Thursday, October 16, 2008

Piltown, Ireland 19.6.1998: Choctaws and Quakers, Dozing Priests and Inaccessible Records

Yesterday in Waterford, and before that a stop in Kilmacow parish. It was shortly after 1 when we stopped there, and the priest, whom I awoke from a nap, seemed dazed and suspicious. He didn’t offer to let me see the church registry, but insisted on consulting, himself, a computer printout of the registry.

In it, he found Margaret Ryan, sister of my Catherine! She was baptized 3 Aug. 1838, and listed as a daughter of Bridget Tobin. The father’s name was too faint for the indexers to read.

A wonderful record to find, since it proves that Valentine and Bridget Tobin Ryan are, indeed, my ancestors. We had (or her tombstone has) Margaret’s birthdate awry—2 Aug. 1835—but this Kilmacow Margaret is clearly mine.

Then on to Waterford. What to say? A lived-in city, lived in and lived on for generation upon generation . . . . In a shopping mall downtown are the foundations of a Viking church—discovered far beneath the ground as this block of the city was excavated. It has an apse, perhaps the first in Ireland, as well as burial crypts. There it is on the basement floor, encased in glass, to be gawked at, with a panorama of garishly painted Vikings around the walls.

The Irish live with their artifacts—have no choice except to do so. They live lightly with them, passing them with nary a glance, or telling an amusing story about some primeval escapade that occurred at that place. It’s not that they’re unconscious of their history. It’s just that it’s there, all around them, like the tattered antimacassars of a shabby old country house. The Germans would put up neat signs with erudite guides to these shrines, and in doing so, distance the places from their contemporary selves. Not the Irish. They leave them be.

And in doing so, allow them to decay—the downside of the Irish character, the feckless manifestation of Irish lightness of being. Waterford’s a shabby, grimy, third-world city, and not a shabby genteel one. It’s full of loutish teens puffing on fags, their faces pasty in the gray light of an Irish day. Like Ireland as a whole, it’s pocked by inveterate poverty, with longterm poverty’s attendant ills—ignorance, narrowness, scheming and resentment.

We did the tourist bit—a tour of the heritage center, where a display of Viking artifacts (also discovered when part of the city was excavated) is on show, along with a stunning display of the city’s charters. There were Aoife and Strongbow in all their bright-colored lifesize glory, to be seen in a panorama.

When one looks at the characters, all one can think is how intertwined—how incestuously intertwined—is Ireland’s history with England’s. This Viking and Hibernian city, decreed into existence by English monarchial fiat, and then divided and subdivided as booty given to English lords who pleased English regents . . . .

One is ineluctably aware of that history when one sees the old manor places. In the morning, John and Maura took us to pick strawberries on the old manor estate of the Earl of Bessborough, Mr. Ponsonby, now Kildalton Agricultural College. The house itself is Georgian, of local limestone, with serene classical proportions and a beautiful grand stairway pirouetting up out of the entrance hall.

As one sees it, one tries to imagine the life lived in such a place, in such a nation. John and Maura say the earl lived here only sporadically, perhaps three nights a year. But the house was kept staffed with a large year-round staff of servants, so that it would be impeccably groomed at any time the earl happened to drop in.

When he did so, the local gentry gathered for balls and soirees in the elegant gardens, part of which are still there to be seen—the yew walk, the deer park, the little man-made lake, rhododendron tumbling to Irish excess and chaos all around the tiny artificial areas laid out by human intervention.

And what did these gentry talk about, I wonder, as they waltzed and sauntered so self-consciously aware of setting a glittering social standard in a barbarous and incomprehensible place? Themselves, no doubt, and London, sweet London, the center of their universe, and so the world’s. Did they ever debate the merits of Swift’s modest proposal? Did they wonder what my ancestors talked about in their smoky little cabins where chickens clucked beside pipe-smoking grannies beside the fire?

William Trevor gives us a glimpse of these social worlds and social interactions, and, to an extent, Brian Friel. Yet I still want to know more, to be inside that social world, to a degree.

All these thoughts reinforced as we drove up to the estate of Lord Waterford last night, as John and Maura stories of him. We drove through an interesting little mill village, Portlaw, which I believe Quakers laid out, though John and Maura don’t know of that.

They tell stories of Lord Waterford (who still owns huge tracts of good land) as if they were still the 19th-century tenants on the lord’s manor—half-affectionate, horrified stories about this very alien man with very alien cultural norms on whose good pleasure their existence depends.

It seems that in his youth he was a wild, reckless man, who would drive like a demon down the road, heedless of children or dogs in his way. That he tried to shoot himself after a favorite hunter was killed in a hunting accident. That the family were cursed by an old woman whom a former Lord Waterford evicted, who foretold that, for generations, the male heirs of the family would die violently, and not in their beds. And so it has come to pass . . . .

The Quakers: John and Maura speak kindly of them. They apparently helped tremendously during the Famine, though many of their ancestors came as liege soldiers in Cromwell’s army, and got land for their service.

John and Maura also tell me that the Choctaw Indians sent money for relief during the Famine! This is commemorated in Waterford, where a plaque about it hangs in the Carnegie library, and a few years ago, a delegation of Choctaws came to Waterford for some celebration, and were warmly received.

Portlaw Quakers who operated cotton mills using cotton from the American South; Choctaws whose homeland is Mississippi sending money to relieve hungry Irish people: do any of these strands interweave with the story of my Ryans, who sailed off to New Orleans and Mississippi cotton lands in 1852? To know history at all, one must have a story. One must sense a story where others see bare fact. One must tease narrative out of the stony ground of document and artifact.


gaiamethod said...

My mother was born and bred in Kilmacow. The MacDonalds, or 'Donnelly's' as they are locally known! I actually found your blog while looking for stuff about Graiguenemangh, where my father is from and where I spent the early part of my life. I am writing a blog about my own memories!!!
I love your observations of the Irish, especially, in this article, about Waterford city! I had two of my children in Waterford in the 1980's and I hated the place! It was just as you described!!! But I returned to live in Dunmore East, Co. Waterford in 2007 (Lived in UK) and stayed for a year. The city was completely changed. It felt more like some place in Europe! It was also full of Africans who wore their traditional Nigerian or Ghanaen clothes!! It was no longer Ireland. A very strange experience!!!!
I am enjoying your posts. I will continue looking through for Graig! :-)

William D. Lindsey said...

Gaiamethod, this is another of your wonderful comment that I did not know had arrived until just now, a almost a year after you left it. I am very sorry not to have seen it and approved it until now. It's fascinating to me that you have ties both to Kilmacow and Graiguenamanagh, the two places in Co. Kilkenny in which I have looked for my Ryan roots. Reading your comments makes me want to return to Ireland very soon.