Copyright MBrennanKerry 2018
The sun brought the children out to play. I watched them and enjoyed their exuberance. Their parents are Irish, Eastern European, Nigerian and Asian. As I watched they became louder and louder. My attention was drawn to an older boy who was carrying a toy machine gun. As the game evolved he became the leader and began instructing the other children. There was an earnestness about him. He was wrapped in the game and clearly not aware of passing cars or listening adults. 'You are dead' he said to one of the smaller boys. 'That's not how to be dead' he said and he rearranged the limbs of the small boy. He gave the other children instructions about where they should stand or lie. I am in no doubt that he was recreating a war scene that he had witnessed. The children had to be under a tree, on a particular side of the tree, in certain positions. The children became silent. The only voice was that of the older boy as he gave his instructions and the other children obeyed. By now I too had been drawn into the game. I did not know which was worse, the cold voice of the older boy or the silent obedience of the younger ones. My heart was leaden and I was full of dread. The game had taken the children very close to the cars. I snapped out of the daze I was in and realised that they weren't physically safe. I called out to the boy who was the leader and said 'you are not safe here' and pointed to a safer area. The boy turned. He looked afraid and said 'I am new to this country and don't know the rules yet.'
Copyright MBrennanKerry 2018
This bronze sculpture of a black angel carrying babies to Heaven sits in the Field of Angels at the Whitney Plantation, St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana. She watches over the memorial to 2,200 babies who died in St. John the Baptist Parish whose names are recorded in the Sacramental Records of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans. Doubtless there are many more babies whose little lives and deaths were never recorded. This picture or indeed these words cannot communicate the aching love and sorrow expressed by the artist Rod Moorhead in this work.
It is right and fitting that the babies and children be recognised. It is right and fitting that we should mourn them and bear witness to the suffering of their mothers and fathers and siblings. They lived and died in a world where childhood was perilous for all but these children were enslaved and stood little or no chance of survival. In a world of plenty they starved and sickened and died. The Christian charity preached from every pulpit did not extend to them.
To me, this journey to the Whitney Plantation was a pilgrimage, a long spiritual journey to a sacred place. It had the same significance as a journey to the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem, a Holocaust Memorial, or a Famine Graveyard might have for others. I wanted to bring flowers as Irish people do when they visit family graves but I was too shy to ask permission.
The plantation is quiet now and not the busy, bustling place it once was. When it was a working plantation there was noise from the kitchen and the blacksmith's forge, bells rang calling people to work and eat and to witness the whippings meted out to their family members. Fires crackled underneath sugar cane being cooked and everywhere the cracking of whips as people were driven to work harder and faster, beyond endurance. People wailed in pain and called out for death, while others were numbed into silence by exhaustion and hopelessness. Others sang as they worked and in their singing expressed the only freedom they were allowed.
Our guide who is a descendant of the enslaved people on the Plantation spoke movingly of what it means to her to be part of this memorial to the suffering of her people. She invited us to ring the bell in honour of them. I took my turn with a choked throat. As the sound of the bell rang out, I remembered the bells of my childhood and could see no further than that image of Jesus hanging hopeless on the cross. I wanted to reach out to the black family on our tour but I had nothing to say that would not seem to minimise their loss. I do not know how they endured the walk through the lives and deaths of their own people. i was horrified at some of the comments of the white members of our tour. I desperately wanted them to stop speaking. I listened in awe as our guide answered each question with so much dignity, clearly searching for the words that might enlighten.
As she did this, I remembered again my purpose in coming to the Whitney. I was there to bear witness and to walk alongside my sisters and brothers of colour. To bear witness means to show that something is true, to show that something exists. Those who suffered and died during slavery are people. They existed. Some of them are my blood relatives. To walk alongside means to say 'I see you....I see your pain.' It also means I will not turn away from your pain, though there is nothing I can say or do that will fix it. I will not pretend that slavery is an evil way of life that ended in 1864. I will not close my eyes to the fact that there are now more people of colour incarcerated in the United States than were enslaved before 1864. I will stay awake to the fact that my white skin gives me privilege of which I was once completely unaware. I will speak with my daughters, my family and my friends about what I have learned. In my own clumsy and sometimes ill-educated way, I will do what I can, when I can.
I will never forget my journey to the Whitney Plantation. Truthfully and with no attempt at dramatics, something changed inside me and I will never be the same again. My sincere thanks to John Cummings, Dr. Ibrahima Seck, Cheryl, and all those who have worked to provide a space for us to learn and mourn. May your work continue to be a light in the darkness and grow from strength to strength.
'Trying' to do something/achieve something has gone out of fashion. Countless people the world over are judged each day and written off for trying and failing. And yet each one of us knows that no new skill is learned without trying and failing, trying and failing and trying and failing again. Take the small child learning to walk, That child will fall down many times before she succeeds. In most families, even very dysfunctional ones, the child who is trying to stand up and walk will be praised, encouraged and made much of every time. This method works. The child learns to trust their own instinct to try. The child does not give up. The child learns to walk.
For too many people this is the last time in their lives that they will receive this joyful encouragement. Most will go to school, and be judged and graded. Then they will go out into the world and continue to be judged by the 'success' of their actions and not by the intentions of their hearts.
No wonder then the world is full of despair.
Today, I'm thinking we need to turn this on it's head. We need to say to ourselves and others who are trying new things
'Fair play to you!' (as we say here in Ireland)
'That took guts!'
'I respect the effort you put into this'
And why might we do this? There are so many answers to this question.
If we do not try, we will never learn.
Trying is a fine thing because it is a better choice than turning away and not trying at all.
Trying and learning from our mistakes means we do better next time.
We cannot be the difference we want to see in the world without first trying to be that difference.
Now I'm not talking about the people who salve their consciences by saying 'well at least I tried' and then walk away. I'm talking about those who commit to a task, knowing that they will not always 'get it right' but that they will try and keep on trying. Even when they fall down, even when they don't 'succeed'. Even when they are judged. The ones who will get up each morning and try again. The ones who will crawl away with the pain of the judgement until they are strong enough to come out again and try one more time.
And the judgement is in us all. We judge ourselves and we judge others. We need to pause when we find ourselves in judgement and ask ourselves. 'Who does this judgement serve?' Does my self judgement spur me on or is it a whip for my back that leads to despair? Is my judgement of others a way for me to avoid taking action myself or is it a simple acknowledgement of an undeniable fact? These are tough questions and there is no 'one size fits all' solution.
I grew up in a world that said 'you should leave it to the experts'. I live in a world that those 'experts' created. All around me are people who have decided that they are the experts and they know best. My world is dominated and decimated by experts. So today I want to praise those who are not experts, those who are called amateurs and volunteers. Today I want to praise the art of trying, the craft of learning by mistakes, the humility of those who know they are not perfect but still keep on trying. I want to value those who do not exclude but seek to include. Today I want to say thank you to all those who try....
Copyright MBrennanKerry 2018
The wall is not smooth and sophisticated.
It is rough hewn with concrete slathered between stones.
It looks like the stones were in the field before the house was built
And someone sometime decided they needed a wall in front of the house
and they gathered up the stones and fit one on top of the other
and then realised it would not hold up but would fall down.
So this nameless person mixed up some concrete
and slathered it between the stones
and watched it set
and then saw sunlight stream through the gaps
and slathered some more concrete around the stones.
So the wall did not fall down.
And this someone walked away.
Job done and good enough
not perfect but then perfection had never been sought.
Time passed and muck gathered on the uneven surface.
Inside the muck seeds lay dormant and daisies grew.
Copyright MBrennanKerry Jan. 8 2018
The period after Christmas and before New Year is a time when many of us pause and take stock of our lives. I took some time in the past week to do just that. Recently I was asked how many Irish genealogy queries I had answered in 2017 and I could not give an answer. Most days, I am busy with queries that come via my website or a number of volunteer groups to whom I belong.
I can't always pursue each request to it's final outcome but usually I can help people make a start and/or suggest new avenues for research. In doing this, I feel connected to the families of our ancestors decimated by the Penal Laws, mass emigration and the Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor). I feel it is important to remember them and acknowledge them. The truth is that but for their sacrifice I wouldn't be here writing to you today.
Our Irish records are not strong before 1864 when records for Catholics begin in the Civil Registration records. It took thirty five years after Catholic Emancipation (1829) for that to happen. Irish Catholics have only been recognised legally as (free) people for one hundred and eighty eight years. This just blows my mind every time I think of it. As a person who grew up in an Irish Catholic family, I would not be recognised legally if I had been born two hundred years ago.
I would be subject to unjust laws which denied me my human rights. I cannot undo the injustice that my ancestors experienced but when I remember them and say their names, I bring a glimmer of justice to them. They are no-longer erased from history.
Now that I have undertaken an autosomal DNA test and a Mitochondrial DNA test, I can push my research back even further and make connections with my previously unknown cousins. Sometimes, together, we can put names to our common ancestors. And what a celebration that is!
There are two specific research projects which are closest to my heart. The first is the work that many genealogy researchers are doing with adopted people. It is sad to know that even today there are Irish citizens who are legally prevented from getting a copy of their own birth certificates. DNA testing has changed all that and is giving their mothers back to adopted people, and in some cases their fathers too. This is justice in action. This research takes a great deal of time (unless the parent has already tested) and involves the co-operation of many people. But to know that I have been a small part in the process, is a mighty thing. I hope in 2018 to see more and more Irish people taking an autosomal DNA test and reaching out to their family members who have been so brutally taken from them. If you decide to take a test in 2018, please remember to attach a family tree to your DNA test results, otherwise it makes the task of finding family difficult, if not impossible. You can find out more about this work here thednadetectives.com/
The second project that is dear to me is the #SlaveNameRollProject established in 2015. A group of genealogy bloggers came together with five contributions of names of enslaved people. The project is administered by Schalene Dagutis. Genealogy researchers worldwide contribute the names of enslaved people found in Wills, Probate Records and other documents because enslaved people of colour were not included in Census and Civil records prior to 1870 in the U.S. (Names from other countries are also welcome.) The database grows weekly and is another resource for those of us with African ancestry and/or African American cousins. When we remember them and say their names, this too is justice in action. I am honoured to have contributed 350 names to the project since I joined. I live in Ireland so my contributions are limited to documents found online but my hope is that if researchers google the names handed down through generations of oral history that they will find their families more easily because of our work. It is very easy to contribute to this project. If in the course of your family research you come across the names of enslaved people, you can simply add their names and the source here slavenamerollproject.blogspot.ie/p/about-project.html
I guess it's no surprise when I say that in 2018 I intend to continue on with these research projects. My hope is that some of my research will assist you in your genealogy research and that if you have some spare moments you will contribute your research to one of the projects closest to my heart.
With warm wishes,
Dec 28th 2017
Please note I am not an administrator nor a founding member of either of these projects. All opinions stated are my own.
Remembering is so important.
Remembering is part of who we are.
Remembering makes us human.
Remembering means that hopefully we do not make the same mistakes again.
In our genealogy research we remember those we love who have gone before us.
We speak their names.
We tell their stories.
We mark our place in the long story that is our family story wending it's way through time.
In every culture in the world there is a way of remembering the ancestors.
Some of us have ancestors whose names were taken from them.
Restorative Justice is a phrase that falls lightly from some peoples' lips.
For others it is about a past that people should 'just go and get over'
But if I am an adult who was taken from my mother when I was a child, or if I am descended from enslaved people this is not my past.
This is my pain-filled today.
Today, I walk around not knowing my own name because I do not know theirs.
Today, I walk around with a hole in my soul.
Many people look at these tragic losses and they feel separate from them.
If they do feel empathy, they feel disempowered and do not know what to do.
When my daughter Hannah died, my world fragmented.
I searched to find a way that I could remember her and acknowledge her and show my love for her.
Naming her was the first step. In times gone by babies who were born still were not given a name.
Hannah means gift of God and it was the name she was given before she was born and before she died.
As time passed, I began to create a family tree in which Hannah's name is written.
Everytime I write her name, it gives me comfort.
Everytime I write her name, I ensure that she will not be forgotten.
Everytime I write her name, I say to everyone, you cannot know me and the person that I am if you do not know that my little girl died.
Through my experience I have learned the importance of names and speaking her name.
This has led me to a powerful feeling of empathy with those whose names have been taken.
From the safety of my own home, I have discovered that there is much I can do to walk alongside others whose names have been taken.
I took an Autosomal DNA test and uploaded a simple family tree online, so that the children who were taken from their mothers in my family can find us if they are searching. One day I hope to meet them and tell them about their mothers and all their cousins.
As a result of my DNA test I have also discovered that I have cousins who are people of colour, so I contribute the names of enslaved people found in old documents to a worldwide project called The Slave Name Roll Project. I actively search to find our common ancestor. I cannot undo what has been done by people who share my blood but I can name it and acknowledge my previously unknown, unacknowledged cousins.
I am only one of thousands of people worldwide doing this.
Each of us is contributing to restoring justice to those who have been treated unjustly.
We are not waiting for governments to change our world.
We are making the change.
PS If you would like to find out more about Autosomal DNA Testing check out these VERY short videos www.martinebrennan.com/dna.html
You can access and/or contribute to the #SlaveNameRollProject here slavenamerollproject.blogspot.ie/
She started working when she was 13 and worked through school and college.
In the 80's she left Ireland for London.
She was offered three jobs in one day and didn't know which one to choose.
London felt like a magical place where anyone who wanted a job could find one.
She came home to Ireland when she was pregnant.
The marriage did not survive the move.
She lost her home.
She was on her own with a beautiful little girl.
She found a house for rent and signed a lease.
She began to make a new life for herself and her daughter.
She thought the worst was over.
Xmas was coming and her lease was almost up.
Her landlord notified her that the rent was going up.
She could not pay the rent and buy food as well.
She had no savings left.
She sold her furniture to try to raise enough money for the deposit on a new place.
But it was not enough.
She contacted the homeless hostel but their rooms were full.
In desperation she contacted the Vincent de Paul-
She cried when they came to tell her that they would help her to find a new place to live.
That woman was me.
I did not grow up imagining homelessness would be part of my future.
Today in Ireland there are thousands of families just like I was then. They are hardworking people who through force of circumstance have found themselves without a home. Today I want to make an appeal for a very special boy called Brendan and his family. They are facing an insecure, unsafe, cold Xmas. Is there a landlord or a housing co-op in the whole of Ireland who can help? Surely there is one. Just one.
Brendan only needs one landlord or one housing co-op who would see beyond the financial circumstances into the heart of this boy for whom every day is a challenge... and a miracle.
Here is what his Mom has to say
If Brendan's story touched your heart as it did mine please share it far and wide. The more people who hear about Brendan the more likely it is that someone, somewhere can help.
I have always loved the unsignposted roads and paths you can find all over Ireland. I am entirely curious about where the road will lead. One friend often jokes that my favourite roads are those that have a green grass spine running up their middle. My children plead with me not to detour 'just to see where the road might lead.' Many times I have ended up in some unsuspecting farmer's backyard. The road 'less-travelled' is a real place to me, full of memories and experiences that I treasure.
This is a picture of one such road. The picture itself tells many hidden stories. The hat I am wearing is one of the many I knitted after my daughter Hannah died. I knitted through grief and despair until the power of speech returned to me. The walk was a painful one for me as I struggled with mobility problems that have plagued me since a car accident in 2012. The walk is called the Kerry Camino and it is an old pilgrimage path between Tralee and Dingle. After Hannah's death I lost the faith that had sustained me through many trying times and as I struggled physically I also struggled spiritually. I did not know the path, and I did not know if I could complete the journey but I was angry and my anger made me determined.
I could not talk to my fellow pilgrims as I needed every ounce of my energy to keep on walking through the pain. But I just kept putting one foot in front of the other because there was no other way. I had to keep moving. I had been immobile for far too long. And if I did not keep moving I would get stuck in the middle of nowhere. The parallels to my day to day life were astounding me as I walked....
All around me the landscape was beautiful. I was a tiny speck in the scene. This comforted me. If I was so small, then my grief was small too. All around me were symbols and signs of destruction and survival. Old, abandoned stone cottages, modernised farmhouses. Even the path I walked on had borne the heavy steps of those who had survived Penal Laws, An Gorta Mor (the Great Hunger), and the death of loved ones.
I was not alone as I walked. My ancestors had walked this path before me.
I felt held up by my faceless, nameless ancestors.
In the silence, my daughter Hannah felt as near to me as her living, breathing older sister.
I felt something changing inside me, a shifting of my grief and despair, and a wonder at the over-arching Something that I could feel but could not name.
I had begun to return to life.
And now it is time to write it down....
Martine Brennan, genealogy researcher, writer, speaker. London born Irishwoman