|Kitty, my mother Maureen, and Teresa at Teresa's farm in Ahascragh, Gallway a few days ago. The three oldest of the surviving cousins. Kitty has 9 children, Mother has 4 and Teresa has 6.|
Thursday 9 October 2014
I am sitting in a bed and breakfast in Carrick on Shannon, County Galway, in the late afternoon, while mother rests in her room next door. I am sitting in my room on a chair with cushions watching the rain fall outside. I got the nice room with pink pillows and space for two chairs. Poor mother got the room with just enough space for a huge double bed with a black cover, black lampshades and no chairs. Her room smells overpoweringly of bleach; we think either someone dropped a bottle of bleach, or it's a quick clean up after a murder before we arrived.
I am spending this week with Mother visiting her cousins in Ireland. Like Mother, the cousins are old now, eleven of them between the ages of fifty seven and eighty, though she is the oldest at eighty four. I have been meeting people for the first time that I have heard about since I was a little girl. I have visited the old farm where the cousins were born and grew up, where my mother stayed as a child, and it feels ridiculously familiar, as I have lived there too. I recognise the faces of these cousins of Mum's as if I had always known them, and they have absorbed me into their conversations with her as if I have always been sitting with them, watching them from a distance.
Here in Galway, my mother spent her childhood visiting from England with her mother, my Irish Grandmother, in the 1930s and 1940s. When war broke out, Mother was sent to live with her Aunt Nina in Portarlington, County Offlay, while her youngest brother and sister went to their Aunt May nearby. Mother's time in Galway with Nina were among the happiest of her childhood. When I was little, I loved to hear stories of her days in Ireland, the way she was met from the train in a pony and trap; the way her Aunt Nina thought she was too pale and thin, and fed her on beef tea and made up her bed in pretty linen sheets. The way Nina taught her how to clean silver, to feel the quality of good material and to wash and keep lace. Probably the most important thing was that childless Aunt Nina saw in my mother a shy, sickly, skinny, nervous little child and looked after her so that she blossomed, and grew stronger with Nina's undivided attention.
My Grandmother Louisa Fitzgerald, her two sisters and brother were born in a tiny farmhouse in Castlegar, County Galway. When Louisa's father died suddenly, her brother Paddy took over the farm as a very young fellow indeed, giving up his education. The farm, mother told us as children, and according to all her cousins who were born and grew up there, Paddy's children, was basic. There were two rooms downstairs, and four upstairs and no lavatory. No electricity or water, and no road or path leading into the house. We came over the fields, they said. The pony and trap would take you so far, and then you would branch off walking across the fields. There was a well a mile or so away for the drinking water, and rain butts caught water for washing.
Paddy later married Nell, fourteen years younger than him, and had eleven children in that little house. My mother said Nell would cook on the hearth, with big iron pots on trivet stands, and a system set up to hang kettles and cauldrons up over the fire. It is these eleven children that we have come over to see this week. These are Mother's cousins, with whom she played while she grew up here in Ireland. Not all of them are alive, some we can't see this trip, but those we have met up with again, have greeted Mother as if it were only last week she was here, talking and laughing about all the things they remember. The oldest of the cousins is eighty and the youngest is in her mid fifties. Mother has been back here to visit all her life, has been a part of this family for ever, but I have not met them and I have not seen the farm house, and I have only imagined how it was for them all. And now that mother is eighty four, she is the oldest surviving member of her generation, and it is becoming more and more difficult for her to do this trip. My grandmother had seven surviving children. Paddy, her brother and Nell, his wife, had eleven. May and Nina, though married, didn't have any children. There was much coming and going between the eleven in Castlegar, and the seven in Bourneville, Birmingham. All their faces look familiar to me, and I want to sit forever and hear them talk.
I see my mother's delight at being with her cousins. A moving moment was seeing her pleasure on the drive up the road, built in the 1950s, to the old farm in Castlegar. Her cousin Padraig came out to see her, now an old man, walking with difficulty, dressed in his fresh pressed shirt, his black shoes polished and his hair smart and brushed. The strength of his handshake was a wonderful experience. Padraig took over the farm, and has never left it. This is where my Grandmother was born. I adored my Grandmother. She died when I was twelve, in our sitting room after a long illness, and the person I loved most in the world went for ever, she would never come back. I loved my mother of course, but grandparents can be magical in the way that parents with all the hard work of day to day living with raising children, simply have not the time for. I had always wanted to come and see where she was born, and perhaps feel that I could find a bit of her again. Well, the shock of it all was that when we arrived at mother's cousin Kitty's house on our first day here, the lady that I met was the image of my Grandma. It took my breath away. I have spent this visit gazing at Kitty, watching my Grandma in her face and expressions, feeling that after all, she is still here. It was good that Kitty was the one who took us to see Padraig at the farm, where they, all eleven cousins, and my Grandmother and her brother and sisters a generation before them, had been born.
And so. I am sitting in my bed and breakfast room, gazing out at the rain, feeling as if I was always here, and feeling too as if I know nothing at all.
Mother is asleep next door, on her black bed, gaining strength for tonight, we will be visiting more cousins. She is very old, and feels her age, but she is utterly sound of mind, and remembers everything. We visited the house belonging to her Aunt May, her cousin Fr Joe Fitzgerald took us. The lady living there welcomed Mother warmly. Mother was able to show her where the chickens used to lay their eggs in the guttering high above the barn, and where she and the Fitzgerald cousins would find them.
Mum doesn't think she will come to Ireland again, this is her final trip. I understand, possibly she is right. The cousins here tell us that we should visit again soon, they say I will be welcome back to see them too, and I want to take them up on it. But without Mother, I will have to forge my own history, have my own experiences, and be myself. The link to these cousins of hers, their families, and the farm they grew up in, and life here, this link is my mother. I have no real way back to the past and into this life, except in her company here. This week, I have watched and listened as she met again and introduced me to these amazing people that I had been aware of for ever. I have been welcomed, absorbed and accepted into Mother's past, into their company, and I have fallen in love again with the characters and the people I loved to hear about as a child, this time falling in love with them in real life not just in the stories. It is so good to see my mother completely at home, a part of this world, and it is so good that I have at last seen it for myself. I will leave you with a silent snippet of Padraig leading Mum to the field where they used to cross to arrive at the farm. The sun shone then as it does here. Once these two would have run over this land. I wish I had been there too.
Mother and Padraig, revisiting the field they used to come over to get to the farm. Padraig was born here, as was his 10 brothers and sisters. He ran the farm after his father's death, and is still there now.