reached Reading. In this fascinating memoir, Blythe various characters he came across in Reading and he is very honest about the people he liked and those whom he found difficult. He also recounts the classes in the Irish language and military tactics, the handball leagues they organised and the cleaning, the washing, the sewing and the cooking that different prisoners undertook to pass the time.

He also recounts the various pranks the prisoners played on one another to avoid going mad given that they were kept in such confined conditions, and spent 23 out of 24 hours indoors and under lock-and-key.

Because he wrote in Irish, the number of people who read this memoir of his was probably very small, even in 1973 when it was published.

His is a fascinating book. It’s style is direct and is the opposite in many ways of the grandiose ceremonies and commemorations that currently recall that era of Irish life and the people who lived it. In Blythe’s book, the past comes alive as relating to ordinary people who found themselves in an extraordinary time. The past reveals its secrets – but only in its own time.

The past incorporates different notions of time than does the present. It moves at a different pace. It grows and develops like a piece of art until it demands expression. Because its nature is different or unfamiliar, the past has a way of creeping up on us – it has hidden scars on it that don’t go away, like words engraved on an old skin or the branch of a fallen tree.

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