Reading Nawal El Sadaawi’s Autobiography ‘A Daughter of Isis’ I was struck by one paragraph which mirrored my own childhood experiences growing up in rural Ireland.
She grew up in a village close to Cairo and she writes: “When I walked through the streets I kept looking around me as though I was walking through a city over which a spell had been cast.” This reminded me of my own childhood in Graiuenamanagh. A rural town in Co. Kilkenny which had been founded by a group of Cistercian monks who had come to the Duiske Valley in the 1200’s. I lived there from the age of two to ten, during the sixties, and spent most of that time looking over my shoulder. There was, in reality, two towns, one on each side of the Barrow River. The River was also the boundary line between Kilkenny and Carlow and my best friend lived on the Carlow side, which was called Tinnahinch.
I lived on the Kilkenny side, Graiguenemanagh, and every evening, after school, I would walk across the bridge to visit her. But walking across this bridge was always a scary thing. I experienced the air around me as though it were filled with ancient voices and people who were watching me as I crossed the river, dark and cold beneath me. They were as tangible to me as you or I and I always felt as though they were following me. I could never escape them and this feeling persisted throughout my childhood there. No matter how old I became that feeling stayed. They felt like ghosts, floating around above the river, watching me as I crossed. I never felt safe until I had finally crossed and was safely on solid ground and from there would race up the road to my friend’s pub.
I spent years living in and around the Cistercian Abbey, now the Duiske Abbey, and seemed to be immersed in the past. I could never live in the modern world. It seemed to be a world which was not real. The past and its energies, although I didn’t understand it in those terms when I was a child, was the real world to me. I could feel the Abbey’s history as though it were still alive. The monks, getting up early for matins, the incense burning in the church, the smell of candle-wax. The house I grew up in was only a few meters from the corner of the original Abbey grounds and most of the town lay on its foundations so it really was everywhere.
But no-one else seemed to be aware of it. I was alone in this ‘old world’ but, apart from the bridge, this old world felt like the natural one to me. I lived in the old energies of Graig and I loved it. Later on as an adult, my Uncle, Philip Murphy, wrote a biography about my Paternal Grandmother’s family and I discovered that they too had been immersed in the history and energies of the Abbey. They had lovingly restored it from its ruinous state and wrote extensively about its history. They were antiquarians, poets, writers, artists, musicians and activists and left Graiguenemanagh a wonderful legacy; The Duiske Abbey. They had such a wonderful connection to the Abbey as their shop on the High street lay on the old abbey grounds. I remember my Uncle Colm O’Leary showing me their back garden which was the monk’s vegetable gardens where they
grew all of their food for the abbey. Colm maintained this love of the Abbey and loved showing those who were interested, the abbey gardens.
The O’Leary’s brought the Abbey to life through their work, their poetry and their art. They were the first ones to do so in an age when Irish History was something to be ashamed of, not valued. But they valued it and loved it. And I inherited this love of the Abbey from them, without even knowing it. So they left me with a wonderful legacy also, a legacy which I hope to pass down to my own children through the love of art and Healing and music.
I still live within the energies of the past, no matter where I am, and the modern world still seems out of place but I have learned to ‘Bridge’ this gap in my experiences so I no longer feel afraid of the voices and energies I experience all around me from the past. But I have learned to read and interpret it, using all of the information as fodder for a new life where the past becomes the present in a balanced way.
And so, living in Egypt, brings the past to life once more. There are so any similarities that even that becomes my bridge of voices. Voices that I want to listen to carefully so I can learn as much as I can about the past and the present in this wonderful country. And maybe those voices will come alive and tell me their stories…just as they did in my childhood. I sure hope so…