My grandparents and history

Published in Family, Personal History

I was very fortunate that both my grandmothers were still alive while I was studying twentieth century history in college. My maternal grandmother was born the same year the Great War broke out. Although very young at the time, she could remember several incidents from both the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. Granny told me how she and her siblings were home schooled as the War of Independence intensified. The Black and Tans drove like madmen around the narrow country roads, almost hanging from their trucks. My great grandparents were naturally fearful of their children’s safety. Granny also recalled the death of Michael Collins. She was eight years old and on a visit to her aunt’s house. Whether it was by word of mouth or through the newspaper, they were informed of the tragedy at Béal na mBláth. Her aunt broke down crying. Aunt Mag was one of Collins’s many female admirers across the country. It was unlikely that they ever met but she admired him greatly nonetheless.
My paternal grandmother does not occupy much of her time with historical events – Mamó always has more on her mind. She was born in 1917 – the same year Éamon de Valera was elected president of Sinn Féin. While Ireland remained neutral in World War Two, Mamó didn’t. She headed to London although it was more out of need to accumulate a dowry than in response to Churchill’s war effort plea. However, while working in an ammunition factory Mamó helped to defeat Hitler and his Nazis. She told me how Lord Haw Haw greeted her on the wireless, comparing their exit from the bomb shelters to rats leaving sewers. Many years later, I was having trouble with maths homework one day and Mamó was helping me to figure out a difficult sum at the kitchen table. She said she was unable to count in English but that she could count for the Free State in Irish. I was struck how history unconsciously influenced Mamó as more than half a century had passed since the Irish Free State had ended.
My grandfathers were both in heaven by the time I was ready for primary school. As a young boy, my maternal grandfather attended a Sinn Féin rally in the local town with his father. Afterwards, they met Arthur Griffith and Constance Markievicz in a hotel. Granddad and his father watched disapprovingly as the countess smoked a cigarette. They thought it was very unladylike. Unfortunately, my ancestors split over the 1921 treaty like so many other Irish families. Granddad’s father supported the agreement and he later marched in Collins’s funeral procession.
On the other side of the family, my paternal grandfather was far too busy sheep farming on the mountainside to notice any war going on. Dadó’s parents left for New York at the turn of the century. His mother wished to remain on in America but his father didn’t. Eventually Dadó’s father won out and they returned home to Ireland a decade later. Almost a century after my great grandparents first set foot on Brooklyn Bridge, my Dad and I retraced their footsteps. We were on a weekend trip – shopping, sightseeing and visiting relations. I imagined them walking across the bridge and looking out at the vast, impressive city, which stretched before them. Although New York’s skyline changed considerably between our visits, history connected us.
The RTÉ presenter Ryan Tubridy once said in an interview that he would like to make history more accessible. History is accessible. History is everywhere. As we post a letter in the G.P.O., Pádraig Pearse reads Proclamation of the Irish Republic. As we wait for the lights to change at the bottom of O’Connell Street, the great Liberator with bullet holes from 1916 catches our eye. History is alive in our conversations with older friends and relatives – Granny and Granddad, Mamó and Dadó. It’s brought to life in the laws we uphold and in the memories we cherish. Ireland is a living history museum. We are its patrons.

Sinéad Ní Choncubhair completed an MLitt in history in NUI Maynooth entitled ‘Brendan Corish: A Life in Politics, 1945-77.’

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