Paper delivered at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society annual dinner, USAFA branch, Colorado Springs, 19th November 1999.
(The occasion was Native American month at the U. S. Air Force base. I was asked to perform and to speak at various related events, because of the connection made between the Choctaw Indians and the Irish famine victims of 1845-49.)
Life is a system of echoes. Whether we want them or not, our ancestry echoes down to us through the ages.
Sometimes it�s difficult to claim that ancestry as our own. Although I grew up on Irish ground, in many ways I was alienated from my history. Whatever I knew, I knew at a distance. It was the burgeoning consumer society where all that glisters is gold and we were still getting clothes sent from America. The other side was infinitely more� glamourous, poverty was not having a television. Having a television engendered silence, rituals were cursory and too large to go deep.
The process by which Ireland had been transformed from a country of teeming village life and land-sharing to one of scattered isolated dwellings, rampant celibacy and intense inward-looking family relationships could be said to have begun at least in the early 1800s, but found its culmination in the Famine of 1845-49. The famine finally decimated the remnants of older Irish customs and the language, because the poorer people had been the custodians of these, and it was of course the poorer who died.
By the time I was born, the Irish state had been in existence for nearly forty years, a short time really, and there was still a tangible feeling of inferiority or at least self-consciousness around. One example of this was my parents� approach to registering our births. Even though they gave almost all of us Irish names, they felt that they couldn�t put those names on our birth certificates, but instead registered English versions.
We were encouraged in learning Irish at school, and there was a love of Irish in the home, but the more glamorous and better sounding voice always seemed to be the English one. As I grew up I was conscious of an Irish tendency � in certain quarters, not in all � to replace a rural accent and colloquialisms with an English sounding pronunciation and turn of phrase. This might happen in any country in relation to class, but when it happens on a national level, it causes a damaging split in the psyche.
I remember thinking as a child that I was part of a mediocre sort of nation, a nation of no extremes. We were welcoming, we were well liked internationally, but we were not world leaders in anything, we had few resources and we had lost most of our wars. That was alright by me because I was generally on the side of the loser anyway. The rare time I watched football I was always cheering for the side with fewer scores because I wanted them to catch up. Not much of a competitor there. I never really expected to win.
Keeping in mind that the inherited political and cultural divisions affected public life hugely, it appeared that we in the southern state of Ireland existed in a kind of contradiction because although we have always had great national pride, I feel we distrusted ourselves somewhat as a nation and are only now, in the past twenty years, coming into our own as an independent democracy.
In 1947, the hundredth anniversary of one of the worst famine years, the government hardly acknowledged the occasion. It seems that we weren�t yet confident enough in our own identity to grieve for a past national disaster, it was too close to the bone, in every sense of the word. Likewise, we didn�t celebrate our victories. Successive Easter Sundays went by without any great commemoration of the rising which led to national independence.
Ten years ago we still had to cope with deliberate mis-representations of the Irish in the English press, we were divided against ourselves with censorship of free speech and archaic family laws. We had huge unemployment, emigration and decimation of rural populations. But things have changed. Prosperity has arrived. With it there is definitely a resurgence of national pride and a deliberate focus on cultural regeneration. Irish language schools are springing up, Irish cultural life, always very vibrant, has spread worldwide. Not all the roses are blooming in the fancy glasshouse, and prosperity brings its own kind of slaveries, but at least we�re feeling good about ourselves.
It�s been a journey I have lived personally too. When I came to write about the famine, to explore whether I could empathise enough with the period to write poems about it, I found myself in a dilemma and for a while felt quite lost. How could I write about people who had starved when I had never been hungry myself? How could I do justice to a society which was lived �ar sc�th a ch�ile�, literally �in the shade of one another�, where communities saw themselves as cohesive units, where each person shared good fortune with her neighbour, and where work was always done in tandem with others?
I had been brought up in isolation from my neighbours, I had spent my childhood wandering fields on my own. What did I know of community sharing? And I didn�t speak the Irish language. How was I to pick up the nuances and inflections of their voices? All this from someone who lived in a rural area and had a good knowledge of the language. How much more alienated would be a person who was brought up in an urban spread with a culture mainly defined by foreign-based consumer trends?
I decided that because I lived on the land, I must have some claim and some knowledge of these people, who, as my buried ancestors must speak to me if I asked them, through the earth where, however oblivious to its significance, I had always walked. I also decided that the only way I could approach a subject like this was to imagine myself back in that time, with all the personality traits that I have now, and see how I would behave. This was my approach to uniting my present with the past, a present that had been starved of a traditional context by a struggle for survival within the new economic system.
As it turned out, my work with history created an echo which has brought me here today to connect with another story of loss and survival. The Irish nation has survived amazingly well and the tide has turned. Our strengths are now in demand. The Choctaw tribe, who reached out to us when we were destitute, have survived, and it seems that many Native Americans live their earth culture in a way that Irish people have forgotten.
In the western world we have become so insensitive to the rhythms of the earth that we are now forced, for the sake of survival both physical and mental, to look back to earth cultures for the knowledge to carry us through. Native American social, political, cultural and spiritual systems are some of the most inspiring there are.
I�m not suggesting that it shows an understanding of Indian culture by any means, but it�s some indication of its influence that practically every child over ten in Ireland knows what a dreamcatcher is, that we grew up familiar with great Indian warriors such as Geronimo and the Apaches in general. However imperfect the appreciation, which I�m sure in many cases is the equivalent of the Irish leprechaun or shamrock, a culture has to be very strong to produce stories and images which can capture the global imagination.
A friend of mine told me a story a couple of weeks ago. She said that her daughter, when she was five, had constructed an imaginary game where she went inside an egg and spoke and did various domestic things with someone she described as her grandmother, but it wasn�t either of the grandmothers whom she knew. When the little girl described what she had been doing and what her grandmother had cooked for her, it turned out that she was talking about meals that her great-grandmother had cooked but she couldn�t have known about them.
It seems to me that our ancestry is there waiting for us to benefit from it as we wish. Which reminds me of the Michael Hartnett poem, �Short Mass�:
if I came to you, out of the wind
with only my blown dream clothing me
would you give me shelter?
for I have nothing
-- or nothing the world wants.
I love you: that is all my fortune.
but I know we cannot sail without nets:
I know you cannot be exposed
however soft the wind
or however small the rain.�