Remembering a different Ireland: why it’s important to ask your parents about their lives
25th Jun 2019
Asking your parents about their lives is like discovering a treasure trove of stories and memories. Here is why it is important to do so…
There is a saying that when an old man dies a library burns down.
I stumbled across this quote as I read an article written about the late great Kerry Radio commentator Weeshie Fogarty. He was the soul of the Kingdom. There wasn’t a Sunday of my childhood that wasn’t filled with his voice, shouting through the airwaves in support of our men in green and gold.
Weeshie very sadly died in November last and with his passing, we lose a vault of stories, folklore and imagination. From a different time, a different world; one where everything seemed much simpler.
A life without electricity
At the weekend, I asked my Dad what might have been one of the most ignorant and stupid questions I have ever bombarded him with. I asked, “Did you always have electricity?” In the space of ten seconds, his eyes showed his full range of emotions. He passed from vacant awareness to absolute despair and I could tell he was asking himself “where in God’s name did I pull this one out of?”
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In my millennial/gen-Z ignorance, I just presumed he had grown up with the magic of electricity as I had. He grew up in the late fifties, which verged on the Beatles era. I assumed that a simple instrument of a lightbulb was a part of his youth but it was not, it was quite the opposite.
He was a decade into this life when he first experienced even the idea of a bulb-shaped object exploding with light. Until the age of ten, they used gas lamps and had a battery operated radio to provide the entertainment. He told me each evening that his mother would read in one corner while his father played the fiddle in the other while the dim, opaque light of the gas lamp cocooned them.
It sounds idyllic. Simple. Preferable to our lives now, even. But then he told me they had no toilet and I quickly shut my wishful thoughts up.
An old Ireland
For an hour, he spoke to me of his world. The wild parties held in a field, full with barrels of Guinness and Irish music after a hard day on the Wren on St Stephens Day. Of how his father could write music, even though he never discovered where he learnt that from. He told me of the first television in the area and how the boys would run miles up the road to catch a glimpse of the Flintstones in their neighbour’s house, who welcomed them with open arms. And how traditional Irish music was dying, and that it was not cool to play an instrument.
I was completely engrossed. The world sounded bizarre but showed shattered glimpses of similarity to ours. Every once in a while I’d jump into the conversation with a story my grandmother and neighbours had told me and I’d suddenly feel like I was a part of it. Able to keep on par with the outlandish stories, because our modern lives don’t sound quite as interesting as theirs.
Related: Retirement: It’s hard to accept my parents are getting older
Ireland’s landscape has changed considerably. Physically, socially and mentally. In the space of 60 years, our country has shifted.
30 years ago, in the 1980s, there were no phones in the rural area I was raised in. My Dad told me the story of my neighbour whose son died in Austrailia. Dad was delivering her post and when he walked in she broke the news, but because there were no phones in the vicinity she asked would he drive her to the nearest town.
She rang her children from a payphone to tell them that their brother had died.
We take for granted how easy we now have it, of how quick and accessible the 21st-century world is. Listening to these stories I realised just how important it is for us to ask questions. To ask our grandparents, our parents or our neighbours about their lives. Our own will be documented through our phones, through pictures on Instagram but theirs, unless written down, are at risk of being lost in the ether, unless we begin to listen and keep their history alive through our words.
My Dad’s story, though nothing out of the ordinary, is absolutely extraordinary. He started with a gas lamp and now rings me from an iPhone. The change he has witnessed is one many of us will never experience. And if you ask the people in your life, you’ll realise that their typical lives are remarkable too.
So ask, and listen and then store it away. These people are libraries; we all are.
But some are more precious than others.
Read more: There’s still nothing being done to keep people in rural Ireland
Read more: It’s time to throw out the ‘culchie’ stereotypes
Read more: Dear Dad: Our Father’s Day letters
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