Sunday, 1 May 2016

Bábóg na Bealtaine: Mayday Ritual In Ireland

May Day, on May 1st, is celebrated throughout the northern hemisphere as the first day of summer. In Ireland the roots of the festival lie in ancient Celtic rituals held at the turning point between the seasons of Imbolc and Bealtaine. 

Here in Corca Dhuibhne May brings a new awareness of the garden. Each day, from first light, the air rings with birdsong. Nesting crows creak past overhead. Bees hum on blossoms and tiny, blood-red fuchsia buds shine against deep green foliage. One year behind the old byre I found flowers on a pear tree which, two years previously, we'd liberated from a supermarket. It had been a sad, dry stick with its roots wrapped in plastic. Now each year , as the sap rises, it promises baked fruit puddings flavoured with ginger and honey.

The word Bealtaine (Pronounced something like 'Bee-owl-tin-neh'), said to come from Bel Tine which means 'Bel Fire', is the Irish language word for the month of May. Bel was one of the names of the Celtic sun god whose power was symbolised by fire. Ritual re-enactments of his marriage to the fertility goddess Danú were believed to promote the sunshine and rainfall required for crops to thrive.

In Ireland, as imagery merged across milennia, the blossom which once symbolised Danú's fertility became a symbol, on May altars, of the Virgin Mary's purity. 

The Celts' fertility goddess had three aspects, encompassing potential, fulfilment and death. She was the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone, an image of an optimistic world view which saw ageing as a vital stage in a cycle in which death leads to rebirth as inevitably as winter leads to spring.

In rural Ireland, within living memory, it was a May custom for girls to carry a doll, or bábóg (baw-bogue), decked in lace and flowers from door to door, singing to welcome the summer. It's a ritual as ancient as the worship of Danú, whom the bábóg originally represented. Schoolchildren here in Corca Dhuibhne sing the same song today.

"Bábóg na Bealtaine,
Maighdean an tSamhraidh,
Suas gach cnoc isn. síos gach gleann,
Cailíní maiseacha bán-gheala gléasta,
Thugamar fhéin an tSamhraidh linn.                                                                                                                                                                   

May-time Dolly,
Maiden of Summer,
Up each hill and down each glen,
Girls dressed up in bright-white garments,
We brought the Summer along with us."

Friday, 22 April 2016

The Big Walk

As the 1916 centenary commemorations continue, two things become increasingly evident. First, that the Dublin-centric version of Ireland's Easter Rising on which many of us were raised has obscured a far wider national story. Secondly, how many personal stories have yet to come to light.

Marion Stokes. Cumann na mBan. Enniscorthy garrison Easter Rising 1916

My book A Woven Silence: Memory, History & Remembrance was inspired by a sense that I ought to know more about my grandmother’s cousin, Marion Stokes, one of three Cumann na mBan women who raised the tricolour over Enniscorthy’s Athenaeum in Easter Week 1916. County Wexford rose late, confused at first, like the rest of the country, by MacNeill’s order countermanding the rising, then responding to subsequent orders from the GPO to destroy the eastern railway approaches to Dublin. The Athenaeum garrison was the last to surrender, holding out stubbornly until its commanders were brought under a white flag to Kilmainham to receive personal orders from Pearse as Commander In Chief.

In writing the book – and as a result of responses to it I’ve received through social media – I’ve learned much about Marion and her comrades. I've also learned a great deal about how little most Irish men and women were taught about what happened outside the capital before, during and after Easter Week. The reasons for that ignorance are complex and, I believe, should be explored and understood as part of the centenary commemorations. It’s heartening, therefore, to see how many stories are emerging across the country. 

On Easter Monday morning I was in Dublin, speaking about lost memories of the women of 1916 as part of RTÉ’s Reflecting The Rising. That afternoon I was in Enniscorthy where the Athenaeum has been beautifully restored for the centenary. This week I’m back in Corca Dhuibhne, in a stone house that was once home to a couple called Paddy Martin (An Máirtíneach) and Neillí Mhuiris Ní Conchubhair. 
Neillí Mhuiris Ní Conchubhair and her brother James.
I’ve lived here for fifteen years but it’s only now in the year of the centenary that I’ve found Neillí was a member of Cumann na mBan and that, on April 22nd 1916, Paddy, a fisherman, took part in a night march across the Conor Pass with over a hundred other armed Volunteers from the Gaeltacht and Dingle town. The weather was bad and the road worse and many of them reached Tralee barefoot. Their mission, though at the time they were unaware of it, was to liaise with Casement after the landing of the Aud, the ship on which he was bringing arms from Germany.

In the 1960s personal statements were collected from surviving Gaeltacht participants in the march, all of whom had assumed they were marching to battle. They tell an extraordinary story of courage and physical resilience. Among them is one from Paddy who remarks, almost in passing, that he and a companion undertook the forty mile trek to Tralee after a sleepless night out fishing off Ard na Caithne.  
The Conor Pass

When one of the men who set out to cross the Conor Pass was warned that he might not return he replied philosophically: ‘más é ár lá é, ‘sé ár lá é’- ‘if it’s our day, it’s our day’. But in the event, Casement was captured, the Aud with its cargo of arms was scuttled and Robert Monteith, who had accompanied Casement from Germany, brought the news to Tralee where the men of West Kerry were waiting. It was the discovery of the loss of the Aud that precipitated MacNeill's order to postpone the rising. And as Pearse and others frantically made plans to go ahead anyway, those who had gone on An tSiúlóid Mhór (The Big Walk) returned from Tralee to Dingle on a train commandeered by their captain. 

It’s easy to forget that throughout Ireland similar Volunteer and Cumann na mBan companies were ready and prepared to rise during Easter Week, and that the fact that they didn’t doesn’t change the fact that they’re part of the 1916 story.   

As with the story of Marion Stokes and her companions in Enniscorthy, An tSiúlóid Mhór has never had a place in the wider national consciousness. But today members of the families of the men who made that march are re-enacting it on foot, starting from An Buailtín, Baile ‘n Fheirtéaraigh. When they gathered this morning they were joined by girls from the local school and others, and the beginning of the long march over the mountain was accompanied by pipers and other musicians. A hundred years ago the local Volunteers gathered on a nearby beach and made their way to join their comrades in Dingle in secret.
An Buailtín April 22nd 2016

Among those who attended the preparations for the re-enactment wearing their families' 1916 medals was the nephew of Mary Sheehy (Mold) of Baile Eaglaise who, like her neighbour Neillí here in Corca Dhuibhne and Marion in Enniscorthy, was only in her teens when she joined Cumann na mBan. During the War of Independence that followed the Rising, Mary Sheehy and other  Cumann na mBan members all over Ireland acted as a network of support for their male companions in arms. Gearóid Mac an tSíthigh, Mary's nephew, said he was there to make sure she was remembered. 

As I'm typing this the marchers are on their way to Dingle. 
Tonight they'll cross The Conor Pass.

 And in a Gaeltacht area where the oral tradition still flourishes the story of An tSiúlóid Mhór will be remembered and passed on as integral to the story of the Rising.
Mary Sheehy's Cumann na mBan medals

Mary Sheehy (Mold) in old age (photo send me by her nephew Gearóid April 27 2016)

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Book Promotion in Springtime

Book promotion in Dingle can be more complex than you might expect. 

Especially if you grow spuds.

Last year the tourist office in Dingle town offered me a window display to advertise The House on an Irish Hillside and Enough Is Plenty. 

We put a kitchen chair, some posters, a couple of copies of the books and a pile of promotional postcards in the back of the car, added a twist of oat straw and a spade from the shed and drove them into town.

The lovely staff at the tourist office gave us a corner window facing onto the pier, right by the office where you book trips to visit Fungie ....

... and right through the year book lovers have paused to peer through the glass or come in to pick up a postcard and be told which shops in the  town will sell them my books.

Then today I dropped into a friend's restaurant in Green Street ...

... and suddenly I realised Spring has arrived.

Her restaurant interior has been relaid out and redecorated. Her cards and menus are being planned and designed ...

.... everything's being set up for great days and nights of great food, drink and hospitality in Fentons  - and back home in our garden we need to start setting our spuds.

Our spade, however, is an integral part of our window display  there by the statue of Fungie.

Drastic measures were required.

And that is why, if you visit Dingle's tourist office this season, you'll find an entirely new agricultural implement leaning against our kitchen chair in the corner window.

While the spade is being used to set the spuds.



Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Reflecting The Rising

Somewhere in this photo are twenty year old Marion Stokes of Enniscorthy, her twenty four year old brother Tom and their fifteen year old brother Patrick. The Easter Rising of 1916 has just ended and along with their comrades in Cumann na mBan, The Irish Volunteers and Fianna Éireann, they're being marched out of Enniscorthy's Athenaeum, the last garrison in Ireland to surrender.

Marion, who was my grandmother's cousin, lived to be eighty seven. When my mother and aunts were growing up she was like a sister to them. I remember her well from my own childhood and she died when I was at university. While she was alive I never heard of her involvement in the 1916 Rising. According to my mother, she 'didn't like to talk about it.'

So I don't know the nuances of what drove Marion and her brothers to take up arms and fight for an independent Ireland. But I know that the Proclamation of Independence read out from the steps of the GPO in Dublin guaranteed equality for all citizens, whose loyalty it claimed. After the Rising Cumann na mBan, the women's organisation of which Marion was a member, reiterated its dedication to the idea of an independent State founded on the principle of equality for all. In the absence of memory, I must assume that equality was at least one of the aims for which Marion was ready to die.

When he was working there in 1941, my father, who was a historian, curated the The National Museum of Ireland's first full-scale exhibition commemorating the 1916 Rising. He never spoke to me about Marion's involvement, though he knew her well and had advised her when she was involved in setting up a museum in Enniscorthy Castle in the 1960s. I visited that museum in my childhood. There was no reference there to her involvement in The 1916 Rising or to the fact that, with two other Cumann na mBan women, she had raised the tricolour over Enniscorthy's Athenaeum. As my mother said, she didn't like to talk about it.

Marion wasn't alone. Thousands of Irishwomen were involved in the cultural revival and the struggle for independence in the early decades of the twentieth century. Both Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan women rose with the men in Easter Week and hundreds of others across the country were prepared to join them. Very few of those women seem to have wanted to speak of it afterwards. Those who did spoke in voices that weren't heard, often because of State and Church censorship. And Irish historians of the period had much to deal with in terms of State control and manipulation of information.

The children on the cover of my latest memoir are my aunts Cathleen and Evie and my mother. The State in which they and I grew up was not based on the principle of equality. Instead it was characterised by inequality, isolationism and censorship and by a web of lies, myths and denial about the complexities of the past.

Since then Ireland has moved on. In the centenary celebrations and commemorations of the 1916 Rising this coming weekend women's voices will be heard as loudly as men's, and women's role in Rising will actively be recognized. Yet it's worth noticing that, even now in the year of the centenary, the fact that three women raised the flag over Enniscorthy is hardly spoken of.

I don't know how Marion felt and thought as Easter week approached a hundred years ago. She could have told me. She may have told my mother. I don't know. I don't know if Marion and my grandmother, whose image appears on the spine of A Woven Silence, ever talked about it either. I know that my grandmother opposed The Rising. But she had three small girls to think about. Marion had little brothers and sisters, though. And after her mother died in 1917 while her brother Tom was imprisoned in England, she ended up raising siblings who blamed her for the tragic effect that The Rising had had on the whole family. Tom died too, only months after his mother, of tuberculosis contracted in Frongoch Prison Camp. Those may be some of the reasons why she didn't like to talk about it.

Lost stories like Marion's can never be regained and the fact that they were lost, by chance or by censorship, is something we need to remember.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Rebel Women Betrayed

It was not as if I was unaware that Marion Stokes had been a member of Cumann na mBan, the women's militant nationalist organisation that took part in Ireland's Easter Rising in 1916. But along with that information came an unspoken sense that questions about it would not be welcomed. Marion, my grandmother’s cousin, lived to be 87 and died in 1983, so I could have had an adult relationship with her. But, as it happened, I didn’t. I left Ireland for London in the late 1970s. My mother often came to visit me and once, on a walk by the River Thames, she mentioned that though Marion had grown up in Enniscorthy and died there, she had spent time nursing in England. I remember asking why she left Ireland and my mother shaking her head and saying that she didn’t know. Marion, she said, “didn’t like to talk about the past”. I could well believe it. The Marion I knew in my childhood was not someone who would let her hair down, put her feet up and engage in girly chats. My mother said she had always been like that and I suppose that, when she told me so, I assumed it went with a lifetime of responsibility, starched aprons and hard work. 

Most of my teenage years were spent locked in silent conflict with my mother about everything and anything, but I had long conversations with her as an adult. In the years after my father died, she and I took several holidays together and many of the family stories she related come back to me now coloured by the sound of waves slapping against the prow of a Rhine boat or the scent of salt and wildflowers on a high cliff on one of the Scilly Isles. I wish now that I had asked her more questions about Marion. But I doubt that I’d have got more answers. 

When I was a child my favourite season was autumn. My mother’s favourite was spring. I once asked her why that was so, and she told me that she loved its sense of expectation. The memory of that conversation still touches me and leaves me faintly angry, because she was one of a generation of Irishwomen whose legitimate expectations for herself and for her children were betrayed. 

In the absence of written or oral record I cannot be certain what exactly caused 20-year-old Marion Stokes to go out and fight in Easter Week 1916, when she was one of the three women who raised the tricolour over the rebel headquarters in Enniscorthy town. Her primary motivation may have been nationalist, feminist, political or purely cultural. In the absence of memory I am left with inference. But two things I do know. One is that the Proclamation of the Irish Republic issued at the outset of the 1916 Rising “claims the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman” and “guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”. The second is that a statement issued afterwards by Cumann na mBan asserted that by “taking their place in the firing line and in every other way helping in the establishment of the Irish Republic” its members had “regained for the women of Ireland the rights that belong to them under the old Gaelic civilisation, where sex was no bar to citizenship, and where women were free to devote to the service of their country every talent and capacity with which they were endowed”.

That reference to “old Gaelic civilisation” is questionable: it ignores, for example, the fact that for centuries, if not millennia, native Irish society, like many others, used slaves of both sexes as units of currency. But, setting aside bad history and concentrating on political aspiration, it seems fair to assume that Marion and her companions, male and female, were prepared to sacrifice their own lives to secure a state founded on the principle of equal rights and opportunities regardless of gender. Yet I grew up in a state with a constitution that declared the proper aspiration of women to be marriage, our proper function to be child bearers, and our proper sphere the home.

That constitution, drafted for – and to a large extent by – Éamon de Valera, who had been a leader of the Rising, passed into law in 1937. So in only 25 years the aspirations of 1916 had been eroded to the extent that the rights of half of the State’s citizens were reduced. And that is the terrible part. When one section of society effectively becomes second-class citizens, the balance and health of the community as a whole are affected. Among the visible results in Ireland were levels of state-sanctioned institutional brutality which have only recently begun to emerge. Another was the fact that my mother, along with thousands of women of her generation, was told that marriage should be her highest aspiration, childrearing her only creative outlet, and that economic dependence was her civic duty. That in its turn produced levels of misogyny, emotional sterility and civic immaturity still evident in Ireland today. 

Many women protested in public and in private during the drafting of de Valera’s constitution. The Irish Women Workers Union many of whose members had been involved in the 1916 Rising, expressed outrage; a letter from the secretary to de Valera, quoting the clauses which referred to the position of women, said: “it would hardly be possible to make a more deadly encroachment upon the liberty of the individual”. But by then women no longer held significant positions of influence in Ireland. The constitution was accepted. And a combination of revisionism and isolationism in the years that followed left the majority of Ireland’s citizens ignorant of the legacy we had been denied. And as I write this now, Irish citizens are still protesting about gender inequality, homophobia and the denial of Irishwomen’s basic human rights. Yet, in theory at least, the battle for equal rights was fought and won in Ireland 100 years ago. 

That anomaly, the mixed messages of the Ireland in which I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, and the knowledge that the rights for which my grandmother’s cousin Marion was ready to die were denied to my mother’s generation and my own, all inspired my book A Woven Silence: Memory, History & Remembrance. The silence surrounding the aspirations of the women who took part in the early political life of the Irish state did not come about by accident: though, as the title of my book implies, its genesis was complex. As the centenary bandwagon lumbers up to the starting line, we should examine that complexity and take steps to counteract its continuing pernicious effect on contemporary Ireland.

The children whose photo appears on the cover of A Woven Silence are ( l to r) my aunts Cathleen and Evie and my mother May.

Join me in Dublin when I take part in Reflecting The Rising, RTÉ's Easter Monday 1916 commemorations. 

 A version of this piece appeared in November 2015 in The Irish Times.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Memory, History and Remembrance

In my mind I'm climbing a winding stair. The steps are cold and worn, and the only light comes in through narrow windows. I'm touching the curved wall with one hand, and with the other I'm hanging on to Marion's skirt. She is formidable and elderly, square and calm in her tweed coats and skirts, neat shirt-blouses and sensible shoes. Looking back now, I remember that day in Enniscorthy Castle. I was about nine years old. I remember her black leather handbag which always contained a white cotton handkerchief, and the fearsome bottle of Mercurochrome she used as an antiseptic to treat childhood cuts.

I never knew that in her teens she was  a revolutionary, trained in arms and ready to fight and die for Ireland's independence in the Easter Rising of 1916. 

A year after I finished university I left my home city of Dublin for London. My mother often came to visit me there and once, on a walk by the River Thames, she mentioned that though Marion had grown up in Enniscorthy and died there, she had spent time nursing in England. I remember asking why she had left Ireland and my mother shaking her head and saying that she didn't know. Marion, she said, 'didn't like to talk about the past'. I could well believe it. The Marion I knew in my childhood wasn't someone who would let her hair down, put her feet up, and engage in girly chats. She carried an air of authority and you didn't wriggle when she reached for the Mercurochrome. It was not as if I was unaware that she had been a member of Cumann na mBan. But along with that information, absorbed in my childhood, came an unspoken sense that questions about it wouldn't be welcomed. 

And so, although Marion lived to be eighty seven and died in 1983, when I could have had an adult relationship with her, I never heard her story. Like so many Irishwomen of her generation, she remained silent about her experience during the Rising and afterwards. And, like so many Irishwomen of my mother's generation and my own, I grew up with a cultural, social and political inheritance which, in the hundred years since the the Rising, has fostered misogyny, lack of communication and a lack of powerful female role models, both in Irish politics and society.

Last November I visited Enniscorthy Castle again, to take part in an RTÉ television documentary which begins Ireland's national broadcaster's 1916 Centenary programming. I was speaking about my recent book A Woven Silence: Memory, History & Remembrance, which maps my own family's stories onto the story of the founding and development of the Irish State. In an early draft of the book its working title was 'The Absence of Memory' and, among other themes, it explores that silence with which I grew up. 

The documentary, the first of a series of four called Ireland's Rising is a powerful piece of television and, as its trailer (link below) shows, it celebrates the beginning of a new era of awareness, discussion, debate and exploration of Ireland's national identity and values

I hope that the emphasis that Marion Stokes and her comrades placed on equality as the basis for a healthy society will form a central aspect of that debate. And I'm heartened by the fact that the children in this programme seem to believe that it should.