Thursday, September 12, 2019

My Grandfather, my Father, and Me

Over the weekend, I came across some letters and other documents written by my grandfather. He generated a huge amount of writing in his lifetime, but (to the best of my knowledge, and to my great regret), most of it has been lost.

He was a community activist, a member of the Worker's Party (which was both an Irish nationalist and a socialist party), and at one time a member of the IRA (this was long before the Troubles in Northern Ireland had broken out).

As a result of my father's death and funeral, the death and funeral of another family member, and various other family events, I've been hearing a lot of family stories, including stories about my grandfather and my father.

Much of my knowledge of my grandfather comes from my father's memoirs, which remain unpublished, and every word of which I typed from manuscript.

He seems to have been quite a character, the protagonist of many a comic story.

He was a mechanically-minded person, and he once invented a control panel using which (or so he hoped) he could control all the lights and appliances in the house from one central point.

So delighted was he with this invention, that he gathered his entire family around to witness its ceremonial turning-on. However, as soon as he hit the first button, all the lights in the street went out-- and stayed out for several days, apparently.

There are several stories about his fondness for fake séances, one of which involves a member of the Irish army-- a strapping fellow in a greatcoat-- running back home to jump into bed with his mother.

I don't remember him that well. He died in 1991, a little after the outbreak of the first Gulf War, when I was thirteen. It was my first real experience of death.

I remember him as a white-haired, patriarchal figure, who lived with my aunt and was always watching television. He looked like a rugged Samuel Beckett. He had a rather stern demeanour, but a wicked sense of humour-- I remember how devastasted I was, one Christmas, when I handed him a small gift-wrapped cylinder and he said: "I hope it's not a pen!". (He hurried to reassure me when he saw my face fall, however.)

Like my father, he was very political and very idealistic. However, the differences are also very striking.

I learned to my great surprise, only last week, that my grandfather (despite being an Irish nationalist) had little regard for the Irish language, and thought that too much effort had been devoted to preserving it. I'm getting this information second-hand, so I can't be sure, but it seems reliable enough.

And it fits with my knowledge of him. He seems to have been a much more hard-headed, pragmatic character than my father. His public-spiritedness was focused, more than anything else, on bread-and-butter issues, and on helping out particular individuals.

That's admirable in itself. But why be a nationalist at all, in that case?

I'm not sure what my grandfather's religious views were. I've heard different things. The impression I get is that he was somewhat anti-clerical.

The picture I get-- peering into the murk of the past-- is that the progression (or regression!) from my grandfather to myself is one of increasing conservatism, traditionalism and mysticism-- a trajectory which is quite the opposite of Irish society over the same time.

When I read my grandfather's letters, I get the impression of a man who was very business-like, very down-to-earth, very practical-minded. The lyricism which is never far from the surface, in all my father's writings, is nowhere in evidence. (Having said that, I've heard that he wrote at least one patriotic ballad, and I only have a few documents from his hand.) Somehow, I get the impression he had little interest in literature, poetry, or the life of the imagination.

My father had a more poetic temperament than my grandfather. But he was still a lot more practically-minded than I am-- observant, analytical, very interested in subjects (such as economics and city planning) which seem unbearably prosaic to me.

Where did my father get his devotion to the Irish language, I wonder? He never learned to speak it, but he did help to set up an Irish language school in our community-- the one I attended. Without having attended that, I wouldn't have even the middling grasp of Irish that I do.

My father was a convinced Catholic, but he never went to Mass. He might go to the Celebration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday, but that was about it. And yet there was no doubt at all about where he stood, when it came to religion and to Catholicism. (I was very glad he received the Last Rites at the end.)

The sweep of social and cultural history is very interesting to me, and family history is a current within that. My grandfather and my father were both men who pursued ideals, who made a solid contribution to the life of their times. I think I would be doing well to emulate them even in a very small way.