Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Generations in Search of Iona

My mother and her own mother were not overly “churchy” Irish women.  Some Irish women are just the opposite, you know.  Some carve out clerical careers for their sons or daughters while the children are still in the cradle, living vicariously through them and placing on them such life burdens.  Not my mother!  Oh, I dare not say she never attended Church because she will most certainly haunt me and let me know I should not exaggerate her “home Church” inclinations!  She did go to Mass on Sundays and holy days, most of the time.  I don’t remember my grandmother doing so, but I am only guessing that was because by the time I was around checking up on their ecclesiastical obligations, she was already past that age where it was no longer required by Church law for her to attend weekly Mass.  At least, that is what I remember her telling me.  I will have to do the math on that later.  Let’s just say Mom came by her inclination to pray at home quite honestly. 

My grandmother, Ellen Farrell Daly, known to her “tousands” of nieces and nephews as Auntie Nellie, to her friends as either Nellie Farrell or Nellie Daly, was renamed by her first grandson, my oldest brother Larry as “Nin” and that was way before the rock group, who I believe took her name! She became “Nin” to all my generation and our friends, and future generations. Nin’s prayer schedule, intermingled with her housework, and her favorite radio or later, TV shows, would rival that of any nun vowed to stability. Prayer was constant. “Pray always” we read from St. Paul. They did. We did. Prayer was our prayer, and work was our prayer. Family time was our prayer. Play was our prayer. It was real, so real. It was what I call our spiritual foundation and formation.

Nellie Farrell was born into a large Irish family in Edgeworthstown, County Longford, the home to the Farrell clan in Ireland. All my young life I heard the stories from her memories. She was one of 5 boys and 3 girls. She fell in line toward the last three children, with a brother 5 years younger than she, and an infant sister who died while in infancy. Her dear mother had died giving birth to that last child, and Nin told the story to me with tears in her eyes for as long as she lived. She loved her father with the great innocent love of a little girl. She talked about being in the fields with him as he worked the farm…Her stories captivated my own young heart and I cannot remember a time when I didn’t long to visit our family home. I promised her that when I was grown up I would take her back again.

She’d been home several times since her first passage across the Atlantic in 1897. She came to the United States with her sister Brigid. Nellie was 13 and Brigid was 15. It was not their choice to leave Ireland. As she told me poverty and England ruled and that dictated all choices that families made regarding survival. Always my heart broke when she’d look down at me sitting by her knee listening to every word and say “Imagine how you’d feel getting on a huge ship with hundreds of strangers, just 13 years old, and leaving your home and family forever.” I could not really imagine. I tried, but it made me cry. It still does. She never truly understood all that was taking place.

However, she knew that her maternal uncle, Canon McCabe, a Roman Catholic priest was “to blame,” as she told it. He took her and Brigid from their widowed father and sent them to their mother’s family in America to live. The choice, as Nin, explained was to leave home for America, or leave home for St. Mel’s. She always talked of St. Mel’s cathedral, but not the school. She lived wondering why she could not have simply gone to St. Mel’s, and remained near her Da. She died wondering that as well. On her deathbed, she told me her father had come to her to ask her forgiveness, and her prayer. She could not understand why. Then she died.

Some things God does in one’s life are never clear in this lifetime. Some things only become clear as generations continue, carrying their legacy and heritage, and making sense of it as we age ourselves. That’s what has happened regarding my relationship with Nin, and her sad history. Only after going to Ireland and talking with family there did I hear the complete story of Nin’s pilgrimage to America.

Her father was not faithful to her mother, and her mother died in childbirth because Nin’s father was with another woman on the night of the birth. By the time her brothers got him, and he got the old doctor, a storm had washed out the tiny foot bridge onto their farm, and my great-grandmother had bled to death before her children, infant daughter in her arms. Nin’s older brothers never forgave their father. The oldest left for England and never came home. Nin was only 7 and didn’t understand all the details and never heard them—OR never shared them with her own children and grandchildren. She died still wondering why not St. Mel’s.

Canon McCabe was never highly regarded because the stories of little Nellie Farrell became the stories of adult Nellie Farrell, and Canon McCabe was the culprit blamed for breaking up her family, and forcing her to come to America. She never forgave him.

Several years ago, the story of the Magdalene laundries became public in Ireland and throughout the world. The notorious industrial schools begun in Victorian England, and transported into Ireland and the colonies to house the poor became virtual prisons when the Church and the English government became business partners. Children from poor families, families with no mother were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to these “schools” where they worked as free labor for the Church. Young girls like Nellie Farrell were fodder for such schools, and such young girls were regularly rounded up by parish priests and transported to these factories that produced victims of many kinds of abuse. Canon McCabe was well aware that St. Mel’s was one of many such schools. That was the alternative to America and being raised by her mother’s sister.

Canon McCabe became the hero, in my eyes, after the complete picture of my family history and recent Irish history was revealed. Some things are only clear in hindsight. Canon McCabe saved my grandmother and her sister from the RC institutional slavery and, in keeping with an ancient passionate loyalty to family, which her own father lacked, Nin’s uncle, a priest saved her, saved her children, and her grandchildren, and today—her great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. Nin’s story continues in the continued journey of a family which only exists today because one priest was faithful to his own family and saved them from the Church.

Two of the holy ones.

I have wondered recently how much Nin actually knew, or surmised over her long lifetime of reflecting on all this. She was sincerely loving to the many priests and religious who frequented our home as I was growing up in Queens, NY. Yet, she was unabashedly anti-clerical in her words and beliefs. She loved the individuals but hated what she knew of religious life and how it demanded one turn one’s back on family. What she had was a love of the religious while in our home… our home extending hospitality and religious as part of that. That was to make sense to me only many years later as I came to understand more clearly the foundations of Celtic Christian spirituality, kindred spirits, and cell groups. I came to recognize this is what I was passed quite naturally, and it was only when that was challenged by the institutional religious obligations that I became fierce in my allegiance to family, faith, and heritage. Nin was put on a ship for Iona, which made its passage to America first…only to stay the course for two more generations.

Each of my parents, and Nin, had a specific affect on my young life and my understanding of God and my Faith, i.e. my theology!  They began teaching me theology when they began telling me about God, and what I needed to do about God… that is, talk with Him—all the time, which I did.   My mother taught me about God Who hugs—all the time, and God Who will ALWAYS protect and forgive me.  My grandmother taught me about God walking through life with me, no matter where I lived, or what I did, or whether I was rich or poor.   She was an immigrant after all, she knew.  And then there was my father’s lessons, perhaps the most influential, but who knows?  That's another blog!

Many nights, because we had an extended family and a tiny NYC apartment, I would sleep in the big double bed that my grandmother had in the apartment above ours. There, she would “hear my prayers” and teach me more, and talk to me until I fell asleep in her arms. She talked about God, and the love that never, ever, ever ends no matter what we do, just as my father stressed downstairs.  She talked about what it meant to be Irish, and told me all about our own ancestors, filling my head with the family history, which I treasure to this day.  She taught me songs and poetry, which I treasure to this day as well.  Nin was my second mother, and I near to worshipped her when I was a kid.  It was all part of who we were, who we are—and was a major factor in who I have become and am becoming. 

My beautiful daughter and I.  
All I want in life is to pass her this rich heritage and our passion for our Faith and Family!

PS  Nin's story can be heard in song by clicking the music icon and listening to "DA" which was written when my daughter turned 13 and I wondered about Nin's feelings at that age, leaving her father. 

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