When I was a teenager growing up in inner city Birmingham our Granny Murphy came over from Cork regularly to visit. She came for a week or so and usually stayed for a month or so. She was the mother of thirteen children she’d reared in a two bedroomed corporation house and in her early eighties her hair was still black.
She smoked Player’s Navy Cut, the ones with the sailor on the front, and smoked so much that, like a west of Ireland coastline, visibility around her was usually poor. She sang the line ‘But the boys who beat the Black and Tans, were the boys from the County Cork’ with a flourish of her fist. She sat in front of us, as she made us play endless games of cards.
She was a legend herself.
One perhaps intensified by emigration but not solely shaped by it, for our cousins back in Ireland looked upon Granny Murphy as something legendary too. Legendary but alive.
The ÉIRÍ competition, mentioned in previous weeks in The Irish Post, is now open for submissions. The word ‘éirí’ means stands up, arises, ascends, soars, grows up. This competition seeks to tap into, record and explore the inspirational roles of mythical women in Irish culture. In words, in pictures, in any way that expresses what your thoughts and feelings on this are.
My mother, Cork born and raised, could tap into her childhood amongst people who were essentially landless labourers with living memories of the Famine. My daughters and my son, Cork born and raised, could tap into their modern life and their English mother and their friends from everywhere in what is now cosmopolitan Ireland. My goddaughter, Cork born and raised, of black South African parents, could tap into a coming generation’s shaping of what a country is through what a country was.
During my childhood in the back streets of Birmingham, those Irish rich, immigrant rich, streets I listened at times for the Banshee. This is true.
My mother, my father, my uncle Mícheál from three streets away, all spoke of her at times.
My Granny Murphy spoke of those who had heard her. The Banshee was, we were told, a harbinger of death. If you heard her, you, or someone you loved, would very soon meet their maker. She wasn’t, in our minds anyway, tied to the winding hills of Cork. She was just as likely to be found in the dark streets around the Holy Family Church on the Coventry Road. Or behind those old, closed down factories on the way to school. Had the Banshee followed the Irish over or had they brought her with them? Either way she was here. And on a windy night in the city the noise she was said to make sounded just as possible as it might on a windy night in Castletownbere or Macroom.
Of course, my immigrant family story of growing up in England, within an Irish house, is more a typical human experience than it is of being either Irish or English. The experience of being an immigrant, for an example, is defined more by being an immigrant than it is by any country of origin.
The experience of growing up on working class streets, for instance, is a story of economics and society more than it is a story of nationality.
The stories of women in Irish mythology is about our shared experience. That is why this competition is open to you and everyone you might know. The framework of it is Irish but what it speaks of is beyond that. A bit like an authentic Irish pub. We know it when we find it and we know that the Fir and Mná on the pub aren’t just for those versed in the language.
My Granny Murphy was only ever found in the snug if she was in the pub, Flannerys. In a cloud of smoke with a glass of black stuff. I didn’t get to hear all her tales of myth or the past or fully picture how one woman endured so much with such a lust for life. I didn’t get to hear it all because, despite those visits, she was mainly in Cork and we were mainly in England. I didn’t get to hear all of her tales but that’s not to say the sound of them wasn’t out there on our streets somewhere. Just waiting, perhaps, to be recorded.