(C) Copyright John Peter Luke Saunders, 2000 AD

 

 

“Open here I flung a shutter, when, with many
  a flirt and flutter,

  In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days

  Of yore;”

               Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven

To most of the western world, the raven is a bird of ill omen.

 Associated with darkness and death, the raven is shunned, pushed to the edges of the collective consciousness as a symbol often paired with fear, or dismissed as superstition. Much has been written about the raven, and though folklore deems it to be a talking bird, in this day and age it is seldom allowed to speak for itself in full view of daylight.
 In the same way, the families of the western Irish sept who adopted the raven as their symbol – the Ui Fiachrach – have been marginalised over the centuries because of their ethnicity, at times as misunderstood as their emblem, often silenced in a world dominated by imperialist values.

 This thesis seeks to explore and revalidate the collective memory of a single family of Ui Fiachrach descent, currently living in Australia. It will trace their cultural origins as a western Irish family, examine the problems of their ethnographic representation, contextualise them within the frame of recent history, explore the main themes of their cultural memory, table their narrative characteristics within their social functions, and finally retheorise the continued development of their culture.

Firstly, who are the Ui Fiachrach?
The Ui Fiachrach are a group of clans descended from Fiachra Follsnathach (‘of the flowing hair’) son of Eochaidh Muighmheadhion, a 4th century high king of Ireland. According to legend Fiachra was the brother of Brion (from whom the O’Connors are said to be descended) and half brother of Niall (from whom are descended the O’Neills).

 The Ui Fiachrach include the O’Dowds (or O’Dubhba), the O’Heynes (Hynes), O’Shaughnesseys, O’Clerys and the MacFirbises (Mac Firbisigh or Forbes), the latter being the hereditary historians to the O’Dowds (who were their patrons)  from the 11th century to the 17th century. Both the Great Book of Lecan and the Great Book of Geneaologies were written by members of the MacFirbis family, who also contributed towards the writing of the Yellow Book of Lecan.

 The Ui Fiachrach occupied two principal regions in the province of Connaught, west of the Shannon river. The southern region was located in what is now County Galway, which is known as Ui Fiachrach Aidhne, of whom the O’Heynes were the principal clan. The north region was based in what is now county Mayo and country Sligo, which is known as Ui Fiachrach Muiadhe or Ui Fiachrach an Tuaiscirt, of whom the predominant family were the O’Dubhda.

 Before the culture of the particular family in question is explored, the notion of culture itself needs to be critically examined. It is argued that taken for granted or taken to extremes, “culture” can kill.
 Culture, as defined for the purposes of this thesis, is a system of meanings and perceptions shared by a particular group of people, this system being used to define who is included and who is excluded from the group.

 It is this social mechanism of inclusion/exclusion which is both a potential asset and a potential danger. A strong mechanism of social inclusion is an asset, since a strong social bond can enable  the members of a social unit to support one another through times of great difficulty, preserving their collective identity and the ‘tribe’ itself. With such a bond, the collective as a whole can endure much more than the individual members could on their own.

 The problem arises when this system of inclusion reverses it’s emphasis and instead becomes a system of exclusion, when “we” are defined purely as Not Other, and this progresses to the point where a binary hierarchy is created. Thus the seeds of inevitable conflict are sown. Culture, taken to extremes, becomes nationalism, and nationalism taken to extremes becomes genocidal war. Even at a lesser level, such extreme forms of (self) identity can condition an individual to see the world and act in a way that is less than desirable. For instance, some of my colleagues who under normal circumstances are quiet, mild people become absolutely rabid anti New Zealanders whenever the Australian and New Zealand rugby teams  (Wallabies vs All Blacks) play one another. To them, it is not just a game, but a form of ritualised warfare.

 In times of peace this is controlled by the limits of the game, but it is nevertheless a psychological weakness which may be exploited by calls to patriotism and nationalism, as the Second World War has shown. In whose interests is it for this nationalism to be perpetuated?

 This thesis is in many ways an affirmation of a particular culture, but it is recognised that not all forms of cultural expression are positive. Culture and identity, especially as they are reconstructed and transmitted from generation to generation, must be analysed critically and – as this thesis will argue – changed and reconstituted if necessary (despite the status and inertia held by any attribute considered ‘traditional’) to remove those elements which contribute to negative outcomes, especially patterns of cyclic violence.  Given the stage of the peace process in Ireland, it is something which has never been more relevant to the Irish.

 Cultures are not neutral, and inevitably change over time. Further, if the mistakes of the past are not to be repeated, then it is argued that cultures must be consciously and critically analysed and changed deliberately, discarding all that is hostile and retaining the positive elements, while expanding and developing to take on new meanings and new contributions.
 Of course, the question must be asked “who decides on what basis by what right which elements are to be retained?” This is problematic both socially and politically. But it is argued that in a culture where feuds and wars last for generations even within a single family, something that is obviously dysfunctional must be changed for the benefit of all. The question may also be asked: “What right does a generation have to transmit all it’s hatred and feuds and inabilities to handle anger upon another generation which has no inherent desire or need to fight those wars or continue those conflicts?”

 There are several ways by which this process of inclusion/exclusion may operate, even within a single social group. Language is one basis for discrimination. Religion is another, as is ethnicity. But at the level of the microcosm, one concept is far more emotive and powerful than all others: the notion of blood.

 As an inclusive mechanism, the notion of “blood” helps connect the extended family, the clan. But it is argued that the notion of blood is more often used as a basis for exclusion and conflict. Moreover, it can quite easily demonstrated that genetics have very little to do with the notion of blood. Were common blood the all powerful unifying feature that it’s extreme emotive properties suggest, there were be no such thing as intra-family splits and feuds and exiles. Calling up notions of ‘bad blood’ or past blood spilt is a prime mechanism for furthering cyclic conflict.

 The notion of blood actually has more to with creating political factions based on perceived common traits: these traits are in turn made out to be natural by giving them a genetic basis through the call to blood. Being ‘natural’, these perceived differences are thus considered to be inherent and unchangeable, thus justifying and rationalising the political conflict – and also making conflict almost inevitable down through the generations so long as the two factions are even remotely near one another on the planet.

 My own stance as both researcher and as one “of the blood” is not neutral, nor pretends to be. I am against the notion of blood as it currently stands for several reasons. Firstly, it naturalises conflicts which are in fact cultural/political. Secondly, it perpetuates those conflicts. Thirdly, even as an inclusive mechanism it is inadequate: how distant does one have to be before one is not “of the blood” ? At the level of derbfine (the old Irish social unit signifying ‘true kin’ or ‘clear kin’), or clan, or sept? The question quickly descends into the ridiculous. If the notion of blood is in fact a short cut for signifying those with common cultural traits within the same faction within the same family (or at the national level, ethnicity), then how does a genetic notion of “blood” account for those who share the same cultural traits but who are clearly not related?

 Among some of my colleagues, an alternative notion has been developed and adopted, though equally emotive, which in some cases (like my own) stands alongside notions of blood kindred, and in others has actually super seeded it. These colleagues designate family as blood kindred, but those whom they feel that they share true affinity with – “blood” or not – as heart kindred. While I am not arguing that this second term is free from abuse, it does appear to adequately address the three concerns about blood listed above, and appears to be far less prone to violence as it is oriented towards the inclusive rather than the exclusive.

 In the examination of history, it is sometimes easy to forget that there is no one “true” history nor ever one pure origin of any event or people – only conflicting, contentious propositions which may be read is equally contentious ways.
 The surname of the line in question, for instance, is Duddy. But there are more 40 different variations of the surname O’Dubhda, and it is not always clear when, where or how these variations arose. Indeed, according to one source Duddy is not listed as being of Ui Fiachrach descent at all, and reference sources sometimes make different claims as to what names are descended from whom. But most sources concur that Duddy is in fact a variation of O’Dubhda.

 In regards to this particular line, it becomes even more complicated. Duddy is clearly an anglicised name, and most sources agree that the name is centred around Derry. But as an extract from a letter written to my grandfather will show, it would appear that several generations back the family name was O’Duddy (which appears to be neither fully Gaelic nor fully anglicised) and that the family was based near Loch Conn in western Ireland, not in Ulster.  According to one explanation of the name, the name arose when a group of O’Dowds never returned from the Battle of Kinsale (circa 1601) but migrated north instead. So the presence of a half anglicised name in western Ireland is highly problematic.

 Moreover, there are cases where the same surname arose in different places, the various lines completely unrelated to one another. The simple equivalent in English would be names which reflect attributes or professions – Black, White, Smith, Baker, Miller.

 It is possible that not all Duddy’s are of O’Dubhda descent. However, as it will be shown, the Duddy’s of the line in question have all the quintessential O’Dubhda markers, both phenotypically and culturally. There are also certain motifs and memories which support the link, which will be examined in Chapter 5.

 The Ui Fiachrach are mentioned in many medieval texts, although even the earliest of these texts date from several centuries after the time of Fiachra Follsnathach himself. Because of this, there is no one single pure, original Ur text. There are only ever different stories.
 Because there is no one pure absolute representation, no one body has authority over ‘pure’ meanings. Like all history, various elements may be debated, emphasised, de emphasised, retranslated, correlated and speculated. All history and memory is subjective and therefore contentious. This play of meanings should not be depressing (revealing the weakness of a desire to simply be told from above) but should be encouraging – that so rich a history has an infinite potential for exploration. Rather than one voice silencing all others with an absolute representation, a multiplicity of voices and perspectives and experiences becomes possible.

 Another problematic notion is that of authenticity. What is it to be Irish? More, what is it be considered ‘authentic’ Irish? Are all descendants of the Irish diaspora authentic Irish? If not, who determines who is authentic by what right and by what criteria?
 To be Irish, need one conform to the stereotypes of merely keeping St Patrick’s day, drinking Guinness (not that I’ve anything against Guinness) and wearing green?

 The notion of authenticity goes hand in hand with the notion of legitimation, of being “legitimate” or “real” Irish. This has two aspects – an emic aspect (how the particular group sees itself) and an etic aspect (how outsiders view the group).

 In terms of the emic, the line in question sees itself as being of Irish extraction and maintaining many of the paradigmatic markers which derive from the parent culture. However, while being of Irish extraction, it is recognised that the culture of the line has evolved and changed via the process of diaspora. Thus nationalistically the line sees itself as being Australian first and foremost, the two not being in conflict with each other (why should it be? – up to a third of all Australian citizens may  claim Irish ancestry).

 The tension in identity arises in the clash between Anglo-centric values and a world view which is definitely Irish in extraction. The tension is therefore between the emic and the etic, and reflects the tension which has always existed between the Irish convicts/working class and the English upper class. It is the tension between retaining one’s cultural heritage and retaining one’s dignity in a society which degrades that cultural heritage.

  Australia, as a multi cultural society, technically recognises someone’s cultural heritage is such a person is of a given descent and they themselves acknowledge that heritage. However, such “official” recognition does little to shape how a culture is viewed beyond reinforcing stereotypes of perception. To reverse the problem – especially relevant since Australia is hosting the Olympics this year - who determines what it is to be Australian, and who are Australian?

 Is a prerequisite to being Australian simply the capacity to drink beer, barbeque prawns and eat mince pies? Is it to live somewhere where kangaroos hop down the street (assuming such a place existed)?

 What is Australian-ness? Who defines it? Who determines it? Mass media merely reinforces the stereotypes – local media as well as overseas.

 Thus it can be clearly seen how there are no clear simple definitions of etic identity. Etic identity is thus a fuzzy mass of connotation and expectations, many of which may be hopelessly inaccurate.

 For the Irish, or those of Irish descent, it is particularly bad, as there are centuries of bias and stereotyping at play. Even in such movies as Braveheart, the main Irish character was portrayed as being mad. Yet this madness is not purely negative, for the madman may see and say the truth which the sane may not – for it is the lone mad Irishman alone who sees the assassin for what he is, and not the many. Such madness, ironically, can compensate for the deficiencies of perspective of the sane.

 Yet how is madness defined? Is the madness of Irish nothing more than capacity than to see the world in a different way, a way which has been defined in the past as Not-English?

 It is this difference of perspective, which has so often derided as madness – even to the present – which the remainder of the this thesis will proceed to explore.

Footnotes:
  (1)“The face of the Dying Gaul speaks for them all: each one of us will die, naked and alone, on some battlefield not of our choosing...What we can rely on are the comeliness and iron virtue of the short-lived hero: his (sic) loyalty to cause and comrade, his bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, the gargantuan generosity with which he scatters his possessions and his person and with which he spills his blood. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was heard to say that to be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.

 Such an outlook and such a temperament make for wonderful songs and thrilling stories, but not for personal peace or social harmony.”

 Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 97