Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The death of memory

There is a Mexican saying that we die three deaths: the first when our bodies die, the second when they are lowered into the earth, and the third when we no longer remain in the memory of any of the living.

It was only three generations after his own that Patrick Tierney's descendants lived much of their lives never having heard their great-grandfather's name. They were born less than a half-century after his death in 1900, yet they had no knowledge of his life or any of its details.

Thanks to the discovery of census records, vital records, city directories and a newspaper obituary he has been "brought to life" again within his own family.

Such a tragedy - to so quickly lose the memory of a man who had paved the way for his family to own the American dream through his own sweat, tears and often immigrant shame. Lost was the knowledge of his beginnings in Tipperary, of his childhood triumph over the death-dealing famine, of his struggling beginnings as an immigrant in a country that didn't want him.

I am thankful to be able to know the name of my great-great-grandfather Patrick and to have a small glimpse into his life and times.

In the resurrection of his memory and the telling of his story, I hope to continue to pass his life down through the generations.

As the loss of one man's memory left a void in those who had come into his family a few generations after him, the loss of the Gaelic language has left a void in the Irish people - yet on a much grander scale.

With the departure of a language goes the loss of the heart of a culture and much of its deep heritage. The British must have known that as they forced the Irish to suffer for use of their native tongue. Perhaps they considered it the only way to truly fight the headstrong Irish - by taking from them the shared language and heritage that was their strength.

The Oxford Companion to Irish History, a dictionary-like reference work on all things Irish edited by S.J. Connolly, has an entry on the Irish language (see language) which reads as follows:

The shift from the indigenous language (Irish) to the language of the conquerors (English) weakened the attachment of the Irish to their own country. Indeed it can be argued that the loss of the Irish language is the decisive event in Irish history, since it altered radically the self-understanding of the Irish and destroyed the continuity between their present and their past.
The loss of the Irish language is not only a concern with regard to not being able to understand old Irish records and literature. Its loss is the departure of the ability to view the world from a truly Irish perspective, since the differences in vocabulary and syntax of other languages cause the speaker to view their world in a different way.
I'm not a resident of the Gaeltacht nor do I have an understanding of all the current complexities in the efforts toward promoting the use of the native language of the Irish people. I do know, however, that this language of my ancestors has a beautiful uniqueness that cannot be matched, particularly to the ears and eyes of those of us with Irish descent. My hope is that the Irish language will find its life continually sustained and that it will not come near to approaching its first death as a spoken language, not to mention the death of its memory.
Go maire an Ghaeilge go deo.
(Literal translation: That lives the Irish [language] forever.)
Great-great-granddaughter's note: Patrick Tierney's name in proper Irish Gaelic is Padraig Ó Tighearnaigh. Since at the time of his birth immediately before the Great Famine, the language was spoken by about half the population of 8 million people (according to The Oxford Companion to Irish History) - many in County Tipperary - chances are good that this was his given name.


Colleen Johnson said...

Wonderful blog entry Lisa. My father's side of the family suffers from this as well. I didn't know anything about my great grandparents. I thank God for the census, military, naturalization, ship and other important records.

barbara said...

Hi Leesa,

A well-thought post.
I'am sure that this is frequent among a lot of Irish-Americans.I also was in the same case, and in my larger family it was the two nephews of my Grandad who first seached for answers in the 1920's.

I would have loved to have some Gaelic words,expressions or other passed down too. We have "zip".
I'am looking forward to reading the carnaval entries.

Lisa said...

Thanks for your comments, Colleen and Barbara. I'm glad that we share an interest in getting to the bottom of our Irish roots.

It is certainly rewarding when we rediscover "lost" family members and the origins of our own families' stories.

Looking forward to hearing more about your discoveries...

Anonymous said...

It was extremely interesting for me to read that blog. Thanx for it. I like such topics and everything connected to this matter. I definitely want to read more soon.


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