Family history

I was in the kitchen making dinner the other night. During finals season, my schedule takes a horrific turn, and since I get more work done in the evenings than the mornings, I often find myself staying up into the wee hours of the night and waking long after the sunrise. One unfortunate result is that I most often begin making my dinner after 10PM, and as my suitemates prepare themselves for bed or put together an evening snack, I am working away on some potatoes. I’m peeling skins when one of them comes in the room, asks how I’m doing, how was my day, what have I been working on—in the manner of conviviality and good fellowship. I tell him that I had been working on an essay all day (my energy comes in bursts; I don’t work for two hours every day the whole semester; I work for days in a row, twelve hours a day; I’m a sprinter, not a distance runner). After asking what my topic was, I launch into a diatribe about the 1641 rebellion in Ireland, which started in Ulster among the elites of that age but was quickly taken up as popular insurrection, folks from all swaths of Gaelic and Old English society finding themselves wrapped up in the action, balancing economic and religious and political motives, and…

I stop myself. I realize I was explaining a prominent subject of Irish history to an Irish man, and a well-read one at that. I apologized profusely. I hadn’t meant to be condescending. “Oh, not at all, at all…” he tells me, and continues, “In fact, that’s one that they skip over in schools.”

That’s the first thing that struck me: that this land is so full of history that school administrators are forced to choose which events are most salient, which are most important, which had the most lasting impact. Perhaps by virtue of occurring during the early modern period, the 1641 rebellion does not command the same general awe as the 1798 rebellion, or the Irish War of Independence (notably, many of the “rebellions” could have been called “wars of independence” had the Irish won; something to think about).

But what struck me later as I got back to work arguing for the material interpretation of events over the ideological, was that I have gained something of an understanding about the social and political history of this place—or at least some of the greatest hits. I’ve read the lamenting poems of Feargal Óg Mac an Bhaird after the Flight of the Earls after their defeat in the Nine Years War. I was there, in a sense, with Theobald Wolfe Tone as met with the conspirator William Jackson—and I saw Jackson collapse on the floor dead after eating poison on the day he would be sentenced in the first ever trial for high treason in Ireland. Then of course there’s James Connolly. I came here to learn more about myself and the land that my family is from—I take some small amount of pride in knowing what I know now, about a land that has come to mean so much more to me than an abstract sense of ancestry.  

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