Garry Hynes: Human condition is based on people and place

When we lose our communities we lose, at a fundamental level, the sense of who we are

Garry Hynes: ‘When we lose our communities we lose, at a fundamental level, the sense of who we are.’ File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Garry Hynes: ‘When we lose our communities we lose, at a fundamental level, the sense of who we are.’ File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Sometime in December 1959, a 6½-year-old girl looked at a familiar yellow electric clock on top of the wireless in her kitchen. She noticed the clock was stopped at nine minutes to eight. The family was moving house and the clock had been unplugged at that time that morning.

What she didn’t realise then was that she was never to forget that sight and, although the clock stayed in the family in subsequent new homes, she would never look at it again without seeing the actual as well as that shadowy, stopped time.

That person, of course, was me. We were moving from our house built on my grandfather John F Morley’s land at Bothar Buí to Monaghan where my father had been appointed chief executive of the Vocational Educational Committee there.

To this day, when I go to my head for images or ideas they are all in Ballaghaderreen

Subsequently we moved to Galway, my father’s county. I went to secondary school and university there and eventually with friends I founded Druid Theatre in Galway in 1975.

But much as I could never see that clock again without remembering the stopped time, all my experience of the world was to be forever shaped by the landscape of my first six years. To this day, when I go to my head for images or ideas they are all in Ballaghaderreen.

My idea of far away is always the horizon at the end of the flat fields behind our house on Bothar Buí. A stream is the one a field away from the house where I first caught leebeens. A church is St Nathy’s Cathedral with the long, slightly spooky tree-lined walk to the door. A bridge is the one at Crennane where my mother and my aunt took me for walks. A bog is our bit of bog in Aughalaustia.

Just as surely I will go into the earth at the end of my days, the Ballyoughter earth (near where our house was built) from the beginning of my days is in me.

There is nothing new in this. It is the root of Heaney’s poems, of Friel’s plays. Tom Murphy’s Newcastle. The big town near the small town where his plays take place is Galway to Tom’s native Tuam.

Love scene

Many years later – 1980, to be exact – when I had the privilege of being in the Guildhall in Derry for the premiere of one of the most important plays of the 20th-century, Brian Friel’s Translations, my head nearly burst open when we came to the love scene.

There, with brilliant theatrical mastery, he had an Irish woman and an English man, neither of whom spoke the other’s language, express their love for each other by repeating the names of townlands around them.

I will never forget the thrilling moments of them calling out their love through Lis na nGradh, Carraig an Phoill, Carraig na Rí, Loch na nÉan, Loch an Iubhair, Machaire Buidhe, Machaire Mór, Cnoc na nGabhar, Mullach, Port, Tor, Lag.

Incantatory power

Suddenly I understood why the place names of an area I had not lived in since I was six had such an incantatory power over me.

Hearing or speaking words such as Bothar Buí, Kilcolman, Lisacul, Kilmovee, Carracastle, Monasteraden, Gurteen, was, I realised, an expression of my own love of that place.

Everyone dies twice: once when they physically pass from the world, the second when the last person ever says their name

When I hear or speak those names I am hearing the voices of my mother, my aunt, and people long since gone like my grandmother and grandfather and others before them.

In other words, I am affirming that I belong to the world of other people, that the essence of the human condition is the sense of connectedness to people and place. I am affirming that I am part of a community.

When we lose our communities we lose, at a fundamental level, the sense of who we are. And who we were. In a word, we lose our culture.

A short while ago, I read that everyone dies twice; once when they physically pass from the world, the second when the last person ever says their name. To finish I am speaking aloud the names William Morley and Maria Morley, my great-grandfather and great-grandmother respectively.

I never met them. But they are alive still. As is Ballaghaderreen.

Garry Hynes is co-founder and artistic director of the Druid Theatre company. This article is an abridged version of her talk to the Douglas Hyde Conference in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, last Friday.

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