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The Inheritance of Memory in Irish Literature

Updated on June 5, 2015


Their misery and oppression treasured with a nostalgic pride, the history of the English occupation and colonisation of Ireland is remembered by many Irish people today as keenly as if they had suffered it first hand. Memory and forgetting forms an iterating pattern of loss, anger and grief passed down through the generations from parent to child like a family heirloom. Hugo Hamilton says of memory ‘You can inherit memories you’d rather forget. Things can be passed on to you as a child, like helpless anger. It’s all there in your voice, like it is in your father’s voice, as if you were born with a stone in your hand. When I grow up I’ll run away from my story, too. I have things I want to forget, so I’ll change my name and never come back’ 1. The Dancers Dancing by Eilis Ni Dhuibhne and Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane are two novels that grapple with the nature of memory and the inheritance and adopting of memory and forgetting. Through these texts we gain insight into the interpersonal nature of memory and the way that history is passed down through story-telling and superstition, passing on the burden of the past with it as the characters come to terms with their shared memory and history.

In both Reading in the Dark and The Dancers Dancing, the stories are told from the child’s point of view, with a direct narration in the former and an omniscient voice in the latter. The children negotiate their own identity through the burden of the past that weighs down on them and already takes up such a large portion of their young lives, with ghosts and family disappearances, intuition and superstition part of a mottled present that dips past liminalities into a past that is not their own. The child narrator in Reading in the Dark inherits an heirloom of family scandal and pain, the past haunting him, although it is not his past. The trauma and injustice experienced by his parents and other relatives is passed down and this memory becomes a traumatic legacy, felt as keenly by the child as if it were in his own lifetime, and in turn this acts as an influence on his identity. The inheritance of memory he describes is negative, filled with anger, and sadness, like you’re set on a default of defence and revenge for the injustices dealt to your ancestors. There are several ways in which the past is filtered through to the narrator; the family ghosts and hauntings, story-telling, and the disappearances. The past is not so much what is said, but also what is not said, as who tells whose story becomes a contested space, blurring past with present.

The need to bear witness to the past is a prominent theme in Irish history and literature. The famine for example, is still a contentious issue in Ireland, Luke Gibbons saying that Ireland is a ‘first world country with a third world memory’ 2. Born in a time after the famine and the troubles of his parents, the narrator is still a witness to their past, and in never giving up the past and what they’ve lost, he ceases trying to repress the memories. While the legacy of his shameful family past has been passed down to him, leaving him flooded and overwhelmed with the memories of his mother, his aunty Katie, and his father, his mother is burdened with the weight of her own memories and is ironically unable to forget because of the legacy she has passed onto her son, a constant reminder of her own betrayals and secrets. While the son has an insatiable curiosity about the past, constantly piecing together scraps of stories to puzzle out his family’s past, he also inherits memories he’d rather forget and his mother yearns to forget the past, saying ‘Just for that one day, the seventeeth of May, to forget everything. Or at least not to be reminded of it. Can you give me that?’ 3. As each generation comes to terms with the past they share, directly, or that which has been passed down to them, we see that with family comes not only the blood ties that bind you but the loss, anger, and betrayal of their past, as real to you as your own present. Staying loyal to his mother makes him disloyal to his father and he finds himself caught between each parent as he can’t escape the past without escaping his family. It suggests that the past is something that comes part and parcel with family, and in carrying on your line, you pass on not only your genes but the burden of your past, continuing the never ending cycle that inhibits both the parent and child of this troubled past from truly living in the present.

Similarly, Orla, the main character in The Dancers Dancing, also inherits a past she does not remember with a strange intuition and knowing that belongs to the previous generation. Set just after the 1972 ceasefire, Orla grows up at a time when Ireland is far removed from the fear and danger her parents knew as children. She is ignorant of the situation in the North, curious yet shy to enquire further and feels no involvement with the plight of her fellow Irishmen in the area. Yet the past of her parents, seems ever present in her consciousness, like a memory she did not know she had until she remembered it. John Waters quite aptly describes this inheritance of memory as ‘We must remember what we never knew’ quoting Native American artist Jimmie Durham 4. This strange intuition of Orlas can be seen in her recognition of the skulls in the burn, and her self-knowledge that sometimes she remembers things, and she feels connected, ‘although I don’t know how, myself’ 5. Later, she even asks ‘Can you dream what you do not know? Usually the stories that unfold in Orla’s head while she sleeps are mixed-up images that she recognizes from the life she lives during the day’ 6.

Orla’s discovery of the skulls in the burn is particularly striking as she feels no horror but knows straight away what it is, and is simply curious at the discovery of half a dozen tiny baby skeletons at the bottom of the burn. This vestige of a past is her inheritance, a recollection passed down to her of Nuala Crilly who was charged with murder for drowning her illegitimate baby in the burn, the history of her ancestors an heirloom that is handed down from generation to generation. There are memories she is confused about and confront her in Tubber, as she finds she has to choose between being Orla the school girl and Orla the native of Tubber. Her mother’s need to forget about England impresses upon Orla memories that are carefully cultivated to forge an emotional bond with the native Ireland she adopts as her own. However, this inheritance of memory sits incongruently with her daughter choosing between identities and ways of being herself. Pauline also ‘dances the dangerous dance across the minefield that divides her mother’s and her father’s territory. The domestic borderland separating Stewart from Paddy, Myrtle from Eileen, is Pauline’s special inheritance’ 7. A girl of fourteen, the differences between her parents, the liminalities of religion and names and history must be treaded with soft-soled feet by a girl who carries the weight of memory, a millstone around her neck from the day she is born. These inheritances of the burden of tradition and age-old grievances are memories that the children would like to escape from, but to escape from it means escaping from the ties to family and the legacy they have inadvertently passed down to you.

The entire novel is a testimony to the inheritance of the past as parents encourage their children to travel to the gaeltacht to learn something of what it means to be Irish from what is supposedly a depository of culture and the last bastion of real Irishness. Mourning the loss of the past, children inherit the memory and loss of their fathers and forefathers long before they learn to make their own memories of the present ‘The myth of the last is strong here. The last monoglot, the last Irish speaker, the last horse-drawn plough, the last fisherman. While people mourn the last of everything and have not accustomed themselves to observing the new firsts, the myth of the IRA, heroism, bravery, recklessness, lawlessness, sustains them. Bombs. Everywhere’ 8. Tubber is particularly indicative of this need to treasure the past to escape the present, portrayed as ‘the idyllic village of her [Orla’s] history and her dreams’ 9. It is a tiny pocket of archaic Irishness in a country that has largely moved on with influences from popular culture and urbanism. Yet the past is hailed as the peoples’ true identity and feelings of romanticism are resurrected in relation to the prolific countryside, thrust down their throats by the tourist industry and this same persistent past, until ‘their future is their past, an open book, a closed chapter’ 10.

Contending with the past is an issue that absorbs the present into insignificance as characters in both texts attempt to exorcise their past, that which is inherited and experienced themselves. In coming to terms of these memories they’d rather forget, they inevitably make the choice of which facet of their identity they wish to pursue and present. The negotiation of the past is something that faces both parent and child but for the recipients of this legacy, it is as real as their present, like a map over a map, obscuring and altering it irrevocably. In acknowledging and accepting this family legacy, they must choose sides in their family, choose to be one or the other; there are dichotomies that cannot be crossed, liminalities that cannot be transgressed. It is a choice both sought after and thrust upon them.

Reference List

  1. Hamilton, Hugo. The Speckled People. London: Methuen Drama, 2011.
  2. Gibbons, Luke. Transformations in Irish Culture. Notre Dame, Ind.: Univeristy of Notre Dame, 1996, 3
  3. Deane, Seamus. Reading in the Dark. London: J. Cape, 1996. 224
  4. Waters, John. 1994. "Confronting The Ghost of our Past." The Irish Times (1921-Current File), Oct 11, 9.;
  5. Ni Dhuibhne, Eilis. The Dancers Dancing. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1999. 236
  6. Ibid., 245
  7. Ibid., 122-123
  8. Ibid., 82
  9. Ibid., 166
  10. Ibid., 5


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