The Washerwoman’s Genes

April 22, 2006

The Irish Side

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 12:15 pm

My Irish antecedents arrived in America just decades after the Famine had peaked, yet also long before Ireland was to free itself of British control. My mother’s father and mother must have been the children of Famine survivors, and my father’s grandfather also; there is much in O’Faolain’s portrayal of Irish despair and stagnation, emotional suppression and self-alienation that was depressingly familiar to me.

O’Faolain’s story takes place in Ballygall, somewhere in the west of Ireland (at one point she references Roscommon Town). The car rental in Shannon airport comments to the narrator, “If you’re going to Ballygall you’ll need a good car. Is it Roscommon or Mayo or Galway, that bit of the bog? I’d say they eat their dead there, anyway (44).”

Now—that’s a contemporary Irish attitude about the western counties. What would they say about a small village in County Roscommon in 1885? About the place my mother’s parents came from?

Just as the novel set in that domain, the narrator hails from there, as does, I believe, the novelist herself.

O’Faolain connects the emotional primitivism afflicting the rural Irish to the Famine: it is the psychological inheritance of an already backward people who suffered a national bulldozing by colonizing landlords. The evicted survived in burrows, their gardens plowed under, stealing and grubbing what they could to feed their families. “ . . . famine children,” she writes, “would have been like the ones that come running towards the camera from napalm bombs and strafing and earthquakes—children with runnels of snot and sores at the corners of their lips, on faces tense with fear and hatred (75).”

Her narrator Kathleen realizes that the indelible sense of victimhood in her mother’s character, the controlling and harsh essence of her father’s, devolve from that time, and she is driven to try to understand it. “ . . . what would it have been like,” Kathleen asks, “to live in those holes, where the sand is silky but bone-cold. Babies and children in there under branches, maybe, laid across the top, and the mother out on the grass trying to boil potatoes in a pot in the rain or wind over a fire of sea-sodden sticks.”

Studying the history and attempting imaginative reconstruction give her a perspective on, and possession of, the catastrophe that scars the Irish psyche. “The trauma must be deep in the genetic material of which I was made,” Kathleen continues. “ I cannot forget it, I thought, yet I have no memory of it. It is not mine, but who else can own it?” (76).

Serving it up as she does, O’Faolain lets her readers take it on their tongues, in a ritual of self-inclusion and meditation and, perhaps improbably, healing.

Isn’t that what this ancestor-quest is about?

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