Stories from my Grandmother


GRANDMA was a jailbird. The confirmation of this fact, a few months ago, was strangely comical and I laughed nervously as I read the document in my hand that confirmed it: "Prisoner Index No. 13286, O'Toole, Maggie, Tomduff, Borris, Carlow".

Still doubtful, I checked the Kilmainham Gaol register and found an inquiry after her from March 26th, 1923. This was apparently, "one of many letters written by her mother, my great grandmother, Mary Anne Murphy O'Toole, in a campaign to have her 14 year old eldest child released from prison.

Hold on a minute. How could this girl possibly have grown to become my 88 year old grandmother, who lives in the US and whose greatest past offence, in my mind, was providing me with forbidden butterscotch or mint sweets?

This sense of confusion began the moment I stepped off the plane in June 1995, armed with 50 or more hours of interviews with my grandmother and a deep curiosity about my parents' and grandparents' emigration to New York. Although I'd travelled to Ireland over a dozen times as a child, this time I was here as an adult to write my grandmother's life story and I was deeply sceptical as to the accuracy of the interviews.

There was no doubt she was a captivating storyteller, but journalists and biographers usually find that many stories are false; merely a combination of gossip, half truths and misinformation. My numerous discoveries over the past 16 months concerning Margaret O'Toole Rice, the woman for whom I was named, have made me put aside my scepticism and reassess my attitude towards the truth in ordinary lives.

While I was growing up in New York, I'd heard grandma tell her story about running dispatches during the Civil War but I thought it was just that: a story. She lived on the third floor of our house in Long Island and although I was frightened by anyone without teeth, a decidedly American obsession, I found a solution to the problem in order to hear her tales. After dinner each night, I ran up the stairs shouting: "Grandma, put your teeth in, I'm coming up."

There she sat, as if she'd never moved from the day before, in her armchair crocheting an afghan for one relative or another. I'd pick up one of the brightly coloured balls of yarn from her basket, sit on the floor next to her and ask her a question: "Who is this afghan for, grandma?" or say "Tell me again what it was like in prison", knowing full well that it would release another tale of that strange country where my parents were born.

According to my grandmother: "In Kilmainham, I got this itch, some sort of rash between your hands. I was the only one who got it, because I was younger, or whatever. I had to be isolated from the others, getting soaks and baths, and you had to scrub yourself and it used to bleed. I was about three weeks on it, and that's all on my own. I got to choose my own cell, because they were idle. I chose the one where Count Plunkett and his daughter in law were. The moon shone in and you could see Mary painted on the wall, with the light from the outside shining on it."

Once I absorbed her words, I decided to reenact her experience there, even though I was twice her imprisonment age. Last spring, I stood alone in that freezing cold cell and imagined the stern faced Maggie O'Toole praying, as she would, to the religious mural on the wall, with only a candle for warmth and light. The sense of desperation and loneliness I felt in five minutes was overwhelming and my toes were so frozen I thought they'd snap off if I took even one step. I quickly moved to the comfort of a warm room off the cell, tore read her interviews concerning Kilmainham, making my attempt at reliving the past even more pathetic.

Despite the warmth of my grandmother's voice when she spoke, there was an "Are you listening to me girl, because this is important" urgency in the telling. I admit that sometimes I wasn't listening but instead floating on the melodious intonations of her voice and the very roll of the words from her Irish tongue. When the crochet needles fell silent, I knew I was being reeled back in for the climax of the story. Looking up, I'd see my grandmother's dour stare give way to her greatly mischievous laugh and a nod of acknowledgement before she fashioned the grand finale.

According to my grandmother, this gift for dramatic storytelling was inherited from my great grandmother, Mary Ann O'Toole: My mother could read books, and she could sit there and tell you from A to Z. After my father died, her oldest brother used to come up with the horses for a couple of days to help us put in the crops, and she'd start telling stories, and the stories that she read, like Cusped Hands and Lady Isabel and all that. Well, she'd stare at that book, and we used to be so quiet because we couldn't stir, we couldn't make a stir while she was telling the story."

In 1908, the year my grandmother was born, this same Mary Anne O'Toole obtained the Scottish Widows' Fund Calendar and Diary 1908 and started recording important family events within its pages. This index finger long and two thumbs wide book was lovingly maintained by my grandmother's late sister, Katherine, and was loaned to me recently by her daughter, Betty Ryan Cost in of Kilcock, Co Kildare. One of the first entries says: "The first child was born August 20, 1907 an [sic] died a son. The second child was born 2nd August 1908 a daughter haptised by Father John Beechman p. priest of Rathanna the 9th day of August 1908, sponsor Micheal Murphy DMP and Margret Doran of Sisken an called the child Margret.

Over a year after my grandmother was released from prison, Mary Ann wrote one of her last entries in that tiny book: "Maggie O'Toole left Tomduff 13 day October 1924 for London" then finally, "stopt their till 3 Nov an sailed to New York in 1926 wrote by her mother Mary An Toole".

Little did she know that Maggie would return to Ireland in 1932 married, against her mother's wishes, to a man from the parish in Rathanna named Arthur Rice and holding the first of an eventual total of seven children. Although Arthur was the youngest son, he had inherited their new home, Rice's of Ballinvalley, from his mother. Unfortunately, Arthur maintained his rambling ways and, although my grandmother continued to love him, things were very difficult for her working the firm with the children.

By 1959, with Arthur gone for good, she followed her grown children to the US: "We did auction and when I left the road gate the morning we were moving out I thought my heart would break and oh Lord, I cried and cried all the ways to the train. And when I look at that now I say God knew so well that it was hard at that time like everything was. God directed me. But it was hard, and I loved every grain, every blade of grass that grew on that farm."

Ballinvalley, the farm my grandmother loves so well, was never sold and is now being refurbished by the family. Today, at 88 my grandmother has outlived her husband, her siblings, three of her seven children (including my mother) and most of the people she was imprisoned with in Kilmainham. She stopped crocheting the afghans and working her full time job as a nurse only a few years ago. In August, her physical health collapsed and now she lies semi comatose in a hospital bed in Andover, Massachusetts just a few minutes away from her only son Thomas and his family.

Although I have a lifetime of listening to her stories and I've been researching them for the past year and a half, I find that it is only when the people we love are silenced that we really begin to listen. A few years back, Grandma told me she learned how to crochet from her mother but perfected the craft in Kilmainham Gaol as a way to pass the time while telling stories. I still have the little pink, white and blue baby blanket she gave my mother before I was born. If I ever have a daughter, I wonder how many stories that blanket will whisper to her as she sleeps?