The Past is a Fairy Tale: On Remembering and Forgetting in Modern Ireland

Once upon a time my grandfather got lost on the bog. He was still a young man, not much more than a boy, and he was out in the Kerry mountains, near Bearna na Gaoithe, says my mother. I don’t believe her. That’s way too far away. Maybe he was on the slopes of Mount Gabriel, or more likely even closer to home in the hilly land on the way to Bantry.

Anyway, he was lost, and as the night grew darker and darker he began to worry, and then to sweat. He didn’t know where to put his foot for fear there’d be no ground and the bog opening up beneath him. So, he said to his daughter years later, and she now says to me, “I turned my coat inside out—twice.” And all of a sudden he knew where he was and was able to find his way down.

Of course it makes sense, she says when she finishes the story. You’d have to concentrate pretty hard, turning the thick tweed, the pockets, the collar, pulling the arms through. That’s why you have to do it twice. It would calm you down, all that concentrating, so you’d be able to think.

My mother’s stories are always like this. You think you are being led into a fairy tale—you meet old men dispensing wisdom, weird sisters, traveling people with rhymes and extraordinary skills with a needle. There are fireside revelations, strange noises, long journeys and death by water. And then she turns a little matter-of-fact pirouette at the end and offers a perfectly rational gloss on her own tale. An air of otherworldly mystery—you expect the fairies to come out from their earthen mound under the hill—hitched to a thoroughly this-worldly account of her parents, brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends: she likes to have it both ways.

She wants to protect the past from the prying eyes of the present, and the future.

I could describe her as a mixture of inheritances, like a character out of a nineteenth-century novel: the folk beliefs and traditions of her rural ancestors, and the years of training in psychological reason, logic and psychiatry. But I’m much more interested in why she tells stories like this. She has turned her past into a fairy tale, an experience pushed so far back in time, and space, that it seems to have happened in another world. It’s a way of making it safe. She wants to protect the past from the prying eyes of the present, and the future. And she wants to neutralize its violence. She is frightened that cruelties enacted long ago still have the power to hurt, and keeping silent about her family history, minimizing the violence, or transforming it into a fable, is the only way she knows to keep the future safe from harm. I understand the impulse, but I think it’s the wrong way.

“They were Victorians,” my mother once said of her parents. It wasn’t so much an accusation as a defense, an argument that they should not be judged by the standards of the present, or even of the twentieth century. She was technically right, of course. They were born on either side of the 1880s, when Ireland was under the Union with Britain: Gladstone, Disraeli, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, bustles, Sherlock Holmes, the Factory Acts, top hats, Parnell, the Phoenix Park murders, the backwash of the Famine—history lessons and clichés crowd in, but the adjective Victorian feels out of place when talking of rural Ireland, even when “famine” is part of the story.

What she was aiming for was not a chronological truth in any case, but an emotional one. What she meant was that they were Victorians in the 1930s and 1940s, when she was growing up. It wasn’t only a comment about Puritan sexual morality—though that was part of it—but about a worldview based on ideas of natural order, duty and deference to authority. Self-fulfillment and even “individual identity” didn’t come into it.

Religious belief was part of this worldview, certainly, but given that her father had been brought up in the Protestant Church and her mother was a Catholic, it was not a matter of denomination. “Victorian” was shorthand for a kind of buttoned-up emotional life and an unquestioned authoritarianism that involved physical punishment of the young, and saw little wrong with excluding those who had “fallen,” sexually, out of society.

Still, it was an odd term to choose, because my grandparents might more properly be thought of as Edwardians, if you are thinking in terms of British history, or part of the revolutionary generation, if thinking in terms of Ireland. One of my grandmother’s brothers was killed on the Western Front; one of her distant cousins was the IRA leader Michael Collins, who was just a year older than her. Yet to my mother it appeared that her parents belonged not to the previous generation, but to the one before that. “Victorian” says, not like us. It is a way of marking distance.

But it is perhaps also a way of saying: they were on the way out; theirs was a dying culture. My grandparents and their generation were, whether they wanted to acknowledge it or not, a generation losing out to the energy, opportunities and changing outlook of the young. To my mother it seemed self-evident. Her parents belonged to the nineteenth century and she belonged to the future.

And by the time she was talking to me about her parents their lives really were in the past—the more so because she had left them at home, in another country. The future lay across the Irish Sea. History became geography, as her move to Britain enforced a more complete break with the past. In effect it pushed the past further back, and it even did something strange to the present.

When my mother talked to me, a child of ten or eleven, about her brothers who were working as laborers not far from where we lived on the outskirts of London, I do not think the stories seemed straightforwardly to be about their lives in the present. It felt as though they were happening a generation further back, and very far away, in a world in which eldest sons and youngest brothers were required to undertake long journeys, have truck with strangers, and prove their worth by tremendous feats of strength and skill. All of which was true of course, but their lives weren’t really a fairy tale.

I like my mother’s stories. She weaves a childhood spell out of loss and nostalgia and the clarity of old-age remembering, and then she administers the grown-up psychologizing antidote. The family stories are all sewn up, with no space for me, no space for questions. She has built her sense of herself through these stories and at this stage—she’s over ninety, and she’s definitely packing up her things and preparing to leave—questions aren’t helpful.

I ask them anyway, my skeptical, disenchanting questions. I go further and I actually check facts, looking up people in the General Register’s Office and decennial census, the state’s great social-bookkeeping endeavors, one documenting births, deaths and marriages and the other providing snapshots of households in time. Sometimes I come back to her with evidence that proves that what she remembers or what she heard can’t have happened that way. She is never pleased about this. Yet she keeps feeding me stories.

Lately, she’s taken to telling me a tale about another lost child: a baby born to her mother before she married in 1920. A baby that was given up, or given away, around the time of the First World War. There’s definitely something not quite right about this story. It has all the trappings of a fable, but one in which my real-life mother has a walk-on part. The way she tells it, it is mostly set in the early 1940s, and involves a pair of strange sisters who live in a shed, or a shop, miles from the main road, and who impart a secret to my thirteen-year-old mother about a long-lost sibling born thirty years earlier, a secret which my mother never speaks of. Until now—nearly eighty years on.

The story goes like this: during the Second World War, in 1942 or 1943, when she was twelve or thirteen years old, my mother would walk after school up into the hills to a shop that was run by two middle-aged sisters, Maggie and Hannah, who were friends with her mother from way back, from 1910, or 1911. She took with her a pound of home-made butter, which she had stashed in the cool of the church confessional while she set about her lessons in school.

The shop was a sort of corrugated iron shed, and it served the people of a number of townlands living miles from the main road. The moment my mother walked in Hannah would reach for a packet of tea and slip it across to her. The butter was handed over in return. With nine at home, plus a steady stream of itinerant labors and acquaintances who would sleep on the settle, my mother’s family were always running out of coupons, but here they could buy, or barter, off the ration.

My mother’s account is full of little details. Once a week, or a fortnight, she would go—the walk took about an hour, and sometimes a boy would pass on his bike and she’d get a lift on the crossbar. Hannah, who had been deaf from birth and made “strange noises,” ran the shop. Maggie was a termagant; no one would cross her. The sisters gave her slices of warm bread and butter. They liked to talk. “They used to say, Your mother was a lovely woman.” And so the story stutters on, and on, while what initially seemed to be the point—the disclosure of a secret about a baby—recedes further and further from view. It’s a story with a hole in it.

Perhaps there was something more specific, which my mother cannot now remember. Perhaps there was a series of clues that she put together with bits of knowledge from elsewhere, sentences she overheard, conversations with others. But all she can now offer as evidence of her belief that her mother had given birth and suffered the loss of a child in her teens, or her twenties, is the recollection of her mother’s old friends defending her against imagined slights, and assuring her daughter, “Your mother was a lovely woman.”

Perhaps this is all she can allow herself to remember, even now. Something was understood in those visits, something unfolded over the year or two that my mother went for the tea and the sugar. And then she forgot it. Or she buried it. And now when it comes to disinterring it, she finds that it’s too well hidden. She can’t get back to it. It’s as though the story’s punchline is missing or can’t be said. But even though she has so little to back it up, my mother is holding fast. She is convinced there was another baby.

My mother’s stories are almost always about what was not said; they are little exercises in reading what’s missing.

For the record, I don’t believe her. I don’t think she’s lying but she’s not telling the truth either. The truth has got lost, like the baby, inside the story which seems to be a mash up of conversations remembered, overheard and misunderstood. I will return to this story later, with what evidence I can muster, but I’m not really interested in whether it’s fact or fiction.

Instead I wonder why she’s so attached to a story about a child discovering the sexuality of grown-ups, about a missing person, about a mother’s loss, and about a child living somewhere just out of reach—like that old Irish legend she used to tell us when we were small, about the Children of Lir who were turned into swans by their jealous stepmother, and who sang above the lake in human voices for 900 years. Who were gone but still there, if only you knew how to listen.

There’s an element of defiance in my mother’s attachment to this story of a lost child. She knows very well I’ve been digging around in the history of mother-and-baby homes and other institutions. She knows of the revelations about Tuam and Bessborough and the furore over the Commission of Investigation. My mother knows that the fact that a phalanx of grown-ups kept our cousin Mary’s existence secret from us children, leaving her to grow up in the county home barely 25 miles from her real home, is eating away at us all. She chucks in a little grenade. Hah! she says, there’s loads more you don’t know about your grandmother, about what people went through.

And she is also saying, there’s more you don’t know about secrets, and how to keep them, and why and how people tell them. She is throwing down a challenge, from a world of intimate yet inchoate knowledge, in which stories are handed down in families as in a game of Chinese Whispers, to the supposedly verifiable knowledge held in the historical archive. Which kind of evidence do you trust? She knows I can’t resist. I will burrow away in the archive to establish, as best I can, a set of parameters for what happened, even if I never get to the bottom of it. But there is another aspect to the challenge that has very little to do with “what actually happened.”

My mother’s stories are almost always about what was not said; they are little exercises in reading what’s missing. In nearly all her tales she figures as an interpreter—of things stumbled on, intuited, unspoken. I learn from these stories about the culture of silence into which she was inducted, and about how information was withheld and knowledge circulated, particularly between women. I learn something about the forces that controlled rural society in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Ireland, especially when it came to sex, that made secret-keeping—or at the very least, silence—necessary.

By keeping and selectively sharing secrets women conspired to retain some autonomy, even agency, in communities in which they often had little choice over what happened to them—where sex was highly regulated, under constant surveillance, and sometimes forced. And I think I may also be able to learn something about the disaster that occurred when those local, familial and intimate habits of secrecy and concealment met the modern institutions designed by the new Irish state to manage and contain them.

Something is encrypted in this strangely abstract fable about an illegitimate child, a child so insubstantial it’s scarcely there at all. But what? My mother’s storytelling is a gift to me, but it needs careful handling, like a poisoned apple. I need the apple, to have something to build my own story on, to begin to work out what happened before I was born. But I have to make sure I don’t actually eat from it. I’ve learnt that caution from her, of course. Just look at the way she tells her parents’ tales, with that little skeptical twist. She’s not going to bite in, blithely, to her mother’s apple. She keeps a careful distance.

But as she speaks, I can feel her yearning to step over the threshold and join that cast of characters back in the land of childhood. Or in the grave, where her mother and her siblings lie, waiting for her to join them.


missing persons

Excerpted from Missing Persons: Or, My Grandmother’s Secrets by Clair Wills. Copyright © 2024. Available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan, Inc.

Clair Wills

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