Rovings I

There is a word in Hebrew for a Jew who returns to Israel. It is a word I would recognize if ever I saw it again. I had an Irish memory that did not forget.

There are twenty million holders of Irish passports, born in Ireland, scattered throughout the world. If I could believe the man behind the bar at a pub in Killarney called O’Connor’s, last week. There are six million people in the United Kingdom who have an Irish grandfather or grandmother, if you believe information on the internet.

I had breakfast at a guest house in Galway with a book, across from 2 women from Toronto who were putting on a production of a play about The Great Famine, in the midst of 4 weeks of research. Later that night, I caught up with them in a pub in the Aran Islands and got the details of what they were doing. I never got to ask if either of them had caught a glance at the book at the guest house, Synge: a Celebration. In the book was a piece by Ann Enright, whose quote I jotted:

“The wars we fought about contraception, abortion, divorce were not about virtue–or only incidentally so–it was about breeding. It was about maintaining stock. The nation faced a demographic shift towards the young. We could not believe that the nation had to over produce just to keep still. ”

The man behind the bar at a pub in Killarney last week had made mention of The Great Famine, and what would have happened in Irish history if the diaspora had not taken the millions of immigrants since the Great Famine across the sea. Somewhere in my reading, perhaps in Thomas Keneally’s The Great Shame, I thought the number was 40 million. With the passing of 8 generations, the number was listed as over 80 million people, if you believed Wikipedia. At some point, the census on the Irish cousins would cease to include people like me, though according to my twin sister’s DNA study, 95 percent of her ancestry came from the Emerald Isle, with a bit thrown in from Scandinavia which would explain my red hair. As the 80 million had intermarried, with their pedigree no longer pure,as the Irish took over the world, when was enough enough? 

“We could not believe that the nation had to overproduce just to keep still.” I had come home to a commercial on Public Broadcasting System channel two nights ago, between shows, where it was said by a young Asian actress, “ Over population was stealing our future.” I was sill trying to digest what exactly was meant. About the fears trying to be stirred. By the organization who had sent a check to the publicly funded PBS channel, funded mostly by tax money. There were too many people in the United States? The young lady thought? And PBS had broadcasted her idea. After going in search of what it meant to be Irish, in 1850 or in 2010, back afterward home, in the United States which had way too many people? And if she thought over population was, in her life, already stealing her future, I wonder what she thought about Asia where her ancestors had clearly come. And, in the words of the song, “How Long Has This Been Going On?”

Maintaining stock. The conflict in just maintaining stock. In breeding. When you were newly married and there was within your own household this demographic shift towards the young. And the line to the bathroom was getting longer in the morning. That young Asian women apparently did not like to wait in line. Perhaps without the proper gratitude for the world she was born into. With the indoor plumbing in a heated bathroom.

When you grew up on the affluent side of the tracks, the realization that this was a competitive world seemed so unfair. When your hunger and longing were, at this point, not as great. Like in the times of The Great Hunger. Or what had happened in post -World War II China. Or in Bengal during World War II. When you were forced to compete with the hungry. And you had some kind of concept, perhaps based upon your higher education, that you were so much better.

Lynda Callaghan
Irish in Leicester
Best Blog of the Diaspora

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2 comments so far

  1. paperlessworld on

    Would that young Asian actress recognize a word, if she ever I saw it, in Chinese as a woman who returns to China as that nation faced a demographic shift towards the young? Was there a certain vindication when this generation of the Chinese superseded the emigrants from long ago?

  2. paperlessworld on


    Ann Enright is an atheist writer from Ireland who gives her perspective on Irish history, with her own twist of inferiority: “The wars WE fought about contraception, abortion, divorce were not about virtue–or only incidentally so–it was about breeding. It was about maintaining stock. The nation faced a demographic shift towards the young. WE could not believe that the nation had to over produce just to keep still.” 


    As if, in her hostile anger, Ms. Enright stood for all her generation of Irish women? The irony was in this same demographic shift towards the young — as people her age all over the EU were not “over-producing just to keep still” — that after all the liberation movements, no one could fill the void as all you had left in your womb was the emptiness. And your spirituality seemed emptier than all those gas tanks during the Arab oil boycott in the 1970s. The echo of the emptiness was heard in the music of the next generation. And no one publicly connected the emptiness to what had happened as rural people left for the city, and how this would affect the future?


    Note the pomposity of someone to proclaim to identify with the majority of her countrymen, from times gone by: “WE could not believe that the nation had to over produce just to keep still.” There was a time in Irish history when an Irish man or Irish woman, with a missing spirituality, who could not believe, would not contest what it was that loved ones did have. The numbers used to reflect a population with ten percent of the people without any belief. People like George Bernard Shaw. And believers did not hold whatever richness they received in churches over family members. Shaw had written of those “feverish, selfish little clods of ailments and grievances complaining that the church will not devote itself to making them happy.” But how the times have changed, as someone tried to speak for all her peers? Post-war, people of the west created a world focused mostly on liberation movements, first in empires broken apart and then in households. And a generation later, there was still the hostility of Western women who had, after a focus on liberation and not virtue, only their solitude. This so-called breeding which ended up being, if not about virtue, than only about evil. Maintaining stock in a blasphemy of self-importance, with a lost humility that was the essence of the Irish, like some kind of Wall Street trader — better than the rest of us — incidentally out for only personal gain. Breeding, like animals, without a soul.


    And so the seen and unseen, in Ireland in the twenty-first century. As so many pubs were closing. As the bond — the institutional bond grounded in love and shared suffering — given to the next generation was more and more abandoned.

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