Friday, November 6, 2015

A Road I've Taken

            On some occasional rambles through my blog earlier this year, I came upon a path that had been calling me for quite some time. And so I’ve been away from these pages for the past few months, consumed with a historical novel that I’m writing.
            The working title is Tobarmaire (Mary’s Well). The story is set in a fictionalized blend of Dowra, my wife’s native village in County Cavan, and the old village of Tobar nearby that had preceded it. It takes place in 1845-46 during the Great Famine (An Gorta Mor—The Great Hunger—as it’s known in Irish), when the potato blight ravaged the land.
            Tobarmaire tells the story of Michael Corrigan, a fiery young man brimming with resentment as his family and neighbors, evicted from their cottages for non-payment of rent, face starvation.     I've been thinking and reading and writing about this story for quite some time. It began, for me, on a summer evening in Ireland in 1981, when Nan McGovern, my mother-in-law, brought me up Gubaveeny Mountain near her home in County Cavan to meet an old man who lived alone in a cottage. He was known in the region as a “shanachie” (pronounced “shanakey”), a sort of local historian who was said to have “a head full of knowledge about the history of the place.”
            During ancient times, Gaelic clans lived in particular areas of rural Ireland. Evidence of that survives today when so many families in a region have the same surnames. And so, for example, to distinguish one family from another of the same name, a man and his own family would be known locally by his first name, then his father’s first name, then his grandfather’s first name, followed by the family surname. He would be known locally as Charley Thomas Ned McGuire, and his family (if he had one), as the Charley Thomas Ned McGuires, or more simply as the Charley Thomas Neds.
            Charley Thomas Ned—Charley to his face—heard our car approaching and met us at the door of his stone cottage. Stooped, with a gray stubble and rheumy eyes, he greeted us through a mostly toothless grin in the dusty voice of his eighty-five years. “You’re very welcome,” he said to Nan, and turning to me, nodded. We sat before his open hearth, his only source of light. Many of the older folks on the mountain never had the electric hooked up when it came to the region in the 1950s—afraid of it, or just never seeing the need. The light of the hearth, for Charley Thomas Ned, was enough.
            He recalled for us the history of the region as it had been passed down to him in the oral tradition in the years before tape recorders or television, and he regaled us with tales of a local hero who roamed the area nearly 250 years ago. Dick Supple (pronounced “Souple”) Corrigan was a “rapparee,” a highwayman who ran with a gang that robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Through many daring exploits, Supple Corrigan bedeviled the English who oppressed the native Irish in the region in the late 18th century. He is remembered in legend and song in the northwest of Ireland to this day. 
            As the late summer dusk descended on the mountain, the turf fire in the hearth glowed brighter and Nan and I rose to leave. We thanked Charley Thomas Ned for his hospitality and his stories, and the old man replied in a lyrical echo of ages past: “Sure, and wouldn’t ye be happy of the visit if ye was sitting here all the week long with nary a Christian soul to cross yer doorstep?”
            In Tobarmaire, my protagonist, Michael Corrigan, is the great-grandson of Supple Corrigan. Through a series of encounters, he seeks to settle some scores with the English during the famine of the 1840s, some seventy years after Supple had done the same.
            So this is where I’ve been of late, consumed with the past in the present. I’ll be back with some more blog posts from time to time—I’ve just recorded a post at the radio station, which I’ll link to these pages soon. But if I’m away from the blog for a stretch of time, I’m probably just wandering the lanes of my imagination, thinking, researching, or writing about the characters and happenings of Tobarmaire.

Speechless in the Battle

“I have no voice,” he said, barely audible. I was driving my friend John Palencsar to SUNY New Paltz so he could teach his history classes at the college. John is battling cancer of the vocal chords and   had just had a radiation treatment that morning. His speech reduced to a raspy whisper, he told me what frustrated him most: “I have no voice.” Later, in his class, he would repeat those words into a microphone that merely amplified his gravelly message to his attentive students.
            “I think it might serve as a metaphor, too,” he told them. His class by now was rapt, leaning forward, intrigued by what “Professor P.” was saying. “I never felt this before,” he continued. “I always had a voice.” He looked around the room and smiled. The class smiled back and nodded.
            “Maybe some of you have felt this way all along,” he said. “Women . . . and minorities . . . and gays. Maybe you’ve known for a long time what it means to not have a voice. Maybe those of you who are shy or lonely know. Those who are different in any way—to feel that you don’t have a voice.” The students were riveted now by the power of his metaphor.
            Having seized upon a “teachable moment,” Professor P. related the point to the aim of his lesson—that Thomas Jefferson alone was able to articulate a voice for those colonists who objected to a king denying them a say in the conduct of their own affairs. That in the phrasing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had given vent to their frustrations and their passions. He had given them a voice.
            After weeks and weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, John’s prognosis is good. His doctors are hopeful that he will not need surgery to remove his larynx and guardedly optimistic that as his vocal chords heal from the barrage of radiation, he will, in time, recover his voice.
            I think of those who, metaphorically, have much less hope, of those who need not to “recover” their voice, but to “discover” it for the first time. How empowering that moment would be. When the poor pursue means to climb out of their penury, they have found a voice. When minorities refuse to accept that the color of their skin should hold them back they have found a voice. When women or gays or trans people insist that their gender or sexual orientation be respected in their fight for pay equity or civil rights, they have found their voice. Whenever any who feel disenfranchised in any way declare, “Enough! We’ve had enough! We’re not going to take it anymore!” they have found a voice.
            It is one thing to declare one’s passion, to have a voice, but quite another to attain one’s demands. As Professor P. would attest, the American Revolution dragged on from 1775 to 1783. But by conveying the frustrations and desires of the colonists in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jefferson gave expression to their hopes and their dreams. He inspired them to fight against the odds. As with all who feel unrepresented or ignored, however, the journey started with discovering their voice.