April 29, 1902, is a date etched in my memory; that day, a Tuesday, my father was born.
Recently I received a gift, a written copy of famed playwright John Millington Synge’s (1907) theatrical production “The Playboy of the Western World.” It piqued my interest in the era and environment into which my dad was born.
His birthplace, the little village of Rockchapel, County Cork, Ireland, was named due to its location close to forbiddingly large rocks behind which Catholic priests surreptitiously celebrated Mass in the 17th century. During times of the Penal Laws in Ireland, Catholics were persecuted and priests had a price on their heads.
Delving further I discovered that my homeland, nowadays geographically partitioned – the British-governed Northern Ireland and the sovereign Southern Irish Republic – was then more divided culturally, East versus West. The East was somewhat anglicized while a broad swath of the country retained much of its Celtic culture and Gaelic/Irish language.
Great Blasket, less than 3 miles offshore from the mainland, is the largest of the seven Blasket Islands. The islanders had no electricity, no plumbing, no church, no priest, no police, no taverns and no shops.
Its approximately 300 inhabitants, with their hum of happiness, intrigued Synge, and inspired him to write his play. They spoke, but few could read or write Irish. During his visits to the island, Synge was recognized for his strength, stature and knowledge of a few words of English.
In those days, in Ireland upon one’s death, the deceased’s passage into the hereafter was an occasion for a wake. I recall while very young I attended my paternal grandfather’s wake; the men-folk sat solemnly in the presence of the deceased in his bedroom. Many had rosary beads wrapped around their wrists, invariably sipping whiskey and puffing on their tobacco-filled pipes, while regaling one another about the virtues of the deceased.
In retrospect, it reminds me of a scene in Synge’s play wherein one of the supporting actors exhorts the other: “You come on Michael James or they’ll have the best stuff drunk at the wake.” No doubt Synge had in mind the biblical wedding at Cana where Jesus performed his first miracle transforming water into wine and the ensuing comment that the “best wine was kept until last.”
James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats and Synge were the “Kardashians” of the time, the celebrities of the day; however, if they were now alive they might resent the analogy.
Intensely immersed in the local culture, my father remained on the mainland, going on to qualify as a teacher. He worked initially in a remotely located school overlooking the wild Atlantic Ocean; there he met and married a fellow teacher – my beloved mother.
Were people less happy then than today, with our labor-saving household machines, iPhones, androids, TVs, remotes, games and other electronic gadgets? They probably were, although my father often reminisced about his youth, recalling not alone some of the old-time’s hardships, but also its wonderful community spirit, rich with story, song and dance, laughter and banter.
To loosely paraphrase Shakespeare: All that glitters is not gold; all that’s old is not to scold.