August 29, 2008

Looking for ancestors in the land of Yeats

We were headed to Sligo, but our first stop was Stokestown – which is one of the places deemed likely as the place our Tanners may have hailed from - and the Famine Museum. The experience was powerful and transformative. The museum is set up in what was once the Mahon family estate, which itself was at the heart of the famine tragedies. Throughout the museum, the story of the famine and its aftermath was told through the voices of the people who lived it via their diaries, letters and manifests, lists, etc.It struck me just how harrowing and tragic the events that unfolded were: what Jim referred to as a ‘perfect storm’of events, habits, attitudes, histories and forces of nature all combined to make an entirely impossible situation. – one that kept going from bad to worse. Once the famine took hold, no amount of effort seemed to stem the tide: The population of Ireland (thought to be about 8 million at the time) was reduced by 2 million (to death or emigration) within 5 years. The Mahon estate was at the heart of the madness: the area was struck particularly hard, starvation was rife, efforts to house and accommodate the poor in workhouses was a dismal failure (spreading disease and more misery), and the ‘assisted’ migration of 2000 people to Grosse Isle (Canada), eventually lead to the murder of the landlord, Denis Mahon.
The museum is filled with photos, news accounts, and documents, but what really got to me was the lists: particularly, there was a list of about 20 people who were to get a slice of meat at Christmas. On the list were a couple of names crossed off and I wondered the reason. Had they commited some offence? Had they failed to work hard enough? Or had they died?
Both Jim and I felt extremely moved and also that we’d learned a lot about a piece of history that is convoluted and still shrouded in opinion, mystery and shame but the real message of the museum is that the history of the famine has distinct relevance to the current state of the world: That same ‘perfect storm’ of conditions exists in the present: the unbalanced distribution of wealth and power; overpopulation; unnatural (and unsustainable) dependence on specific crops; racism; elitism; arrogance and greed. What we learned also gave us pause in thinking about our Tanners. What were the circumstances that brought them to America? What resources (physical, spiritual or mental) sustained them not only through the worst of the famine but through the journey so that they survived - against the odds - as a family of five?

We left the museum and decided to walk through the estate gardens, which provided a welcome – and life-filled- relief. Then headed for the Strokestown Genealogy Centre – which, unfortunately (for us) was closed. We had a brief discussion about possible locations for our Tanners and before heading off again, I decided to pull out my notes on the Tanners in the area: two George Tanners were listed near Longford – in Ballymacormick, Meelick and Kilcommock, Ards and one near Strokestown in Kiltrustan. I told Jim I’d been able to find all but Kitrustan on Google Maps (I love Google Maps!). We got back in the car and went no more than 2 miles, when we both simultaneously spotted a roadsign...KILTRUSTAN!. We stared at each other, open-mouthed (which in my cae was rather dangerous, because I was driving). I turned the car around and we posed for pictures next to the sign, then headed up the road to see what we could find.
At the top of the road was an old graveyard with a ruined stone building (I suspect the old church) at the centre. We wandered through the gravestones – hoping against hope that we might find a Tanner amongst them. We didn’t, but were still well satisfied and trying hard not to get too mystical about the whole turn of events.

About half-way to Sligo, stands Carrowkeel – an ancient, neolithic cairn site perched in a high valley. We followed (sporadically placed and seemingly contradictory) roadsigns to the site, then proceeded along a dirt track towards the trail head nearest the top of the mountain. We hadn’t gone far, when we both wished we’d gone on foot. The single track road twisted and turned its way up a steep pass and as we rounded a turn (which featured an alarming drop on one side), the road suddenly dropped down into a steep valley. There was no way to turn back and I was frozen for a moment in fear. I said out loud, I’m scared” which (I'm guessing) did not inspire confidence and caused Jim to sit straight up and turn white, but he kept his (outward) cool and calmly suggested I not proceed. I said, "It's too late" and headed down...all the while thinking...I’m never going to be able to make it back up. Ahhh adventure! Unfortunately for you folks, we were both too gripped coming- and -going to get a picture. Trust me, it would make your hair stand on end! Finally we came to the end of the road and a sign stating that the road was impassable can only imagine!
We hiked up the steep hill to the cairns at the top and what opened before us was an extraordinary vista...a landcsape strewn with hills, cairns, lakes & a churning sky as far as the eye could see. It was breathtakingly beautiful- powerful, quiet, wild and remote: the site seems to hover over the surrounding countryside. We explored a number of cairns before heading back to the car, Jim (wanting to live) offered to drive us out again and I gratefully let him. We tackled that hill in style..nearly stalling at the top, but thankfully we made it and have lived to tell (though we did have a few moments of wondering if our Irish adventure was going to end in a heap at the bottom of Carrowkeel)...I guess there are worse ways and places to go!

We ended the day in Sligo at the Harbour House backpackers and headed off for a well-deserved dinner and a pint. On the advice of one of the hostel workers, we, found a great pub where Jim got his first hit of traditional Irish music played by a great local crew of players – a concertina, 2 guitars, 2 flutes and a violin. The only trouble? The Irish are night owls and we were to find out that the music scene never gets going until 10pm...too late for us earlybirds – besides, we’re sooooo sleepy. Back at the Hostel, I fell off to sleep listening while Jim read Yeats.


Katie and Emir said...

the famine was a time of such extraordinary suffering - it's interesting that you commented on the perfect storm happening now too. people have been starving in Africa and other parts of the non-industrialised world for decades... i love it that you have awareness and sensibility about these things Sandy - you always grasp what's in front of you, but then take your thought processes & writing those extra steps to connect it all into the big picture. You one smart and good lady! xxx

21st Century Pilgrim's Progress said...

I'm afraid I can't take credit for the was clearly the intention of the museum curators that we make that connection. And Jim was the one who came up with the 'perfect storm'analogy.

Katie and Emir said...

Sandy, you put it all down and wove it together (and believe me, despite what the curators intended many people would not actually get the connection because they are blunt on suffering and oppression, particularly when it comes to the non-western world). You clever, no denying it! Jim is (obviously) also clever :>

ibu kate said...

Selamat siang Sandy. I'm sitting with Megan and Aif at a place called Cloud 9 in the hills overlooking Bandung and soooooooooo grateful to have internet access. Unfortunately I'm on borrowed time and haven't read your blog in real detail... but the your experiences and reflections are incredible and the photos very impressive. Your adventures are like something out of J.R.R Tolkien.