Remembering what others wish you to forget

Book sheds new light on rural life in Ireland

Zadie Smith – ‘The past is always tense, the future perfect.’ photograph: cyril byrne/the irish times

Zadie Smith – ‘The past is always tense, the future perfect.’ photograph: cyril byrne/the irish times


“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” – George Orwell

Recent decades have seen an enormous resurgence in the arts of memoir and life writing. Nowhere is this truer than in Ireland and other postcolonial countries, where memoir has functioned to regenerate and re-present meaningful incidents and events in the pasts of particular individuals or cultural groups.

Even very recently, in the case of some of the harshest and murkiest aspects of Ireland’s “institutional” past as relating to the confinement of people within institutions run by Church and State, the reliance on oral tradition and individual memory has manifested itself once more. Deeply problematic as oral traditions and sources can be, they are often the only thing that we Irish now have, given our punitive and violent history, a history of displacement.

These aspects of our social history were obliterated over time however, partly as a consequence of our centuries-long colonial status but also because of the change from the Irish language to English in most parts of the country. The truth is that many long-marginalized, poorer and “outsider” groups in Irish society, including the “wandering poor” are almost completely reliant on whatever knowledge can still be sourced in Irish language records and in the oral tradition.

The British didn’t distinguish between the different strata of Irish; they wrote their own history, the history that defines the “winners” in many respects. A people such as the Irish Travellers – to name but one – are very-reliant on whatever information has been passed down to them through the oral and Gaelic traditions, and it is only with the congruence of both oral tradition and written sources that we really begin to form a truer picture of what might have happened in the past – that rare congruence of “epistemes” or knowledges – as encompassed in Irish Traveller woman Mary Warde’sfascinating memoir The Turn of the Hand: An Memoir from the Irish Margins (2010) – for example.

And even then, we never find what we thought we would. As British novelist Zadie Smith once put it – “The past is always tense, the future perfect.” In the case of Ireland, the situation is more complex still given the loss of language and culture, the widespread dispersal of people through mass emigration and the silencing of the Irish-language sources – all of which ensures only a very hazy picture of our past.

What do you get if, as has happened in recent generations, the Irish-language sources are ignored and never consulted or studied as part of history?

At best, you get either what you sought or what you thought you’d get – a confirmation of what you suspected was true all along.

At worst, you get a completely “half-baked” history, a constructed or invented history that is worth next to nothing, what Professor Michael Cronin has termed a “half-picture” or a “dual silencing”.

You might as well be looking at a blurred photograph because the world you see is distorted and out-of-focus. It is a world that is unrecognizable – simply because it never existed in the first place.

The necessity for historians of Irish social history to engage with and understand the Irish-language sources has never been more vital. This is why the appearance of An Gleann: The Glen: Recollections of a Lost World (Arlen House/Cló Iar-Chonnacht) is important.

This book – which I have translated to English – is a social history and a life history all in one, as written in Irish originally, by Séamus Ó Maolchatha (1884-1968) who grew up on the border between Tipperary and Waterford, in a mountainous area of the Knockmealdowns, an area which remained isolated to such an extent that Irish survived as a spoken language there until the 1940s.

Ó Maolchatha’sparents were both Irish speakers, from Newcastle in South Tipperary originally. His father was Thomas Mulcahy, a farm labourer, and his mother was Margaret Burke.

After attending national school in Newcastle, Séamus went to the teacher training college in De La Salle, Waterford, beforereturning home where he spent 44 years working as a teacher in Grange National School.

He was one of the last experts on the Irish dialect of County Tipperary and published short stories and essays over the years in newspapers and journals such as Scéala Éireann. In addition, he translated the works of a number of French playwrights into Irish.

Although initially written in 1934, his Irish-language memoir An Gleann agus a Raibh Ann wasn’t published until almost thirty years later in 1963, just a few years prior to Ó Maolchatha’s death. Even then, his book was in an abridged and edited form and certain chapters from his original manuscript remained unpublished.

Ó Maochatha was both brave and radical for his time because he mentioned such “taboo” subjects of suicide, mental illness, greed for land and murder – i.e. killers-for-hire whowere willing to remove people from particular landholdings during the Famine era for a small fee so that others could take over the land – as part of his narrative.

Of particular interest in Ó Maolchatha’s narrative are his descriptions of the people who still wandered or begged from place to place and who lodged with local people up until the late-1940s, a small number of whom had physical or intellectual difficulties and who managed to avoid the institutionalization that became increasingly common as the 20th century progressed and the new nation-state and its processes tightened their grip.

Almost a century after he first recorded it, the truth as Ó Maolchatha wrote it will reveal itself. What remained hidden for a long time will see the light.

An Gleann/The Glen: Recollections from a Lost World is published by Arlen House/Cló Iar-Chonnacht and distributed in the US by Syracuse University Press.

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