Reflections on my great-great aunt’s memoirs, family titbits, and perspectives on the coronavirus
The truth is, I’m locked in my room, and scared. Lockdowns will soon be in force: my friends panic buy dental floss, and I worry about my medical history of chest problems and the vulnerable members of my family.
This time of year is difficult for me; someone dear died five years ago, nearly this very day.
In between doing mathematics (where I have some ability), and composing poetry (where I have no ability), I re-write this. It’s my reflections on some family history; yet only a few months after I wrote it the past seems much more real. And scary.
Very scary indeed.
I wrote the following snippet after reading my great-great aunt Myra’s old memoirs.
And of course, we forget how lucky we are with modern medicine…. One of Myra’s relatives died because there were no antibiotics; the generation before, most of Myra’s mothers’ sisters died of tuberculosis.
I wrote that two months ago, before I had even heard the word ‘coronavirus’. Even as I wrote those words, I was taking them for granted. A few generations ago disease put your in God’s hands (or rather his lack of hands, if you are an atheist). Myra wrote the following about the death of a loved one in the 1920s.
There was no penicillin in those days and all they could do was put him back to bed… We were all heartbroken when he died and I often think of him.
From 1918 to 1920, the Spanish flu would infect about a quarter of the world’s population. It killed more people than the first World War. Even after World War Two, my own grandparents lived through a polio epidemic in Britain.
Myra’s grandmother— that’s my great great aunt’s mother’s mother — lived through the Irish potato famine in the 1840s. One million people died, in a country of eight million. Even today, the population of Ireland is lower than it was at its peak in the 19th century.
The miracle of modern medicine hides the frailty of life. We take it for granted that, bar a small minority, we are invulnerable for the first ten, twenty, thirty years of our life, and beyond. It seems like we have tamed nature at times. For every flood or disaster, there are green-clad soldiers performing rooftop rescues. Helicopters buzz around overhead, while snake-like convoys of food, medicine and water supplies encircle the affected zones.
Go back a few generations, and death was the norm. No wonder there was scarcely an atheist to be seen in a world where God could seemingly pluck your soul from your body at any time.
But let’s not dwell any more on Covid-19. I’m sick of it before I’m sick with it.
One of the most beautiful developments of modern life is the freedom of women. Reading through Myra’s memoirs, I find some lines jotted down about her mother.
Myra’s mother is an inspiration, and you can just feel admiration glowing out of the pages. An active woman, she sets up a guest-house on her farm, ‘Sea View House’, which attracts an eclectic group of regulars.
These included the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Lord Mayor Alfie Bryne, alongside a leading Gynecologist of the day called Dr Solomon who christened Myra’s mother ‘The General’ on account of her organisational abilities, as well as Dr Lynn, who was a senior doctor in the Easter Rising in Ireland. Frederick Boland visited, a man who would in time be president of the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1960, and call Nikita Khrushchev to order! In Myra’s memoirs I read personal little titbits and details she picked up as a child about these historical figures.
Her mother invests in stocks and pours over the latest financial news every morning, and then uses the proceeds of her canniness to give her children education, and with it the freedom to pursue their own life.
She’s like a Jordan Peterson without the bullshit.
To understand the full impact of this, you might need some historical perspective. Myra’s mother, who herself lived from 1880–1932, was raising her children in the 1910s in Ireland. Myra’s mother’s entire family disowned her because she married a Protestant and left Catholicism. When they found out, they would never see her or speak to her again.
But enough of retellings and explanations. Let’s hear what Myra has to say about her mother, in her own words.
My mother was a woman before her time; she was years ahead in her thoughts and actions. Education was her first passion; she had a good education and realised that it was the most important thing you could give a child. She felt if you were educated, you could go wherever you wanted and, with hard work, be whatever you wanted.
[When I finished school] I wanted to stay at home with my mother, but she didn’t want that for me. She said “This world is a wonderful place; you have to go find out about it.”
My mother had a brilliant brain, and I imagine she was one of the first women to invest in the stock exchange. She bought us shares, as she thought there was nothing worse for a girl, who married, to depend on her husband for every penny. My mother felt that every girl should have an income of her own; even if it was only a few pounds every year. She thought it was awful to depend on other people for money.
Myra’s mother gave her daughters the freedom and education to pursue careers and marriage as they wanted.
I’ve dipped my toes in Philosophy; one of those teenagers who had a “Science is great” phase, then a Nietzsche phase, was briefly enamoured with utilitarianism, then decided to throw it all out the window with Wittgenstein. I’m currently at the point where choosing between porridge and granola for breakfast is as debilitating moral dilemma as…choosing between soya and oat milk.
I do, however, have this intuition that good acts and a true desire and attempts to help others shine through. (Disclaimer: I remain the right to be pessimistic about the possibility of doing good, regardless of intentions) I learned this from my family, from my friends, and from reading many books: Dostoyevsky, Solzenhitsyn, and of course the Bible.
I think I see this same ‘intuition’ in Myra and her mother.
In terms of my philosophy, I feel it is important to always do what you know is right and to be thoughtful, caring and honest. You should say what you think is right, even if it is not what people want to hear. My advice is to be honest and just in all your dealing and to always do your best. This is, I hope, how I will be remembered.
My greatest pride is my family and especially the fact that I have raised four wonderful children who are good citizens. I am also very proud of my grandchildren and adore all my great-grandchildren… I say I prayer for every single member of my family each night.
I hope my family will remain united, as we have always been.
There was one strict rule in the house. No one was ever to be turned away from the door if they came asking for help or food, and many did call. I remember these people; they could not get work and they were hungry.
While they did need our help, they always wanted to pay in kind; some sharpened knives, others mended buckets and some made tin cans. The women brought baskets with thread and needles to repair clothing. They were always very polite and mannerly. My mother always thought of them as being the children of the evicted families of the famine.
Life was very hard for these travellers; no work, no food and no dole. My mother often repeated her own mother’s stories of her experiences during the famine in 1847. How, when the poor could not afford to pay the rent, their houses were knocked with a battering ram. Their farms were taken from them and people were thrown out to travel the road My grandmother’s parents had taken in as many people as they could.
There was an English landlord called Clanrickard in their district and he was not remembered kindly.
Whereas, around the world today, gates squeak shut and are locked on the borders of Britain, Europe, and the United States.
During the War of Independence, Myra’s mother would feed the hungry IRA soldiers who came down from the hill; Myra would stand on lookout for the infamous ‘Black and Tans’, whom Myra remembered as looking like ‘Easter eggs’ because of their hand grenades.
There are some things that remain constant. War is always a tragedy. The difference is in how we react to it.
I cannot remember which part of the family this came from, but I remember being told of great-great somethings as children hearing the gunshots on their way to school in Ireland, and a tale of how a protestant in my family managed to cannily talk his way out of trouble with armed republicans. But these are only my fragments.
If war is such a tragedy, then why do we forget it?
Yes, we have the great remembrances every year. But who is willing to dedicate more than two minutes of their precious time to remembering the sorrows of war?
They were young men and had joined up for the money and the excitement. Many of them gave their life. It was very sad for all the women who were left behind. Many women never got married, as so many young men never returned home and there was nobody around to marry them. So many young men had been killed. Many of the men that did return home failed to find work and became unemployed. During my time in London, many of them were still unemployed. They stood on the side of the street, wearing their medals, attempting to sell matches. There was no work for them when they came home. It was sad.
While we were in San Sabastián the Spanish civil war broke out. There was a training garrison for hundreds of officers in the town and one night the Nationalists came and shot them all. It was awful. We were still in San Sebastián at this time and only the night before we had been dancing with some of these young men. We could hear the shooting during the night.
Myra in her later years restored a Cenotaph built at the end of the Great War, “It took over three months to clean the rails, which had been ignored for years,” she wrote. “I continued this task until I was unable to drive.”
We take peace for granted. In simple terms, Myra lays out the horrible consequences of war stretching out long after 1918.
But Myra’s memoirs also highlight the little pleasures of life, such as eating…a banana, or even just eating an apple out of season. Or not having to make your Christmas cake in mid-autumn.
“We also used to make the Christmas cake and pudding a few months before Christmas, because if we waited until November, there might not be any eggs available for cooking.”
One of Myra’s sons remarks on this too. “I don’t think people today realise how much things have changed during these times. Apart from the technological developments which have been so rapid the biggest difference is how we can now obtain foods which are out of season.”
My Great Aunt (b. 1946), recalled when she was a child, and her amazement at seeing a dishwasher. “Dad always said that Jimmie [Myra] was always ahead of the game and he was right. She was so modern. It was the the first dishwasher I had ever seen”
But perhaps Myra summarises it best. “I am thankful that life is much easier now in many ways; particularly with all the mod cons like fridges, washing machines (and of course Sky Sports). I think that electricity must be one of the greatest inventions; it makes life so much easier, even for simple things like making cups of tea. It is available to everyone, rich or poor. Girls also have great freedom now, which we didn’t have growing up.”
And of course modern medicine. But I promised no more on disease.
One of the things that struck me most was how different farming is. Collecting eggs was so hard — but also so homely.
My first job outdoors on the farm was to collect the eggs. The hens were let out early in the morning and at about 11am I went out to collect the eggs.
Of course very few of the hens laid their eggs in the henhouse. You see, like birds in the air, the hens wanted their own nests; a nest which no-one could find. It was like playing hide and seek as I tried to locate these nests and it was a difficult task for a child because all the hens were free range and wandered all over the place. I might find eggs laid in the hay cart, the orchard, the hedges; the eggs could be anywhere. It was just impossible to find all the nests.
Today, beaks are clipped, chicks are carted into macerators, and the ‘humane’ ways to kill pigs include chocking them to death with lethal gas. So-called ‘free-range’ chickens are packed 9 to every square metre and battery chickens are so grungily packed neck-to-neck shitting on other chickens’ heads that in some countries they have to be doused in chlorine.
Simple acts of love have great power. This is seen in how Myra remembered her husband.
I was terrible lonely after Pa died and still am. He was a wonderful loving husband. I miss his company and discussing old times. No one else remembers them in the same way; we experienced so many things together. Every night going to bed he used to kiss me, say good night, and tell me he loved me. This was always nice to hear. He always brought me a cup of tea in the morning before he went to work. He was my best friend. I could talk to him about anything and I think of him every day.
I suppose one day I too will die.
We are but dust and […] our days are few and brief, like grass, like flowers, blown by the wind and gone forever.
— Psalm 103
If I am lucky, I will be old, with many great-grandchildren, and be able to reflect that, mostly, I avoided doing evil, and sometimes did good. What changes, then, will I and my generation make for the world my great-grandchildren will inherit?
Bonus: Want to read more about life in Myra’s time? Check out this poem about the guest house at Myra’s home, Ballyman.