Monday, July 21, 2014

History Lost In The Loss Of Letters

A letter written to a family member is a personal document, a record of events that are framed within the context of the family's collective memory. Such anecdotes are not to be found in online archives among newspaper articles or old photos scanned to a website.

People don't write letters to each other any more. So one hundred years from now, where will we go to uncover the stories that remind us of our humanity?

Jeremiah Hennessey Sr. was a British naval officer posted to Ireland during a very troubling time. Trade unionism was roiling the island, with the Dublin Lockout of 1913 still very fresh in the nervous minds of the colonial rulers. The natives were restless and forming their own small militias with an intent to topple to the government and break away from the British Empire. Mr. Hennessey was hard at work training sailors for the Royal Navy at the start of the First World War. Tensions at the time were high.

His son Jeremiah Junior was a member of the Irish Volunteers, the very group that was preparing to do battle against British might to win Ireland's freedom.

The Hennessey offspring were aware that their ancestors had a rift and stopped speaking to each other, but if not for a series of handwritten letters between father and son, the reason behind the split would have been lost to history. The letters are a lasting testament of a family divided by politics, far more than a scattering of e-mails that require a password to access and after the writer is gone, so too is the password and so the mail is lost as well.

The case of the Hennessey family is a small part of the history surrounding Ireland's Easter Rising of 1916, but history is told through a gathering of such stories. Historians will describe the actions of the leaders, but what do we know of the mindset of the followers without their words, which were once put down on paper.

The father sat at a table and took up a pen and stated in no uncertain terms to his son that the lad was not to return home after participating in a gun-running operation that was intended to level the field between the Irish Volunteers and the British-supplied loyalists who were determined to maintain their hold on Ireland. Father and son were unquestionably on opposite sides in the conflict, and in this case there was no reconciliation or an attempt by a father to understand his son or a son to ask forgiveness of his father.

The family has donated the items for a display that is part of a lead-up to the centennial of the Easter Rising. A part of history will be available for the public to read and perhaps gain a better understanding of who did the fighting that won them their freedom. It gives the citizens of Ireland a hint at the sacrifice involved, with young lads who tend to feel invincible doing something a bit mad as they chaffed at the restrictions of the Edwardian Era.

Without those letters, however, how would we know now what was actually happening then, and what the ordinary people thought about the tumult around them?

One hundred years from now, will our descendants have a way to be educated about the past so that they do not repeat our mistakes?

No comments: