Last year, the frustration of failed words, struggling motivation and dashed hopes seemed to be my lot, although I enjoyed limited success with a poem published in the Australian Senior, July 2019 and a play shortlisted in ARKfest 2020.
Maybe I can still claim the title writer…
Satisfaction came by helping students achieve their writing dreams, which in Mary Robinson’s case (the Irish eyes of this post’s title) was a book she had been working on for several years before coming to the Life Stories & Legacies class at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh, ‘to finally, transform nostalgic reflections into a book to hold.‘
The class finished in 2018 but I promised Mary to help publish One Last Goodbye, a labour of love and a wonderful legacy for her daughter Catherine, and granddaughter Ilsa.
In the Introduction, Mary expresses why so many ‘pick up a pen’ or attend a writing class…
There are deeply personal reasons to finish writing my memoir. I am, I suppose, like most people who have reached the 80-year mark, conscious of time passing and wishing to reveal information to family members I may not have previously spoken of. I am also keenly aware of my daughter, Catherine, raising her child at a time of tumultuous change in Australia and the world.
I possess that innate human need to link the past with the future so that all our loved ones who came before us are honoured and their stories not lost. I want the generations who will follow to remember how hard their ancestors worked to give us all a better and slightly easier life, and the real sacrifices the Morans made to reach these goals. I want my darling little granddaughter, Ilsa to get a sense of where her kith and kin have come from so that no matter how far is travelled, both in terms of time and geography, she will feel the tug of her Irish roots and be inspired by their great efforts to meet the challenges in her own life as she grows up.
A fellow student, Edna Gaffney, published her memoir in July, to celebrate her 90th birthday, giving Mary a fresh burst of energy to persist. Determination needed to see the project through because a series of health crises, including a bad fall led to an extended hospital stay to heal several broken bones in her hand and other damage.
(Murphy’s Law meant it was the writing hand!)
We set the deadline for November so copies of the book could be Christmas gifts to family overseas and just made it when the happy author held a copy on November 25th!
The title of the book, a phrase Mary’s mother said each time her daughter left after a visit. Echoed in the last line, it is a fitting end to the book, when on a visit ‘home’ in 2002, was indeed the last goodbye.
We had many discussions about the format (A4), titles and placements of chapters, what photographs to include, the cover design and blurb – a process of close collaboration to ensure the book encapsulates Mary’s love of her birthplace, Achill isle and her family. It was important to tell the story in a natural voice, including Gaelic words and local vernacular.
There is Irish history, information about traditional customs, and immense pride in the Irish diaspora’s contribution – Mary’s family, the Morans – a clan scattered across several continents, like many others from Erin’s isle.
Before coming to Australia and continuing a long nursing career, Mary was a nun in the USA for 15 years. This time in her life merits a stand-alone book if she felt inclined, however, it does not define her life of caring for others. Mary’s nursing career took her from London to Chicago, Perth, Port Hedland, Darwin, New Guinea and Melbourne, including an active part in the memorable 1986 Victorian Nurses Strike!
Modest and unassuming, Mary Robinson is typical of many ‘ordinary’ people who have lived extraordinary lives.
I always feel privileged to hear the journeys and help the women record their stories. Society must not lose valuable contributions to the tapestry of herstory and history.
Celebrating Each Other’s Success
Another student from the Bentleigh class offered to host a celebration and mini-launch of Mary’s book but organising a date to suit everyone over the Christmas period is not an easy task.
On Friday, December 27, most past students met for a delicious lunch and just ‘like old times’ we all read a piece of writing, listened to each other’s stories and congratulated Mary on her achievement.
Edna read a small piece from her book, Chibby From Brandy Creek reminding us of life in rural Australia during the 1930s Depression. She shared the wonderful news that her daughter was arranging for the printing of more books.
A thoroughly modern Jan read a poem she confessed to ‘dashing off’ on her mobile phone while on the train. We sat enthralled at the funny rhyming verse about Christmas and the discovery of decorations like the ‘hairy fairy’.
An impressive, polished poem produced in ‘ten minutes’ – wow – and a demonstration that age is not a barrier to mastering technology!
Nora shared a delightful ‘Ode To The Pantry’ and reflected on her life as an Armenian immigrant integrating culinary and cultural practices, especially at a time like Christmas with traditional rituals.
She cleaned out the pantry to prepare for cooking expected treats and pondered the outcome if spices, seeds, sauces and legumes commonly found in Armenian recipes were forgotten or the wrong quantities used.
Special occasions need the added spice…
And we all agreed, we like added spice!
Janet read her poem The Mirror of ANZAC, written when she attended a ceremony at Gallipoli in 2000.
When she stood at the grave of a man from Mentone buried at Lone Pine, she reflected on the universal story of soldiers everywhere who fight and die far from home.
Annie read a thoughtful essay with observations about various plants in her garden and having conversations with her flowers and trees when she is weeding, fertilising, pruning and planting.
An ex-teacher, her essays always delve below the surface and like Nora’s stories; they are philosophical reflections on the human condition and human behaviour.
The gardening piece morphed into memories of her first teaching position, a tough gig. Assigned a class of Grade Threes comprising 36 pupils deemed ‘troublemakers’ and unwanted by the other teachers, it made her question her career choice.
Annie said to be a good gardener and teacher you have to stay alert and adapt, and like the needs of plants, we must nurture some children more than others.
Mary read a lovely poem about a rose presented to her by the Henry Lawson Society for her 80th birthday.
The care and development of the rose and the joy experienced when it blossomed an apt metaphor for the time and effort Mary put into writing her book and how she felt when she held a copy in her hands.
It was a lovely memory day, allowing me to bask and learn from the writing prowess of others.
I’ll finish the post with a memory Mary shares in her book that has remained from the moment she shared it in class:
We had many farm animals and so had to cut and dry a large supply of hay to feed them through the colder months when snow covered the fields and hills. The children helped with this process, gathering in the fields and helping to rake the hay into rows. Haymaking and wet weather made for bad work companions similar to the peat preparations. We always prayed for the rain to stay away. A day in the fields cutting and collecting hay both hard work and happiness. We all looked forward to 3:00pm when Mother came around. We watched eagerly as she passed around cups of tea and slices of home-baked soda bread. This picnic atmosphere made the hard work more bearable.
The next labour-intensive work was hoeing the potatoes out of the ground and piling them in hessian sacks. Father also cut, bundled and stacked the hay for the animals in the barn to last through winter. Farm life harsh with work never-ending. While growing up, I didn’t fully realise how extremely hard my father worked because he suffered in silence, never complaining or being negative. Life was what people did and they just got on with it.
Recently, by sheer accident, my brother, Michael spotted a photograph of Father in one of the many books that are published about our region. The book titled: I Remember It Well: Memories of Yesteryear, 120th Anniversary of Western People, published in 2003 by The Western People newspaper. They had not identified him by name but it was Father all right, just as I remember him, face concentrating on his work, yet managing to convey an air of cheerfulness. Whenever I read the caption: ‘Back-breaking work – an old man carries a creel of turf in Achill, 1967’ tears well and my heart constricts. Father was only in his sixties but looked eighty. All the decades of hard work aged him before his time and sadly, he died of a massive heart attack a few months after this picture was taken.
p9, One Last Goodbye, Mary Robinson
For many years, the regular exodus of Irish families to mainland Britain working skilled or semi-skilled jobs was vital to the British economy, especially the rebuilding necessary after the war. These workers returned home to work farms to provide for their families during the winter months and sent money home at other times. Some never returned home and hence statistics like 60% of the population of cities like Glasgow and Liverpool have Irish ancestry!
Many countries and many economies owe a debt of gratitude to the hard work of Irish immigrants and books like Mary Robinson’s, add faces, names and background details to enrich the stark statistics.