The War I Inherited
There are parts of my family’s history I may never know except through the whispers of ghosts and the traces of story held in my bones. My great-grandmother spoke no English and her grandchildren spoke no Irish. My great-grandfather died while my Da was very young. But we know that everyone called Daniel O’Donoghue “the Captain.”
Growing up, I heard the story that Daniel had been a Captain in the IRA or the Irish Volunteers — but the Irish Volunteers formed in 1913, later becoming the IRA. Most likely he was involved in their predecessor, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (Bráithreachas Phoblacht na hÉireann). The Captain lived in Killarney in County Kerry, the heart of the Gaeltacht, the Irish speaking region, and of Irish resistance to British colonizers. He came of age in the late nineteenth century, born in the wake of the the famine where the British allowed a million Irish to starve when the potato crops they were growing to supply their colonizers’ hunger failed, and half a generation before the Easter rebellion of 1916. We know little of the form his resistance took, but we know that the British crown put a price on his head, and that he fled the country at the age of 21.
He ended up in Lynn, MA, where for the rest of his life he stayed atop the highest hill in the city so he could always look down and see who was coming.
When danger did come, it came from the Ku Klux Klan. My grandfather remembered the Klan burning a cross a few blocks from his apartment on High Rock Tower, terrorizing a neighborhood of immigrants who had fled war and occupation.
* * * * * *
Thirteen years ago this month, my Da went to Tullig, the area of Killarney the Captain was from to see what he could find out about his great grandfather’s life.
He had the names of some second and third cousins there. And, really, most of the people whose families have been there for more than a generation or two are related to us somehow. But no one would answer his questions.
On the last night, a woman told him “People here don’t like to talk.”
“Yes, but you and I both know you’re my cousin,” he replied.
“Go to the bridge,” she said, “then you will understand.”
* * * * * *
Today my Da sent me a picture of the plaque on the Countess Bridge.
In the wake of the Irish Free State’s agreed to allow the British to continue to occupy the areas of Ulster that had a Protestant majority, the result of colonized and displaced Scots being installed as overseers in Ireland a couple centuries earlier, in exchange for home rule, civil war broke out in 1922. The Irish Republican Army separated from the Irish Free State and took up arms to fight for a united, decolonized Ireland. Kerry was the hotbed of their resistance.
In March of 1923, the Irish Free State launched a series of brutal reprisals against the IRA in retaliation for a bombing. On March 7, two relatives of mine — Jeremiah O’Donoghue and another Daniel O’Donoghue — and two other IRA soldiers — Stephen Buckley and Timothy Murphy were tied to the bridge and the bridge was blown up, killing them.
The IRA surrendered that May, and would remain largely dormant until 1969 when a nonviolent Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland faced violent repression from the British military and the Protestant majority.
* * * * * *
I don’t know what the Captain himself lived through. I know beatings, torture, arbitrary executions, and a cruel “residential school” system like the one imposed on Indigenous communities in Canada were features of the British occupation of Ireland in the late nineteenth century. And I know there are reasons that people don’t talk about what happened.
We carry our ancestors’ experiences with us. In our family cultures, and in our DNA.
In a passage I was reading just before Da sent me the picture of the memorial, Sharon Stanley writes:
“The hidden social and neurological dynamics of trauma do not die with the person who directly encountered the event. Rather, the remnants of trauma live on through ordinary, yet highly significant survival patterns, including silence about the trauma.”
What we do with that trauma has impacts across time and space.
Breaking the silence, questioning the patterns, feeling into the history gives us an opportunity to profoundly change the ways in which we engage the world. When the trauma we inherit goes unnamed and unexamined, it plays itself either in the form of numbness and disconnection or in the form of fear and aggression that don’t know their source or their origin. When we engage and work with that trauma, it has the opportunity to move and heal and move toward resolution. Making us freer to be more fully embodied, present, and connected to the living world around us. Solid ground on which to make our stand.
I inherited a war, and it took me decades to understand this. It is the same war the Captain fought. A struggle for dignity, sovereignty, and liberation. In his generation, the war was fought with rifles against the British empire. In my lifetime, I wield other weapons in a struggle against the global capitalist juggernaut that evolved from British colonialism.
Leannan an cogadh. Mise freisin.
Sean Donahue is an herbalist, poet, witch, and feral creature living on unceded WSANEC territory on the southern tip of what colonial cartographers now call Vancouver Island. He worked as a political organizer for a decade or so before realizing an introvert with a decidedly non-linear approach to the world was better suited to talking with plants and gods than to managing organizations, and also had a brief career as a journalist reporting on repression and resistance in Latin America. He is Priest and a keeper of the Green Wand in the BlackHeart Line of the Anderson Feri Tradition of Witchcraft. He blogs at http://greenmanramblings.blogspot.com/
Sean Donahue is one of the featured writers in both the first and the next issue of A Beautiful Resistance. Here’s how to pre-order, subscribe, or underwrite!