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Prologue to Forgetting

Sarah O’Brien

Minor Monuments, by Ian Maleney, Tramp Press, 240 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-1916434202

The moment rises from the darkness of forgetting. The author of Minor Monuments, Ian Maleney, is sitting in a farmhouse kitchen with his grandfather, John Joe, listening to a cassette tape of Irish emigrant ballads. Alzheimer’s disease has taken hold of John Joe’s mind, clouding his understanding, untying one by one each string of memory from its place of occurrence. Watching his grandfather struggle to recollect the once familiar words of Carrickfergus, while listening to the irrevocable loss signalled through the singer’s voice, Maleney becomes suddenly attuned to the likeness of both parties’ struggle. He puts it like this:

Sitting in the kitchen with John Joe, I was struck by the resonance between two different experiences of exile: the emigrant and the amnesiac.

It is an astute correlation. Upon reading it, my mind turned to its own concerns, toward the stacks of Irish immigrant memoirs and audio transcriptions sitting in rows on my bookshelf, collected over the years across England and America. Swelling in their ring binders, they begged, like this fleeting comparison, for further exploration. Like Maleney’s grandfather, and like Ian himself, each of these voices had tried to claw back a complete memory of origin through a flurry of reminiscence. The sustained question running through Minor Monuments is whether such an endeavour is ever successful. I have come to wonder if these dog-eared sheaves of paper might have an answer. 

The clot of dread within the Irish migrant’s psyche can be easily constellated within an overarching terror of forgetting. This is partly because we have always known, deep down, that remembering is a collective practice. The close-knit pattern of Irish rural life present at the time that songs like Carrickfergus were written meant that neighbours and family were paramount in renewing the individual’s repository of memory. “No one remembers alone,” the philosopher of memory Maurice Halbwachs has concluded. Memories are always socially situated, contingent on the presence of others, so that in crossing the ocean to America or the sea to England, Irish emigrants not only bid goodbye to their loved ones; they relinquished too the people responsible for reminding them of the places and faces, the times and narratives that gave coherence to their identity and substance to their memory.

One loss follows another. People carry forth memories. So too does place. The pulse of Irish cultural memory from the neolithic to the modern beats from the organ of the Irish landscape. So say the geographers; so say the folklorists. “Land frames human endeavour,” writes Estyn Evans, in his study of the Mourne Mountains, making early declarations around the intrinsic relationship between people, culture and the landscape in Northern Ireland. Henry Glassie’s meticulous ethnography of the people of Ballymenone in 1970s Co Fermanagh drew similar conclusions. Over the course of several years, Glassie observed that it was up from the surrounding physical landscape that local stories and historical recollections percolated. Glassie’s interlocutors scrutinised the bridges and houses and byways surrounding them, evoking in turn memories of others who had come before. By casting an eye out over the rolling hills, allowing it to fall on a given byre, a given bend in the road, the historians of Ballymenone renewed their repository of stories, corrected their interpretation of the past and passed it on to the next generation. Glassie puts it beautifully:

The landscape we share with the dead swells into an encompassing mnemonic, embodying our history and urging us to judgement.

Some forty years later, the tradition perseveres. Minor Monuments pays testament to its continuity, following as it does a young man’s journey through the landscape of his home place in search of belonging through the accretion of local stories and local sounds. “I’m looking for roots, origins,” Maleney writes. “I want to be from that place and only that place. I want to speak and to be understood: to think along their lines.” Doubt stiffens often. Maleney questions his method, critiques its efficacy. Yet he has as his primary mnemonic resource that which millions of Irish emigrants lost entirely: the earth under his feet, and the infinite set of cues emanating from its peopled landscape.

It troubles the mind. From landscape springs memory, from memory, origin. From their bedsits in Birmingham and Boston, Irish men and women pondered this predicament, imagining the process of internal decay set in motion by their detachment from the land and its people. Meanwhile, In Ireland, the notional indelibility of place and people developed a callous exclusionary function. By the mid-twentieth century, a fraudulent hierarchy of ethnic authenticity based on proximity to one’s native landscape had gripped the Irish imagination, endorsing those who had stayed at home, devaluing those who had fled across the sea. Its effect was unsubtle in tone, searing in consequence. In 2006, when I asked Bill Collins, an Irish immigrant in Birmingham if he ever thought of returning home to West Limerick, he answered like this:

I can’t go back to Ireland. We’d be Brits if we went back. And that is the saddest part of it.

Bill Collins was a hurler. He spent all of his adult life volunteering with Warwickshire GAA, fundraising for a decent playing pitch at the edge of the city, waiting with his friend Gerry Craten at five o’ clock in the morning by Birmingham train station for new lads to recruit into their hurling team. League games were played against other immigrant clusters, in London and Coventry, Liverpool and Manchester. Players signed up to their new clubs using their old addresses in Ireland, written in the Irish language. Weekends were spent in buses, travelling across England, hurlies hidden away from the public eye for fear of association with the violence newly flared on the Northern Ireland border. And for years, when it came to the day of the national league final, these immigrant teams and their coaches, fans and families packed up a weekend bag, climbed back on the trains and disembarked at the other side of the Irish Sea in Rosslare, to play their last match of the season on Irish soil.

Somehow, the dialectic between place and identity had destabilised. The Irish landscape had come to hold a monopoly over memory, feeding in turn a myth of authentic origin. Yet it cannot be so. The written immigrant memoirs on the shelves, the immigrant testimonies spoken into recorders, prove that the covenant forged between landscape, memory and origin does not stand up to scrutiny. In truth, the exile remembers on overdrive, not in spite of the distance from their original landscape but because of it. In a conscious-driven pattern of intense recollection, hurried by the landlords of Irish culture who would deny the veracity of their reminiscence, Irish immigrants across multiple generations have exercised to the point of exhaustion their capacity to renew their past through concentrated imagination. Without the tool of landscape or the subsidy of neighbours to edify and ease their work they lean instead on the awkward, solitary handle of the mind.

The results are extraordinary. Listen to Nora O’Connor tell of her last night in Ireland before sailing to America. The year of her departure is 1907, the place is Bantry, West Cork. Nora’s sweetheart, Jim Hazel, has come to bid her goodbye. She never sees him again. Forty years later, from her solitary home in Michigan, she writes in her memoir:

I remember the last evening Jim and I walked together. We had reached what we called the Brittius Mine and on turning back, a lark flew past us and soared high, high up in the sky, singing like mad. We stood and watched it fly out of sight. In the morning, I was to leave and I said to Jim, “I shall never forget that lark.”

Nora’s victory is her use of the pen to transcribe from her mind to the page a poignant stream of memories, set precisely in space, loosely in time. Let us not be miserly in acknowledging the effort spent, nor the pain suffered by consequence. Memories are not singular. They arrive in unsorted bundles, the good mixed in with the bad, the comforting with the troubled. Writing her memoir forces Nora to recall the slow, painful death of her one-year-old daughter, the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. Bravely, she continues: “Those months I would like to forget but memory brings back those awful days so vividly at times.” Nora understood, like Jacques Lacan, that to fully forget, she must first fully remember. Even Nora’s recollection and description of happier days involved what Henri Bergson understands as a mnemonic effort entailing complex mental practices and gruelling sacrifice:

To call up the past in the form of an image we must be able to withdraw ourselves from that action of the moment, we must have the power to value the useless, we must have the will to dream. Man alone is capable of such an effort.

This willingness to dream, to give herself over to her flood of memories is ultimately what distinguishes Nora’s inevitably innocent memoir from Maleney’s masterfully doubtful essays. For, at the base of Maleney’s anxiety in Minor Monuments is a mistrust of memory. Writing just before the advent of postmodernity, Nora O’Connor had not yet learned to narrow her eyes at her memory’s claims to truth. Forgetting, for Nora and her fellow immigrants, was an accepted feature of the mnemonic tradition. Tom Brick’s memoir works along the same disciplinary logic. Brick emigrated from Ballyferriter to South Dakota in 1902. Like Nora O’Connor, he was born into poverty, forced to leave school at twelve years old to support his family’s survival. Through his teenage years he fished mackerel off Smerwick harbour, absorbing neighbouring fishermen’s tales of the shipwrecks and evictions that storied his line of coast. In time, he saved the money to go to America, defeated by the certainty of dispossession that faced the people of his class. Seventy years later, from his rented ice cream store in Vermillion, he sat to write a book that held together like beads on a necklace his most precious recollections. It is a memoir dizzying in local detail, sparkling in rhyme and repetition, true to the art of storytelling in his native West Kerry. Methodologically, it accepts from the outset the scope and boundaries of memory. Comparing his work against the chronologicallyconcerned, empirical tradition of the historians, Brick writes:

I am not trying to give exact dates of any of the occurrences that I am writing about. No doubt there are recorded dates of all these occurrences, if I took the time to look them up. I am writing this narrative memoir directly from memory

For Tom Brick and for Nora O’Connor, evocation of experience rather than accuracy of fact was of most concern. For precisely the same reason, songs like Carrickfergus rather than heavily footnoted historical lectures came to dominate Irish immigrants’ aural culture. Through their abstracted melodies, Irish songs and music permitted subjective responses to a shared experience. That is to say, the experience of memory for post-Famine Irish immigrants was not yet forced to mirror the processes of history. Time would change everything in this regard.

The poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky was not the first to spit bile in the direction of memory. But he was perhaps the most metaphorical. In his poem “Parts of Speech” he writes:

And when “the future” is uttered
swarms of mice rush out of the
Russian language and gnaw a piece
of ripened memory which is
twice as hole-ridden as real cheese

Born in 1940, Brodsky was a child of the Soviet regime and its homogenising cultural machinery. Estranged by his Jewish background in Russia, and later by his exile in America, “Parts of Speech” is a playful polemic against the porousness of memory and its role in facilitating the radical change that altered the course of twentieth century history. As a boy, walking through the streets of Leningrad, Brodsky observed at first hand the statues pockmarked by artillery shells and the omnipresent images of Lenin on every public surface, struggling to reconcile his earlier memory of Petersburg with the new demands of a national experience. Its effect was a lifelong distrust within the author of any attempt to recall the past.

Tom Brick, bent over his typewriter in a small room in South Dakota, understood the necessary separation of memory and history. For both to flourish fully, for both to dutifully serve their differentiated functions, they must be kept apart. As it was, a poor fisherman’s recollections had no defence against the army tanks. 

The leaders of late twentieth century Europe saw it differently. Memory became pressed by their violent desires, and splintered by consequence into ambiguous and ambivalent subcategories. “Cultural memory” was coined as a confession of the stakes now at play when pausing to recollect. “Historical memory” acknowledged the new role of the state in informing the images called to mind when scanning the past. More and more was methodologically demanded of memory, more accusations of determinism heaped at its doorstep, more suspicion of any claim to its individuality accruing as the information era drew new influences ever closer to its borders. The kind of innocence with which Nora O’Connor approached her memories was no longer possible in an age determined to forget nothing. 

Out of this crisis of memory, books like Minor Monuments emerge. In mining for origin, for an integral memory that holds together every facet of a globalised life, Ian Maleney bemoans but accedes to the modern method. It teaches us that to rummage through the rusted fragments of our childhood memories is not enough. Armoured with technology, it conditions us to drill beyond the surface of our local community into the ever-thickening reservoirs of history and culture. Diligently, then, Maleney consults complicated art installations in Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery, studies the intellectual treatises of René Descartes, borrows snippets from the literary canon of WG Sebald, knowing all along that this conflation of history and memory is precisely what distances him from the space to which he so badly wishes to return.

The things I had been accumulating —books like Falling into Wretchedness; phrases like “network of precarious traverses” ‑ were not a part of the lives and minds I considered local. Sincere and even passionate as it might be, my relationship to home had become a mostly intellectual pursuit. Writing about it was not going to reverse that. I wonder if it is even possible to write entirely from memory, or whether memory is, in the end, a private, unspoken, unspeakable thing.

It is possible, Ian. It is. Nora O’Connor did it. So did Bill Collins, and Tom Brick. Thanks to these singular, ill-prepared, cast-aside immigrants we can retrace our steps back to a point in time when memory lay open as a meadow in bloom, before we pumped it with all our historical and cultural and individual concerns. Each of these long dead voices was aware of the limitations of their craft and the boundaries of their talent but they gathered their words into narratives regardless. Henry Glassie sighs, admits that it is useless.

Writing will fail but there is nothing else to be done. The photographs, the records of speech, the artifacts gathered for the museum will not suffice on their own. Words must march out to defeat, forming lines across paper in the belief that some of the reality will filter through their accumulation.

In writing we remember. And in consigning our memories to print, we comfort ourselves, becoming marginally more generous about permitting a small space, too, for forgetting. We settle to balance the score between past and present, welcoming books like Minor Monuments as allies in a long homeward journey toward understanding.

1/6/2019

Sarah O'Brien is professor of linguistics at Trinity College Dublin. Her forthcoming book examines Irish cultural memory and is scheduled for publication with Indiana University Press.

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