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The ninth Station: Tracing

Wednesday, 2 December, 2015

It’s a summer evening, we’re in the home of John Grogan in the Glen of Aherlow and the tracing is about to begin. Neither of the main performers takes strong drink — only a ‘mineral’ — but the custom of the country dictates that other refreshments are provided in case the observers get thirsty. Then the remembering starts.

Mother and John Grogan

What is tracing? It’s the skill of joining the dots between the living and the dead. It’s an oral tradition of genealogy in which lineage is parsed during a performance that tests the memory of the “artistes”. In a world where blood is far thicker than water, your relations are of paramount importance because you can never tell when you might need their help, and when you go looking for that help it is advisable to know who married whom and where and when. Every human closet has it skeletons so having the back story, with all its triumphs and failures, can prevent one from saying the wrong thing. Why did they have to sell the place? Did she have a child? Was he in jail for a while? What happened to the youngest of them? It’s a small world, knowledge is power, a faux pas can be fatal, so it’s best to be informed. Hence, tracing.

Paper is needed for the more common type of tracing, but it plays no role in the traditional practice, which is why it’s almost impossible to write down the improvisational memory exchanges that happens when two star performers are in full flight. Just to illustrate, however, my mother and John Grogan said things like this during that evening’s tracing last summer:

“He was called Edward O’Donnell, I heard.”
“Well, he was baptized Edmond O’Donnell, my father said, and he could go back as far as his grandmother, who was a Mullins woman, and his father was one of the Gallahues — a Dan Gallahue.”
“That name is in the Gallahues, all right. And what happened to this Edmond O’Donnell?”
“He went to America, like most of them those times, and his three brothers went after him.”
“What were their names?”
“Con, John and Dan.”
“And all of them went to America, you say?”
“They did, but the only one we heard about after was this Edmond. He went to San Francisco and after that he went to a place called Salt Lake City.”
“I think I heard my own mother saying that. He was in the undertaking business.”
“He was and he married a girl called Miller, she was an American, and the family kept on the business, and it might still be there today.”
“When did he die, then?”
“Well, I can tell you exactly. It was 1923 and do know you how I know that? This is a funny one for you, my mother, God rest her, was in Cork and she…”

And on and on flowed the talk as the tracing filled the spaces between the generations and conjured up images of those who went before us. There was magic in those words. There was humanity in those memories.

Our next station in this series of meditations on 14 photographs is Style.


Filed in: Family, Ireland, Photos • Tags: , , , ,

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