Pat, his sister Catriona, and their brothers have distinct ideas of how the deaths of their grandfathers came about. Pat told me that he had thought his maternal grandfather had been shot by British authorities when they discovered his involvement with the IRA. His brother, however, told him that their grandfather had died of influenza in 1916. Catriona, on the other hand, had associated the story of her grandfather being shot by the British with her paternal grandfather and was surprised to find out through her research that he had died in a shooting accident.
This kind of variation of the same story within one family is not uncommon and has been explored by literary scholar Irene Kacandes (the author I mention in the clip) in her book Daddy’s War: Greek American Stories (2009). She closely examines her father’s experience in Greece during the Second World War and addresses questions of intergenerational trauma and postmemory – a term coined by Holocaust historian Marianne Hirsch (2008) which describes the memories of a generation who are deeply affected by the traumatic experiences and memories of the generation preceding it. Kacandes considers the picture painted by the stories her father told her as well as how and why her perception differs from that of her siblings. Recounting what she and her family thought they knew and comparing it to what she discovered through her research led her to conclude that achieving historical accuracy is less important than understanding why certain stories were told (and told often) in a particular way.
As Pat says, these kinds of central family stories influence our perceptions about personal and wider histories and it can be unsettling to find out the situation is other than what we originally thought. Such an experience can have a profound effect on how we relate to the past and the stories that shape who we understand ourselves to be.
Maureen was raised by her maternal grandparents and spoke several times about the central role they played in her life. One example she talked about was her love of singing which she has attributed to her grandfather. This has been an important artistic pursuit throughout her life: she won the Comhaltas All Ireland competition in the sean-nós style in 1965 and has taught others this traditional style for many years. While she speaks a great deal about her grandfather in this clip, her grandmother was another central figure in her narrative. She worked very hard to support the family and continued to raise Maureen after her grandfather passed away.
Since her grandfather’s health was not strong and he could no longer continue his work as a stonemason, he spent most of his time tending to their land in County Tipperary and taking up occasional schemes (such as raising dogs for the races). He was very present in Maureen’s life before his passing and is strongly associated with fond memories of childhood.
Stories about grandparents were common in the interviews. These figures are typically associated with personal roots and, as such, they play a significant role in the formation of identity. I would suggest that the affection Maureen expressed for her grandfather and the way she attributed her love of singing and reading to him points to the ways these emotional memories become foundational in the process of self-understanding.
Photo: Knocknarea, Co. Sligo. Courtesy of Tom Naughten.
Catriona describes her horrified reaction as a child to her father’s decision that the family would become Canadian. Her story reveals how our understandings of the past can affect our comprehension of the present. The stories told to her by family members, particularly her grandmother, about her relatives’ involvement in Irish efforts for independence fit into a larger pattern of romanticizing this moment. However, it is the personal connection Catriona had to this history that affected how she felt about acquiring Canadian citizenship.
Kirsten Emiko McAllister (2006), a scholar of culture and communications, has written on her experience of examining photographs of families taken in a Canadian Japanese internment camp during the Second World War. Her interest was due in large part to her mother’s family history of incarceration in one of these camps during this period. As she examined these photos and wrestled to interpret them, “I realized that I was replaying my mother’s story, a story I had made for her.” (101) Her family’s story (particularly her mother’s) had been internalized and she could not separate it from her reading of the photographs in the archives. She explained “I had to contend with the way family photograph bears ‘a huge burden of meaning and feeling’.” (106) The signs of tensions and distress she saw in the photos were both familiar and frightening as she recognized her investment in her family’s story and how these emotions shaped her research.
Personal histories shape our understanding of larger histories. As with McAllister, Catriona’s emotional connection to the stories of her relatives’ struggle against English oppression affected her perception of her family’s efforts to become Canadian. From her perspective as a young girl, her father seemed willing to give up the stories that had captured her imagination and had considerable emotional significance for her.
Photo: The Ulster American Folk Park, Co. Tyrone.