West Coast, Ireland 2010
Within my first year of PhD study, as I searched to find those details with which I felt real resonance and connection as personal narrative, I had made the decision that driving through Ireland would provide me with an substantiating experience which I felt would root me down into the landscape, as it became a lived part of my research story. Reinforcing this, as I was travelling alone, I was hoping that I could take in my surroundings whilst connecting up the internal narratives I had brought with me. I was conscious that in making the decision to take up this solo journey, my head may at times be preoccupied navigating through the meandering routes as I left the port in Belfast and started winding and branching out towards the opposite coast in the West, where my paternal grandfather had migrated from.
As I had boarded the ferry, on the morning crossing from Stranraer to Belfast, following a drive that had featured a selection of hold-ups due to road works, I had been relieved that I had actually made boarding time. I was hoping that the strange weight I was feeling inside, which had built up as I had driven down would lift as I moved closer towards Ireland. My inner dialogue began to try and tend to this low mood as I reasoned that I would naturally be experiencing anxiety and trepidation at the task ahead. This was my first journey over to Ireland since I had commenced the PhD and I had been maintaining the hope that once engaged in the trip I would become absorbed within the thematic paradigms I was currently constructing. There was of course a fear that once here, I would not find a sense of connection with the landscape, or indeed experience it as somewhere that felt part of my story. Having already made several trips to Northern Donegal over the years, it was important for me to include the experience of the landscape, which my grandfather had departed from. Although my perceptions of my grandfather were drawn from a childhood recollection, with him passing away when I was still young, my memories are confirmed by common family anecdotes and recollections. He was a tall and broad-framed gentle soul, spending five, although usually six, days a week working as a builder for John Laing Construction, with Sunday reserved for going to mass and time spent proudly cultivating a beautiful garden within the housing estate where they lived in Foxbar, Paisley. His quiet patience was often noted, as he nodded away while my grandmother frenzied about her activities, meeting eyes together at the end of the night as they smiled to each other. Noticing these gazes as a child I hadn’t yet known the private hardships, which must have forged this bond. Perhaps, reflecting at this stage, the notion that this return to his landscape was building up a devotional journey, becoming part of this pilgrimage-like process.
I sat down next to the window on the boat across and ordered a warm drink to settle my stomach, and to attempt to lift my spirits. Hoping for a distraction I started to look through my structured plan of activity. I sought comfort with the idea that when driving in my car between these marked sites I would be within a familial realm. As I look back, I hadn’t considered that at times, when I was in such public places, I would become downhearted at being on this journey by myself. This parallel, where physical isolation would lead to an internal seeking of connecting with family narratives to provide a sense of support and comfort, developed.
In terms of capturing this trip through in-situ creative practice, my primary endeavour was to continue this dialogue with self, attempting to deepen the reflections that I believed I would experience within such landscapes. Through physically visiting such spaces and trying to decipher how and what I felt within these environments, I was seeking some sort of presence of my grandfather’s legacy and heritage. In effect, I was hoping that these landscapes would contain something, which I could recognise in connection with him. Once again, this layered gathering of elements became characteristic of my means into the research narratives and themes, continually critically reflecting on why such details were significant as part of this autobiographical expression.
Having departed from the port at Belfast in encouraging brightness, I continued on through such, and began to amass distance upon the newly carriageway-ed routes leading outwards. With the tell tale changing of road signs and the sound of my phone bleeping to indicate I was now over the border, I knew it wouldn’t be long until I reached for the annotated map at my side. The scenery started to roll out and fill every window. I felt that I would be relying on these prepared directions to help guide me through roads which seemed to belong to people who could do without markings, an imaginatively framed knowledge earned from travelling upon them from birth. Due to the lingering winter weather of February, I was quickly driving in the light of a dimming afternoon. Moreover, as evidenced by the over pouring bustles of people collected on the streets of these pocketed villages, I had inadvertently timed my arrival with Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Catholic Church. Foreheads with the imposition of ashes, and children running in between cars as their parents chatted at the side of the road, nodded and smiled to me as I waited for overflowing car parks to ease. Taking in such scenes, I once again imagined myself as part of these village activities, pondering a re-writing of my history. Thinking of these family migrations from Ireland, I thought of the childhoods that would have prefaced these generations, admittedly with a whimsically placed romantic idealism but finding it as comfort as I sat here alone.
A few weeks before my trip, as I researched the various places that I intended to visit, a photo new to me surfaced. It showed my grandfather as a boy, sitting with my great grandfather Peter (my father’s namesake), my great grandmother Mary, my great aunt Nan and my great uncle Stephen. The ritualistic inheritance of names was something which was already an area of constant personal interest, principally through this afore mentioned family name ‘Stephen”, belonging to my grandfather’s brother, my father’s brother “Young Stephen” (passing away age seven), and my brother, named in his memory.
The photograph of my great grandparents, with my grandfather, centre of frame, featured as a backdrop, an expanse of landscape. Now, having a personal experience of such, the steep hills and vast farmland seen in the image, seemed to have waited untouched, and echo the scenery which accompanied my drive through the area.
Both of my grandfather’s parents lineage went back generation after generation to this part of the country. My great grandmother was born as Mary Flynn, and indeed her mother being a Flynn before she married, was raised in Kilnagarns Upper, and remained there with her husband following their marriage. She had three sisters and two brothers, with Mary born as middle child. Two of her sisters moved away to America where they remained until their deaths. Mary, as with the overwhelming majority of such, didn’t see them again after they left the family cottage.
The particular spot where these families had built up their farm steadings was called Coil Na G Garna/Kilnagarns. Translated as Wood of the Cairns, or rather more ominously Giants Grave. As they can often do, the place name of Kilnagarns evocatively describes how one feels when present within it, with vast drops of hills and farmland falling inwards, enveloping their farm from every side. It is understandable how somebody who lived within this environment would feel the weight of this.
The collection from which this family photograph of the Flynn’s had came from also contained a few letters which had been sent from Kilnagarns, two from my great grandmother Mary Flynn, and the other written back home by my grandfather Michael when he had briefly visited alone for a family funeral. The first letter, addressed to Agnes and Michael, was penned by Mary with the aim of comforting them following the loss of their son, “Young Stephen”.
Her words echo the sentiments expressed by many of the letters sent to my grandparents during this period; that Stephen’s soul was now free from sin and suffering. Within Mary’s offering is the overwhelming voice of a sadness experienced by a mother distanced, unable to comfort her grieving son. As she writes to Michael and Agnes you can follow her helplessness as she tries to write down what she wishes she could express by just being with them.
She states that she does not know how she is going to write, and you can hear a grappling stream of words as she tries to compose her letter, trying to hold the difficult thoughts back and not wanting to allow her own pain to be passed onto them. Attempts to silence her own questions of why a child would be taken can be heard as she tries to console her son, desperately trying to imprint her care into the paper of this letter sent from within this pocketed landscape. As she continues to write, the guarding of her own grief starts to breakdown, with the unshakeable loss she feels for Stephen becoming another layer of distance which she feels lies between herself in Kilnagarns and Michael, Agnes and her grandchildren in Glasgow. She notes that “he is always before my eyes night and day”, somehow echoing the physical presence imposed by a landscape which continues to keep her enclosed.
Without a thought for the fact that journeying from this remote West Ireland location would have been problematic in the early 1960’s, never mind for a woman of 77, I had made the presumption that this letter was posted ahead of their trip over to Glasgow. In fact, recollecting that period, my father told me he didn’t remember any of the grandparents coming over for the funeral. He added that according to his parents Mary hadn’t actually travelled outwith Ireland. Instead Mary would forever stay, awaiting the visits of Michael, Agnes and the children, arriving after catching the various buses, boats and hitched car rides necessary to come out to their farm at Kilnagarns.
The letter from Mary is dated Sunday the 19th, a date which through examining a 1961 calendar, indicates that the letter was written in November. With Stephen passing away on October the 31st 1961, the date of this letter further aids in portraying the pace of communication, with this pressing family exchange being written a fortnight after Stephen’s death occurred. For Mary, the environment in which she lived was one which played out within the folds of this farmed town-land, with that which existed outside only gently permeating through, as news out with arrived at sporadic intervals.
My great-grandfather Peter, Mary’s husband, would have been accustomed to travelling moderate distances as the needs of the farm dictated, but for Mary, being needed to run the family cottage, the notion of going beyond the boundaries of Leitrim would have seemed both unseemly and, to all intents and purposes, redundant.
For myself now reflecting upon this reality, it does serve to question whether or not Mary herself recognised the barrier, which was in place because of her gender, or was it simply an assumed way things had always been? Having already mourned the departure of two of her sisters who had left for America as young women, had Mary recognised the fixedness of herself to the land she had grown up in. Perhaps only creeping into her mind when this physical and symbolic distance became a thing, which emphasised the disconnection between herself and the family who had crossed over these borders.
Within the collection of old letters is another letter from Mary, written five years later in 1966. Now in her eighties, the voice of a woman who feels the gulf between herself and her family is tangible, something, which by all accounts, resulted in a sense of guilt for Michael in Glasgow, having himself, left for a better life. Through an intense longing to be with her family, she describes the life, which they could have if they were to ‘return home’. Portraying what she views as that which had befitted all of the generations before her, she describes the life that her family could return to by coming home to Kilnagarns. Residing underneath the many descriptions of benefits, such as plenty of land for housing and steady work for Michael, her desire to be with her family emerges in her words. She writes:
“Dad and I only wish ye wer all in the same place, if you were over here. [sic]”.
 Through excursions over the years, holidays to Donegal meant that I was already familiar with the ‘homeland’ of my grandmother Agnes.