Saturday, August 27, 2016

On Family Folklore

Today my father told me a story from the Second World War (or the Emergency as it was officially called in neutral Ireland), involving our family. We had been agreeing on the rightness of Ireland's neutrality during the War; my father pointed out that the Luftwaffe would undoubtedly have been bombing Ireland if we had supported the Allies.

The Luftwaffe didn't bomb Ireland. At least not deliberately. On several occasions, German bombers did attack Dublin, as a result of navigation error. (There are other theories, but I think Occam's Razor applies here.) The most famous of these was the 'North Strand' bombing. I once saw an exhibition about this in a public library.

"It wasn't like this when I went out this morning!"
My father was almost a casualty of the North Strand bombing. Born in 1939, my grandfather was pushing him in a pram when it happened, and they were only a little distance from the danger zone. So the Nazis almost killed me before I was born.

Remarkably, my father also had a narrow escape from the horrific Dublin bombings in May 1974, when loyalist terrorists (who were fighting against a united Ireland) bombed a street in Dublin city centre. My father and his friend were walking in that direction and only stopped to get a sandwich in a pub. So (without wanting to take away from the tragedy of that day, where 27 were killed), I can say I was almost killed by both Nazis and loyalists before I was born.

But that wasn't the story I heard today. The story I heard today was that my father (only a little kid) had been tearing up newspapers in the kitchen one night, during the Emergency. When his grandfather came downstairs, and saw papers everywhere, he assumed the house had been hit by a bomb!

Missed me!
I immediately wrote this down in my online diary, and added a new 'tag'-- "Family folklore'. Such folklore strikes me as increasingly important. If my father had not told me that story, and I had not remembered it or written it down, no doubt it would be completely forgotten-- "lost in time like tears in rain", as the beautiful line from Blade Runner has it.

We can't hold onto everything. And, when I imagine a world where everybody has photographic memories and nothing is ever lost, it strikes me that oblivion and forgetfulness are beautiful gifts from God. On the other hand, I think it's incredibly sad when some stories disappear-- things that are worth remembering.

(I might mention here a wonderful line from Brian Friel's Translations, one of the very few plays I've seen in the theatre. A father says it  to his nostalgic son: "To remember everything is a form of madness.")

Then I found myself thinking of another memory. I don't know what year it was from, but certainly it was the mid-eighties. I was with my mother and my little brother, and we went to a carnival with rather simple amusement rides. I remember we had also just bought a kid's picture book featuring the superhero teddy bear Superted.

It was late evening. Although the carnival wasn't closed, it was about to close, so there was an atmosphere of delicate melancholy, which readers of James Joyce's book Dubliners might recognizse from the story 'Araby'. (One of the few Joycean pieces I actually like.)

I remember feeling sorry for my mother, who was watching us enjoying the rides. (They must have been kids' rides.) I told her that I felt sad to be enjoying them while she was just watching. "I enjoy just watching you", she said. That seemed even sadder to me. All these years later, of course, I understand it.

I also remember a story in my English textbook in primary school, when I was about eleven. It was a nostalgic piece about the author's childhood, and he she remembered how her bed-bound grandmother would call herself and her siblings into her room, to hug them, saying "you have all the freshness of youth on you" (or some such words). I thought that was incredibly sad, too-- to be old and have childhood forever behind you, to need to experience it at second hand. Sometimes I feel that now, but very rarely. I can now understand how my mother could enjoy just watching us play, and that old lady could feel happy rather than sad hugging the little children.

That's not what I set out to write about, though. What I wanted to record was the incredible feeling of urgency and poignancy that fills my soul when I think of that evening in the carnival, and similar memories. My mother died in 2001, ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam. My brother told me he doesn't remember the day at all (he would have been very young.)
There is such a feeling of aching tenderness when we remember those we have lost (or even those who are still alive, but with whom we have shared much of our lives). The world is so big, and they only have us (and a few others, perhaps) to hold onto their memories. Even if they are well-known in a public sense, what does the world know of their inner being?

This emotion is like the one you feel when you are holding hands with somebody you love in the middle of an enormous crowd, or seeing someone you know from a long way away. They look so very small, from such a distance-- and how your heart aches with love for them!

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