What Happens in the Time Without Name?

When I took this photo just on the outskirts of Donegal town in 1995, I thought I was photographing a ruin. I was embarrassed and ashamed when the owner came out after I took the shot, hopped onto his bicycle parked under the window, and rode off.

I should have known. I was staying in a "chalet" across the road and down a lane for the week while I participated in an Irish language course. My place had one electrical socket, cockroaches, bedbugs, and dampness to spare. But hey, the price had been right....

Both places were similar to a little house in West Cork where I had stopped with a friend who was showing me the southwest of Ireland in the early 1990s. This was a house that had definitely been abandoned for some time. When my friend pushed open the door, it was like stepping back to the Great Hunger of the 1840s. Nothing had moved, it seemed, in 140 years.

Strangely, across the table in the center of this one-room hovel was a grand ink portrait of HRH Victoria, the English monarch who reigned over a government whose neglect set into motion a downward spiral of events that led to mass starvation, mass emigration, the demise of the Irish language, rebellion, and economic deprivation for the locals that has changed direction only in the past 15 years or so--thanks to the tourism and technology industries and some smart leadership.

When my friend saw the picture, he just about died. He hissed, "What is she doing here?" Indeed, it made no sense. She was like a talisman warding off all self-respecting Irish people and perhaps scaring away many a child with her drooping eyes, jowls, and morbid girth. It was a sick moment, as if someone had staked a royal flag into the territory of this memory.

My friend's anger startled me, too. But then, he was in his 60s, and the memory of the experience was only a few generations old for him. (Doesn't the Civil War rage on in some parts of the US even to this day? Old, unresolved anger is a fire that dies very, very slowly). The words of people like the historian Charles Kingsley, who described the starving locals as white monkeys for whose plight the British were not responsible because they were still better off than they were before they were colonized, might still be rubbing against the grain of my friend's self-respect. So might the blatant racism that fueled the Troubles, the arrests without trials of Catholics, internment, and the like in the latter three decades of the last century.

These thoughts came to mind as I reread How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. The role of Christian monks in saving texts and transcribing them while all of Europe was looting itself during the Dark Ages is the subject of this lively, ironic, and witty book. Cahill starts off by making the brilliant point that historians, and therefore the rest of us, see history as chunks of time with names, and these chunks have beginnings and endings.

We forget that they flow into each other and that our naming game is a construct to help us understand the past. We forget that time is seamless. Thing flow into each other and change shape along the way in a sometimes very slow process. What happens during those frontier years between the labels? Cahill offers a good look at what happened with knowledge itself in Ireland. He shows that it flourished because the Irish learned to read and write and transform text and therefore themselves in the process.

Like the little cottages in which I would find myself when I was in Ireland, knowledge and truth and story don't always announce themselves in their Sunday best. Press open the doors and you find amazing and wonderful stories. You have to believe it's possible though. You have to remember, as Cahill points out, that the hardest door to push through might be the locked one made up of your prejudices and limitations. The Irish know that. In fact, they wrote the book.


  1. Anonymous8:31 PM

    You know, I was thinking about your graffiti book and some of what you've said. The last paragraph of this post reminds me a lot of the way folks think about graffiti.

    Depending upon how open you are to walk through a door with an open mind, definitely makes a difference in what you see or don't see.

    We've all had an experience like the one you had with your friend in walking through that door in Ireland. Sometimes its over tangible stuff; sometimes it's over attitudes about something; sometimes its about people and family.

    We bring our attitudes to situations all the time, and most of the times, that's a dangerous thing, whether we realize it or not.

  2. Thanks for your comment. The funny thing is the cockroaches and the damp were every bit as real as the bite of history. For the man in Cork, Victoria was alive and thriving on the meal she made of his soul.

    The situation as Cahill captures it is a lot like seeing some guy dressed like a bum and then finding out he's got some brilliant and exotic past.

  3. Irish language classes?

    That just sounds funny.

    I'm part Irish and still, I always forget that they have a language. And that you can actually take classes for it.

    That house reminds me of somewhere I've been before. Driving me crazy to remember where. it's like deja vu-- only not. Sheesh.

  4. The need to take classes to relearn your language says an awful lot about what happened in Ireland over the past 100 years.

    When I think of that summer school, I think of the gay poet Cathal O Searcaigh and the dreary conservative I don't know what's he dealt with. Cathal knew where he was, and he was a shaman, a shanachie, a wonder.

    If you find that house DO NOT stay there. I ended up in the B&B across the road that had TWO sockets and hot food. The romance with the boyfriend died in that old house, though the roaches amused the dogs no end.

  5. Anonymous4:15 AM

    Well expressed.

  6. Anonymous1:55 PM

    I came to thank you for your visit and comments on my Blue Jay in my bird blog.

    Yes, they are all of those things and more. They are very special birds and of those we have I have yet to meet one I didn't like.

    I enjoyed reading your blog today and found some of the material and the photo to be impressive.

    Thanks again.

    Abraham Lincoln
    Just My Birds Blog


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