IrishCentral contributor Elaine Cawley Weintraub reflects on the traditions and heritage her ancestors in Co Mayo held onto and passed down
When I think of my ancestors, I see their weather-beaten brown faces. They were brown from the long summer days working in the fields. I have learned since that the Irish have no melanin in their skin and must take vitamin D to protect their bones, and slather themselves in thick white cream to protect their natural alabaster skin from the sun, but all I know is that the old ones were brown.
Their lives were predictable: in the spring the lambs were born and in the summer weeks they made booley camping on the sides of mountains seeking new and fresh pastures for the animals they reared. The winter days were short but in the summer the light went on and on until 11 p.m. or later.
They knew their neighbors and their stories and all their families were blighted with the everyday fact of emigration. There was never enough land for everyone.
Their creativity was endless and every house was filled with homemade machines and gadgets that now would qualify their makers for awards for ecological innovation, but then they were a stark statement of desperate poverty.
Everyone was a storyteller and the magical and the mundane were intertwined in every story. My uncle Hugh told stories of murders that left indelible stains that identified the murderer, and of weasels that demanded to drink from the milk in his bucket.
He spoke of refusing to share the milk with the weasel, and of the animal climbing up to his bucket and spitting in it three times. These magic events always happened three times, and it seems that in ancient Celtic traditional beliefs three was a magic number.
The stories were always told with dramatic emphasis, and the listener’s faces were turned toward the seanachie in rapt attention. How they loved stories and every person returning from the exotic shores of industrial England or of urban New York and Boston would always be greeted with: “How are things over yonder?”
Such questions had to be pondered and answered at length. A polite monosyllabic answer would have been considered very rude and the understanding was that this question would be answered in detail, and would not be objective. Opinions were needed and descriptions of reactions to situations, and, crucially important, connect the listener with every person mentioned. Family relationships and connections mattered the most, and it is always possible to find someone who knew someone who was related to someone, and who came from “home.”
“Sure you’re welcome home” is a greeting given to every returning emigrant whether they are known or not. It’s a recognition of the trauma that emigration was throughout Irish history and affirms the belief that wherever you may live that Ireland is your home.
The stories were often tragic but any personalization of tragic events was forbidden. When my grandmother spoke of the bones washing down to the beach when the tide was high at Dubhlough, a reference to the devastation of the Famine, she was immediately hushed. I remember those pipe-smoking women reared on stories of famine and oppression, but they squared their shoulders and held themselves rigid and threw the shawl over their faces drowning in grief only when the train carrying their emigrant children away was out of sight.
What cannot be cured must be endured, and what would be gained from mentioning it? “If you start to cry now” advised my mother “you’ll never be able to stop.”
How difficult it must have been for them when they went to other countries as so many did and had to learn to live in a culture that did not invite their participation or share their values. In England and America, their cultural habit of sharing stories and being open to the stranger would not be understood or appreciated. They had to learn through experience how to function in a world that they did not understand.
A few months ago, I stood at the mass grave famine monument in Swinford, County Mayo and felt the pain of all those years of stifling what could not otherwise be endured. Stories of the workhouse vaguely hinted at or immortalized in old songs such as the County Home were known, but not shared but I remember trying to take my Auntie Mary to Ballina hospital when she was not feeling well. Her response was “get out of here. I would never set foot in that workhouse.”
Nothing would convince her that the old workhouse had been replaced by a hospital. “That place could never be right. It's full of suffering.” I believe she was right. Buildings and fields hold memories that can never be erased in a culture that believed to talk of tragedy would invite more sadness.
I see them now, those ancestors, with their love of children, music, and laughter and stories told by the fire while the oil lamp cast flickering shadows over whitewashed walls. It was a time when the people walked with the fairies, placing rocks on the quilt in the cradle to protect the child, and touching the departing child with the iron tongs to keep them safe on their journey.
The banshee was free to wail then because she could be heard and the view of death as both inevitable and a cause for honor and celebration engaged the whole village in the funeral rites.
They hung their rosary beads over the fire and the artwork was always the same: The Cross of Brigid, the Sacred Heart, the Pope and later, President John Kennedy.
They are us and we are them. We stand on their shoulders and old beliefs sustain us though we push them away and seek a more acquisitive and individualistic time. No longer does the whole village gather at the holy wells traipsing across wetlands and streams to reach the place where the water has the curative power known to the ancient Celts long before the cross came to Ireland, but at all those wells and holy places there are trees festooned with photographs and ribbons belonging to some beloved child’s hair. We still visit them and bring our troubles seeking help and salvation.
Those old ways still comfort and sustain, and an alcoholic priest known for drunken brawling and for bringing a child back to life when she had apparently died is believed to take great care of all who put their faith in him.
Father Foy, a native of Foxford, County Mayo is buried in Ballina Cathedral’s cemetery and is believed to have extraordinary powers. He predicted the end of British rule in Ireland and foresaw the relief that would offer to the oppressed Catholic peasantry. The story of his predictions has been passed down through the generations in Ballina and it is well known that he told a shopkeeper who refused to give him a pair of shoes without payment that his day in Ireland was over, and that within a year the people would claim their own.
The year of his prediction was 1915. His grave is still decorated daily with fresh flowers, tokens from a family seeking help and it is a beacon of light and color in the gray surroundings of the Ballina cathedral cemetery.
It is an interesting question why a defrocked alcoholic priest is buried in the cathedral yard with bishops and prelates who followed the rules. Why did these princes of the church agree to bury one whom they had cast out among their own exalted dead? The only possible answer is that they believed in his powers and recognized him as worthy of the honor.
That ambivalence towards the ancient Celtic beliefs among the rigidity of the austere Catholicism practiced was evident everywhere. Now Father Foy’s pilgrims drive into the cathedral yard in expensive vehicles and walk to that grave placing their hands quietly on the gravestone. The mode of travel is different, but the seeking for solace is strangely the same.
My uncle Hugh, the seanachie, always concluded his saying of the rosary with the words: Thank God for who we are and what we are, and how we are, and indeed, our ancestors were right to be proud of who they were.
Their lives teach us much that we will be the better for knowing.
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