“The more I understand about where I come from, the more I can make sense of where I am”
I recently wrote about my perspective regarding what is and has been happening here in America over the last year or so (“What’s Going On Parts I and II”). As part of that discussion, I talked about things I was doing differently so that I might be part of the solution to the apparent deep and festering sores that have been made manifest by our recent political and social unrest. A friend responded by asking “What difference, really, can one person make?” Gandhi had an answer. He said anything we might do is meaningless, but we need to do it anyway. What in the world was he talking about?
Then I remembered this recent experience.
I learned of a workshop a teacher of mine, Peter, was conducting in Ireland and I decided I wanted to go. I had always wanted to go to Ireland and I wanted to do this workshop. I also remembered that somewhere in the family narrative there was a story of someone coming to America, from Ireland, during the potato famine in the 1850’s. Even though it might have just as easily been one of those family legends, I reached out to my first cousin who is a genealogist and asked her to send me whatever information she had about that, if it was true.
Like the good cousin she is, she sent me information, I printed it off and stuck it into my travel file with the intent of reading it on the 8-hour plane flight to Ireland. I had picked up a “History of Ireland” book and read it from cover to cover on the way over instead. Irish history is a powerfully tragic story. It seems that from recorded time, every few hundred years they were invaded and decimated in every way as the conquerors enjoyed the spoils of their conquest. It reads like a condensed version of the stories of all people of all times.
Before I left, I did a genetic test and surprisingly it showed that my dominate gene pool was centered in the British Isles and Scandinavia. I was shocked because our family had always identified with Austria and Germany as our ancestral roots. Interesting information, but still nothing much registered in my consciousness.
Once we arrived in Ireland and two days before the workshop began, I finally started reading what my dear cousin sent me. I was stunned by what I began to understand, especially in the context of Irish history.
What she had provided me was evidence that the family legend was true. More true than I had imagined. The person who had been the subject of that family “legend” was none other than my Great Grandfather. I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about him or his life. I do not remember anyone in my family or extended family ever talking of him. Not my grandmother (her dad), not my father (his grandfather). It was as if he never existed. I had never thought to ask. Not once did I even have a curiosity about him. As I began to put the story together, I understood why he had never been mentioned. Shame.
The story that unfolded from the genealogy information in its historical context was stunning and bone-chilling. During the Irish potato famine, county “Workhouses” were created throughout the country. Every county had one. The English government’s reaction to the potato famine was to use it as an opportunity to do some ethnic cleansing. The poor and the Catholics were the targets. During the years of the potato famine, Ireland’s population was reduced by 25%. From death and emigration.
Some of the Workhouses have been preserved. We visited one and as I approached, it reminded me of the concentration camps I’ve seen in Europe. High fences. Guard towers. It was chilling to be standing at the gate realizing that my Great Grandfather’s parents went into one of those and never came out. The poor and indigent went there. The men were separated from their wives; parents from their children. Most who entered the workhouses never left alive. They died of starvation and disease there. They were buried in mass graves. I stood at the grave site of my Great Grandfather’s mom. There are no death records for his dad, though it is presumed that he perished there or near there too.
There were thousands who couldn’t get in to the Workhouses and they camped outside the grounds. It was reported at the time that the fields surrounding the Workhouses were quite often brown instead of green because people were trying to survive by eating the grass. Those who couldn’t get in camped near the gates and slept in makeshift shelters. To keep from freezing to death in the winter, those who had recently died were used as blankets.
During that time, my Great grandfather managed to find a way to America along with his siblings. Subsequent census reports would suggest he never quite made it here in America either. While here, he married and fathered my Grandmother, his only child. When my Grandmother was three, her mother died. Six years later he died, in the Greene County Ohio poorhouse, leaving my grandmother an orphan. It is easy to imagine that on his deathbed, he would be reflecting on his life and see nothing but failure. I imagine as he looked back all he could see was that he hadn’t succeeded at anything. I can imagine also, that the fact that he was leaving my grandmother, his soon to be orphaned 9 year old daughter, was one more reminder of his wasted life and how much shame he must have felt.
No wonder no one in the family ever spoke of him. They must have believed that too.
So, as my friend asked, “What difference, really, can one person make?” I thought of my great grandfather and what a difference his decision to come to America has made to this world. As I stood there, at the site of the Coothill Workhouse, I was hoping that he could see what a gift his life had been. The gift of life that he had given so many of us. His grandsons (one of whom was my dad) and granddaughter did make it. His descendants, have done amazing things. Teachers, counselors, professors, great parents, college graduates among the ranks. Good things for the world. Incredible contributions. To the extent that I would guess, be beyond his comprehension.
Scientists are now suggesting that the emotional impact of traumatic events such as my Great Grandfather experienced is transmitted through our DNA to succeeding generations. It appears to me that two of the gifts he has given his descendants is having an extraordinary sensitivity to others and a big heart. Especially towards our fellow human beings who are today living lives that mimic his; we help them as we can. I was reminded that we may not be able to see the difference any of us make in our lifetimes, but two, three, four generations from now, who knows what will happen by our small act.
So, as Gandhi suggested, even though we can’t imagine what difference a single act can make (done just because it is the right thing to do) doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make a difference, and perhaps that’s what he meant when he said we must do it anyway.
I had originally thought I was coming to Ireland to join my friend Peter for a workshop. I had no idea that I had come to meet another Peter, my Great Grandfather, Peter Smith. And I hoped, as I stood on a cliff at the edge of the Irish Sea (next stop America) that somehow, he could know of the gift his courageous act of coming to America had been. And that even though it may have seemed his life was a failure upon his deathbed, it wasn’t. I hope that I can give myself that same message on those days when looking back all I can see are my life’s failures. I hope that you can do that also.
I’d ask you to consider how where you came from and what your ancestors experienced may have shaped your life. I would hope that on those days when you look back on the parts of your life that could be seen as failures, there is a little voice that can say, “Well, one never knows for sure”.