Our past is our present

The Cast Stone

UNIQUE A visit to Inishturk was a reminder of the importance of family history and a sense of place. Pic: Keith Heneghan


The Cast Stone

Michael Gallagher

Where is our way of life going? Why are the better aspects of existence slipping away? Why have we to change so much? I’m feeling a little maudlin today, harking back to times when life was more comfortable and simpler, so forgive me if I drift off on a tangent of waxing lyrical about times past.
I grew up in a rural community where I knew everyone and everyone knew me. Of course, there were advantages and disadvantages to that but there was a sense of togetherness, a bond where time and conversation knew no limits. We visited one another’s homes for no reason other than conversation - we didn’t need a reason to chat about anything and everything from the Mayo football team to the economic situation in Argentina.
During those countless, meandering conversations I picked up a doctorate in social history and the fabric of our society. I learned about my ancestors and the lives they lived; I heard about the wars they fought, the crops they saved, the struggles they survived, the cures they developed and so much more. I was given a sense of family; a sense of the people who came before me and the contribution they had made in order for me to have a better life.
Those conversations gave me a foundation in life and an understanding of who and what I was.
That library of knowledge has not been passed on to my daughters. I have often tried to imbue them with information about how two strands of our ancestors came from different parts Donegal in the seventeenth century. One group settled in Dooleeg near Crossmolina and the other in Ballycroy. In 1875 one of the Dooleeg lads came to Ballycroy on a scouting mission, met one of the ladies by the river there and never left.
I tried to tell my girls about this and many other things but they have absolutely no heed. Our family history is ebbing away into the ether because life is different now - faster and more disposable. There isn’t time to learn from the past and that saddens me somewhat.
On Thursday last, I had the absolute pleasure of traveling to Inishturk to visit friends and write about the island’s first GAA Cúl Camp. It was a perfect day in so many ways - a day when the sun beamed from the sky and life lessons were instilled. It was a day when the headlong chase towards the future halted and the opportunity to enjoy the present was presented. It was a day when reality came calling.
This scribe was accompanied by trusty photographer Conor McKeown and Mayo minor football manager Seán Deane, who was traveling to the Cúl Camp to show the participants the cup won by his team in the Connacht final. Conor had been on the island previously - Seán and I were newbies and excited to see the famous rock in the ocean.
I could write all day about the welcome we received - Mary Ann O’Toole’s scones, Mikey O’Toole’s love of Mayo, the people who lived to be centurions, the fishing, the lobsters, the fun and the music. I could write about the beautiful homes, some stretching back through the centuries or the stone walls with the special gaps for the sheep to run through. I could write about Bríd Heanue and the welcome we received at the community centre, but the most striking aspect of the whole day, for me, was a wall-hanging in the front room of the O’Toole homestead in Ballyheer on the edge of the ocean.
The wall-hanging was designed to depict the universe and each of the planets represented a child of Michael John and Kate O’Toole. Many of the planets then had other smaller spheres orbiting them depicting grandchildren and great grandchildren.
It was a beautiful and simple way of showing the world four generations of one family. They might live in many different corners of the world, but they were all on the wall in the family homestead in Ballyheer.
To the O’Tooles it was no big deal - it’s just the way they do things, but to me it was a perfect example of the importance of family history. We need to know where we came from. We need to understand our past. We need to know about those who came before us. We need to hold onto the better aspects of life.