Saturday, May 28, 2016

Joy in the miserable Irish Catholic childhood

"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."
                               
                                                                                                        ― Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes

Magee, Geraghty, Dunne and Maher family members on holiday at Rush.
Standing: left to right: Mary 'Mollie' Magee Halpin, a Magee child, Francis 'Frank' Magee;
Seated: left to right: Anne Maher Magee with two of her children, Mary Dunne Magee, my father's maternal grandmother;
Seated on ground: left to right: Patrick Geraghty, Rita Magee, Michael Geraghty (my father).
Dad's grandfather Patrick Magee took the photograph.
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When I recollect the reception Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes received in my family, when we read it shortly after its publication, I recall my father and mother had distinctly different responses to McCourt's memoir. My mother Mary found the story incredibly sad, while my father Michael laughed out loud at times, when he read parts of the memoir to which he could relate. One of my father's sisters hated the book because of the reaction it elicited in her work place. Kathleen had emigrated away from Ireland, settling in the UK, and was working in a prestigious position in the British Home Office in London at the time of the memoir's release. She felt as though she was held up as the archetype of the miserable Irish Catholic childhood, with her colleagues apparently assuming her early life had been exactly like that of the McCourt children. Kathleen recounted with disdain the number of times she was asked if her family had picked up bits of coal in the street.

Frank McCourt characterises the Irish Catholic childhood as a miserable one, the worst kind of childhood, but I would argue there is joy to be found in it. It might be said my father and his siblings endured a 'miserable Irish Catholic childhood', growing up in a home of strife and violence, with an alcoholic father who was possibly mentally ill, and whose working life was less than ideal. Despite the difficulties in their family life, my father found joy. This speaks to the remarkable resilience of children who often find happiness in the most simple pleasures.

My father held precious memories of holiday times beginning in the mid 1930s, when he was about six years of age. Dad and his elder brother Patrick travelled with their maternal grandparents, Patrick and Mary Magee, their aunts and uncles — Mary 'Mollie' Magee Halpin, William 'Willie' Halpin, Anne Maher Magee, Francis 'Frank' Magee — and Magee cousins away from the troubled Geraghty home to holiday at Rush, a lovely sea-side town in Fingal, North County Dublin. At Rush, with his extended family, there were delightful memories created, some to last a lifetime.

There was a lightness to these sojourns. The simplicity of the tin 'cottages', with their single windows and tiny doors was all they needed. The soft talc-like sand pushed a path through the fescue grasses on its way to the sea, and the salt air brushed across them in an embrace. The buoyancy of his Uncle Willie's mood, so different from that of his father John, together with joyous shouts of laughter at being tossed into the ice cold sea, was a hitch knot in memory, never to be loosened. Uncle Frank, poised on the crescent beach, a child balanced on one hip and a cigarette on his lips, knew little what it meant for a small lad to hear praise, or have his hair gently tousled, for skimming flat stones just right across the waves. These vestiges of happiness left an imprint on the mind of a tiny boy who grew up and away from Ireland, but never forgot these times.

This post is dedicated with love to the descendants of those in the photographs, to my Irish, English, Australian and American cousins.






©irisheyesjgg2016.

14 comments:

  1. Good to know that your Dad had such good memories of his holiday times - you evoked them well. Beautifully described :-D

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    1. Jo, thanks very much for your comments. I feel the same way, glad to know my dad had some happy times with his extended family.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  2. A beautiful portrayal of how showing love and kindness can make such a difference, no matter what the circumstance...Thank you. Love your photos, great treasure to have.

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    1. Chris, thanks very much for your comments. It is so true, as you say, showing love and kindness can make such a difference. I treasure these photos so very much.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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    2. I have included your blog in Interesting Blogs on Friday Fossicking at
      http://thatmomentintime-crissouli.blogspot.com.au/2016/06/friday-fossicking-june-3-2016.html

      Thank you, Chris

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    3. Chris, thanks for the mention on Friday Fossicking. It is very much appreciated.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  3. Jenn, a beautifully expressed account of your dad's experience. I especially like the idea of a 'hitch knot of memory'.

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    1. Charlotte, thanks very much for your comments. I'm glad you like my reference to the 'hitch knot'.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  4. Jenn - you are the Meryl Streep of bloggers - when I see her movies I always see the character she is playing, never the actress. I am drawn into the story because she becomes a part of that story. As for you Jenn, every single time you post, your work is so thoughtful and authentic, your choice of images so evocative (how many of us have those holiday photos with the children lined up for the shot?) that we readers don't even realize how much work goes in to the process. The end result, your posts are simply brilliant and we see ourselves and our families in them. Wonderful work - as always. Thanks so much for sharing you and your family's stories.

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    1. Tessa, thanks very much for your very generous comments — I love La Streep! I will endeavour to live up to the compliments you have paid me. Thank you!

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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    2. Tessa's comment is just perfect. How wonderful that your dad had such special memories as an antidote to unhappiness. It shows the power of extended family which not everyone was fortunate enough to have.

      Your final sentence also caught my imagination encapsulating as it does the Irish diaspora.

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    3. Pauleen, thanks very much for your comments (and for your lovely comments on FB as well). As you say, the kindness of my dad's extended family was indeed 'an antidote to unhappiness' and probably what enabled him to persevere.

      My father and his siblings were the first generation in their family to emigrate away from Ireland, while all of his Magee cousins stayed. Quite different from my mother's family, generations of whom stayed in Ireland and remain to this day.

      It's interesting to consider the 'push/pull' differences between families. Although it seems many Irish left seeking a better life in terms of jobs, living conditions, etc., I believe in the case of my father and his siblings there may have been an emotional aspect to it, a desire to escape the history of a troubled family life.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  5. It just shows, children can find happiness anywhere, as long as someone in their life is kind to them. I love the pictures - they remind me a little of my own childhood summers in the sand dunes of Malahide.

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    1. Dara, thanks very much for your comments. I feel the same way — a little kindness goes a long way toward creating happiness. I'm glad the photos remind you a little of your own childhood summers in the sand dunes of Malahide. Lovely!

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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Cheers, Jennifer

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