When I was a student in Ireland 20 years ago, many homes still did not have telephones, and central heating and reliable hot water were dicey commodities at best. Now, I'm told, even the most remotely situated Irish have cell phones, and huge chunks of American data processing work are farmed out to Irish computer operators. In such a short time, the last remnants of what had been a slower, more insular world are vanishing. These thoughts crossed my mind as I read The Last of the Name, a brief but evocative oral history that spans some seven generations of rural Irish life from the 18th century to the middle of our own. Edited by playwright Brian Friel (one of Ireland's national treasures), the book collects the reminiscences of Charles McGlinchey, who spent nearly every day of his long life in a small community in County Donegal. They were recorded by a local schoolteacher in the 1940s and '50s, not long before McGlinchey's death at 93. McGlinchey was born in 1861, less than two decades after the potato famine that devastated Ireland. Though he lived through two world wars and the fight for Irish independence, he never mentions these historical events. Instead, his memories concentrate on the everyday comings and goings of his little corner of the world the semi-annual fair, the successions of parish priests, revenuer's raids on illicit stills, and the intermarriages and squabbles between Catholic and Protestant families. In the great oral tradition, he shares stories of the olden times that he heard from those who came before him quintessentially Irish stories of spirits and spells, family devotion, religion, poetry, games, and, of course, emigration.
The Last of the Name is a bit like a family heirloom found among a grandparent's belongings, passed down through many hands to reach our own. McGlinchey was a weaver by trade, and it seems appropriate to apply the metaphor of a tapestry to this memoir. As he adds his own stories to those of his father and grandfather, McGlinchey weaves a colorful cloth of memory, and leaves us a remarkable link to a disappearing way of life.
Robert Weibezahl studied at the School of Irish Studies in Dublin.
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