MY FATHER’S PEOPLE
My father’s people came from a long line of Celts that settled in the west of Ireland. It is said they loved poetry, music, the land, sea and their people. They believed in spirit people with wings that could either improve or impede their existence; they believed in heroes, an afterlife, held sacred the triad and that dying for others was the greatest of heroism. They were eventually converted to another mystical belief system, though their own reverence for the earth, sun and moon and all living creatures was not entirely in sympathy with the new religion.
Maureen M. Squires
Maureen M. Squires
Preface(At the hill fort of Dun Aeonghus, Arran Islands) We were then urged to think about something that was burdening us, give it a color and a weight and then drop it mentally over the edge into the sea and let it go.
We approached the edge on hands and knees, even then it was dizzying to gaze straight down to the rocks and constantly moving sea below. Looking down into the sea, we saw the colors of water that were in paintings worldwide, sea blues, greens, turquoises, ever-changing with the movement of clouds and sunlight.
No one spoke, as if by silent agreement, not wishing to intrude on each other’s thoughts. At that time I believed I had no great burden to toss over that deserved so dramatic an end. Thus, my thoughts were caught up in the visual feast of rock and sea and cliff-edge. I tried to capture the dramatic scene with my camera and memory. As I turned to look left, I was dazzled by the panorama of cliff meeting sea as the edge of the island curved out and beyond my view. The beauty of earth continues to amaze. As I was feeling overwhelmed and anxious about the drop to the sea, my imagination had already envisioned how I should land if I happened to fall–struggling to picture the “safest” landing when in truth, there really was none. I laughed, realizing I am not ready to leave this life, yet I feel less anxious about the prospect. “Death is the return to the ground of your deepest self,” says John.
The journey to Dun Aeonghus above the sea began in western Pennsylvania. As a child growing up there it was common to be asked, “Who are your mother’s/father’s people? As an American, I am blessed with mixed heritage much like most of my country men and women.” My mother is second generation Polish. Her parents spoke broken English, we could always understand them on a basic level and even learned a few words in Polish. Polish food, traditions, language and culture were highly valued by my grandparents, most of their neighbors and my mother, her siblings and their children. My mother grew up attending weekly Polish classes at the local Catholic church and up to her 85th year, she attended Polish classes every Saturday morning, fall and winter. Yet in a home where English was a second language, my mother and her sister made a point to speak unaccented English and worked to avoid speaking Pittsburgese, a dialect particular to southwestern Pennsylvania. Attuned to the nuance of language, they tried to speak the “movie” English that they heard on the big screen in the town’s only movie theater.
The theater happened to be owned by my Irish, McBride uncles. My father’s people were Irish, except for a German great-grandmother who married my McBride great-grandfather. I don’t recall the German part of the mix receiving much acknowledgment as a child. Dad and Grandpa James Malley never visited Ireland but the pride and joy of being Irish was elemental to whom they were. We of the third generation Irish-American (O)Malleys provide a continuum.
The Malleys were and are great ones for arguing and discussing politics. I can remember listening to great-aunt Kate arguing forcefully with my father and grandfather and enjoying every minute of it. Were my County Mayo Irish relatives the same? That type of discussion didn’t happen, at least in English, at our Polish grandparents’ home. My father loved being Irish, he loved being American and Catholic. My parents were involved in learning about and questioning the hierarchical traditions of the Church of Rome that came out of their wholehearted enthusiasm for Vatican II. I can remember my father saying at one point that “In the end, it is between you and your conscience what you do, the Church just doesn’t want you to know that.”
What follows is the story of my introduction to Ireland herself and my personal journeys to find physical, historical, then spiritual roots with the unexpected gift of healing from a deep, unacknowledged in many ways, wounding that remained from 9-11. My sense of loss, afterall, seemed so small compared the thousands who died and their families. Part One is the Dingle Diary, the travel journal I kept during a ten-day Art Walk that was recommended to me via an internet friend in spring of 2002. Irish history and myth have fascinated me for most of my adult life and here was an opportunity to listen and explore the land herself.
My interest in Ireland, her art, scripts and history moved with me from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, New Jersey and now, Connecticut. Over the past thirty plus years there were jobs that didn’t always connect to my artistic roots and soul, but they helped to pay for our children’s education. Moving to Connecticut in 1995 at the age of forty-nine provided me with the opportunity to finally delve more fully into art. I am an artist. Children were grown and college was pretty much paid for, Dave’s job was good and when the transition job I had taken just before the move from New Jersey to Connecticut fell through., I started back to my beginnings–art. I quickly became involved in a local art center as a teacher and board member. The organizational skills I had accumulated over time were put to use. Over the course of those first five years I met a woman who worked at The Albers Foundation in Bethany, CT. I believe Jackie Ivy sensed a longing in me to pursue my art more intensively and she suggested I apply for a residency at the Foundation. I was accepted and the experience was the most inspiring and productive six weeks I have ever had.
Feeling a need to immerse myself artistically again, the following winter of 2002 I started a web search for a retreat or artist residency experience in Ireland similar to the time spent at The Albers Foundation. It was time to connect some of the dots of my past; find answers to questions about Ireland, my roots, creative and spiritual. Going to Ireland on retreat was an avenue that wanted exploring and I wanted to recapture some of the peace and ease within myself the 2001 residency had provided. Time and the uncertainty of living had come tragically to the fore in the previous seven months. In my lifetime, two Kennedys and Martin Luther King were taken too soon. These were events wherein most of my generation remembers vividly where we were and what we were doing. Now my own children have had to experience similar angst on an even greater scale. Where were you the morning of 9-11? Now, nearly ten years later, does the unease linger? How have you internalized or dealt with your personal aftermath? As time has progressed, I find that dealing with the fears and uncertainties of that mid-September morning will very likely be with me for the rest of my life. To this day my eyes are drawn to the “empty sky” whenever I cross to New York from the Jersey side. Crossing the Hudson whether by bridge or tunnel, I still wonder if this is the day terrorists will attack with some diabolical device derived from twisted fanaticism in the name of religion.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Allison, our eldest daughter, at that time a nurse in a transplant unit, called me from Yale-New Haven Hospital. She had just come from a patient’s room whose television was turned on. Al said with no other greeting, “Turn the television on, a plane just crashed into one of the World Trade Centers.” We watched together and apart as she was somewhere in sight of a TV and we followed and listened mostly quietly for a few minutes then the other tower was hit while we watched, numb with fear, anxiety and a blank wonder on what the future, the next minutes, hours and days would bring. She spoke often with me over the course of the morning as we worried about friends and loved ones who worked in the city. I woke our youngest, Sara and her new husband Mike, in California, and related what happened. Sara spent several frantic hours trying to raise two best friends who worked in the city. I can still see that day, the incredible blue of the sky the plumes of smoke, New Yorkers and commuters peacefully and carefully trying to make their way home, firefighters, policemen, broadcasters, struggling to deal with the enormity of the day’s events.
We were supposed to fly to Los Angeles on the 12th for a west coast wedding reception for Sara and Mike. An exhausted American Airline’s ticket agent called us somewhere around midnight saying all flights had been cancelled but they could reschedule us for the 14th if we still wanted to go. We had expected a delay and had wrestled with staying or going. With no small amount of trepidation, we decided not to be held hostage by fear and terror. We would go to California if they could get us there. I needed to hug my kid.
We were on the first flight out of Hartford for the west coast on the 14th. It took nearly twelve hours to get there since there were no longer direct flights and makeshift security measures were developed literally, overnight. We encountered weary, haunted, incredibly caring American Airlines employees the entire way. The generosity of spirit, collective–guardianship–that fellow travelers and professional staff shared will remain as one of the bright spots of those dark days.
We arrived safely in Los Angeles and continued our attention to events on the east coast. We moved to Connecticut after thirteen years in New Jersey. We had friends and connections there still. Our first four years we lived in Middletown, the town that had the largest loss of life any single community in the tri-state area. From there we moved a short distance to Fair Haven, a lovely, peaceful little town on the shores of the Navesink River.
On the day of the reception, Sunday after 9-11, ironically there was a feature article on Rumson and Fair Haven in the LA Times about the losses experienced in the small, Monmouth County towns. One of the missing was a young woman the girls had gone to high school with. Sara had played basketball with her at Rumson-Fair Haven High School and Allison had graduated with her. She never was found and the ripple effect of just the passing of that one soul was profound. Degrees of separation were shattered and the loss swept us deeper into the tidal wave of emotions shared by so many the days, months immediately after and now, the following years. We attended the long-planned reception strongly aware of the subdued atmosphere surrounding us. The decision was made to proceed with life. Scotch-Irish, Anglo-Saxons, Poles, Iranians, Jews, Mexican-Americans, Hindus, African Americans and more attended the reception. Only in America? All getting along, caring about the newlyweds and their parents enough to come, no animosity, no bullets, bombs or hatred, a poignant reminder that peace and co-existence can happen.
For an artist, technicolor memories can be a blessing and a curse. Over the ensuing months I found myself sketching mentally, trying to get some of the images to come together in a way that I could get them out of my system. I produced one square, blue canvas in February of 2002 incorporating Sting’s Fragile which became an anthem of sort after The Concert for New York and a Martin Luther King quote on nonviolence. I could do no more until the summer of 2002 when Bruce’s (Springsteen, who lived down the road near the girl’s high school) response to 9-11, The Rising came out just about a year later. I had collected personally meaningful music and prose that originated or circulated via email after 9-11. The Music for New York concert moved me greatly and then The Rising unlocked a door. I completed six pieces in the weeks immediately before the first anniversary of 9-11 incorporating emails, prose and lyrics that had particular meaning for me. (See: www.maureensquires.com) What follows is an unconscious, in some respects, attempt to deal with my personal aftermath and wounding from the events of September 11, 2001. It seems I did indeed have burdens to drop into the sea after all.
The Dingle Diary includes my discovery of more in-depth Irish history that answered many of the “why” questions around great-grandfather Patrick’s leaving Ireland for America. My lone travels to County Mayo (Part II) to find the family homestead provided another touchstone which was a sense of belonging to the land and people that unexpectedly eased some of the lingering anguish of September 2001. The trip to Dingle and Mayo were to be the physical journey to discover my family’s roots. The journey to Clare was to be more of a spiritual quest. I went to Ireland to observe, record and discover connections with the land and the spirit of the place. Places do have spirit. Spirit, after all, is not a tangible than can necessarily be defined, it just is. Clearly for me, the journeys were to gain a better understanding of myself and the place where my paternal family originated. As it turned out, the physical and spiritual aspects of my journeys became intertwined. Ireland is a place that does not permit such a separation.
Part III: The Clare Diary centered around a ten-day walk with the late poet, author, John O Donohue and his band of mystics in the spring of 2004. Among the several themes covered over the week was an encouragement to increase our awareness of the earth around us. John spoke of the clay having a memory of blood that had been spilled on its surface that seeped into its soul, the making of “holy ground.” Finding spiritual roots through the thoughtfully guided poetry and prose in John’s presentations was an altogether different experience that opened doors to a broader inner life and understanding. Anam Cara (soul friend in Gaelic) was my first introduction to John
O Donohue. I remember reading a review of the book in March, the year it came out, just before St. Patrick’s Day. Excerpts from the book and the reviewer’s thoughtful commentary inspired me to go out and purchase two copies, one for me and one for my anam cara, Trish whose birthday is on St. Patrick’s Day. She is always surprised when I remember her birthday. I don’t know why, St. Pat’s was always a celebratory occasion in our home. Several years later, November of 2003, I received a notice about a lecture by John O Donohue through Miriam’s Well in Southbury, CT. Here was a chance to hear the author in person, so my husband Dave and I both went. John’s was a spiritual voice that spoke very clearly to me. I wanted more. At the end of the weekend there was an announcement about a “Walk” to be held the next spring in County Clare with a combination of lectures and walks in the Irish countryside. I was drawn to the idea immediately and went home to John’s website for more information. After several back and forth emails between Barbara Connor, John’s US representative, some budget planning and soul searching, I decided to go. Dave’s teaching semester at the university wasn’t completed until after the walk so I would be on my own once again. A friend asked me “Why did you go? Why did you feel the need to write about it?” My best answer is that I have a deep yearning to know and understand my own spirituality and traveling to a place where there is a tradition of seeking the divine within seemed a good place to continue. Ireland was everything and more that I expected her to be, a physical and spiritual beauty. Why did I write about it? I had to.