This article accompanies Joe Moran’s piece ‘The Scattering: A Family History for a Floating World’ in History Workshop Journal issue 92, where it is currently free access.
Scattery Island is a small place, three-quarters of a mile long and half a mile wide. You can walk its shingled circumference in an hour and a half. It sits in the mouth of the Shannon estuary in west Clare, Ireland. It was once a holy island, the site of a monastery built by Celtic monks in the sixth century and thriving for six hundred years. From the 1840s until the 1950s, a small number of families lived on it, including mine. They worked as farmers, river pilots and fishermen. My grandma was born and raised there; my dad was brought up in Cappa, the village opposite the island, and spent his summers there as a boy. In 1959 all the families left the island, part of a long pattern of depopulation and emigration from Ireland’s west, especially its islands.
I have wanted to write about the island since I went there in July 2018 with thirteen members of my extended family to scatter my dad’s ashes. But I only properly began writing my article, ‘The Scattering’, at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020. Every day, on my one permitted walk, I would go down to the banks of the Mersey, the new limits of my world. Liverpool, where I live, is sometimes called Ireland’s 33rd county. Its accent bleeds into Dublin and its gaze fixes not south to London and Europe but west, to Ireland and the old sea routes. When I arrived at the river’s bank, I would look over towards the Welsh hills in the direction of Scattery, three hundred miles away.
In the most glorious spring of recent memory, lockdown was forcing me to get to know my own neighbourhood better, while drawing me to this remembered elsewhere, the island. It was also forcing me to reflect uncomfortably on my comfortably placeless life. Most of the things I needed to sustain me now came anonymously from some unspecific otherwhere, thanks to the invisible labour of the newly (and briefly) lauded ‘key workers’. It made me think about the human need for emplacement, to feel that we belong somewhere. ‘To be rooted,’ the French thinker Simone Weil wrote, ‘is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.’
In my article I wanted the island to form the centre from which lots of other themes developed: family, place, islomania and island myths, postwar British and Irish history, migration and immigration. Scattery would be a lens through which to view these wider histories. One theme that could hardly be avoided was how Brexit had compelled our political and media elites to reveal their startling ignorance of the fraught shared history of Britain and Ireland. In December 2018, the Conservative MP Priti Patel had argued that the threat of food shortages in Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit could be used as leverage in negotiations with the Irish government. In January 2019, a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, John Humphrys, suggested to Ireland’s Europe minister, Helen McEntee, that the problem of a hard border might best be solved by Ireland joining its neighbour in leaving the EU. The consequences of this ignorance were now clear, as the British-Irish border became the main sticking point in the Brexit talks. The story of my family and the island seemed to resonate with this buried history of two much bigger islands, Ireland and Britain.
As well as exploring these wider histories, I wanted to recognise the power of a small place in its own right. As a boy I heard many stories about Scattery. The family members who ended up in Ennis asylum. The great uncle kept as an unpaid labourer and virtual prisoner on the island after twice disappearing on a marathon bender while on the mainland. The funerals that went on for days, with all-night céilís and an endless flow of ‘the good stuff’ (poitín). The tears shed at the American wakes, held the night before a young islander sailed across the Atlantic, never to return.
A small island teaches you that size doesn’t matter. Epic has come to mean sweeping, panoramic, grand in scale and significance. But in its original Greek it just meant a story or song. And life’s song, captivating but shockingly brief, is sung everywhere. As Patrick Kavanagh writes in a poem, ‘Epic’, Homer ‘made the Iliad from such / a local row’. When the Greeks besieged it, Troy was a city of perhaps ten thousand citizens, the same size as Swanage or Shepton Mallet. The parochial is the universal, as Kavanagh writes in his essay ‘The Parish and the Universe’: ‘it is depth that counts, not width’. Every life is an act of heroism, if you turn it around in the light and look at it closely enough. We all come from important places.
I confess that the article also had an unscholarly impetus. I wanted to remember my dad by deep-mapping a place that was important to him. There is a photograph of him, reproduced in the article, owned by my auntie Maria, my dad’s younger sister. He is pictured with his aunties Chrissie and Mae and my grandma, Bridget. Although he must only be about six, he is unmistakably my dad, cocking his head to the left in response to the camera’s gaze as he did all his life (a habit I have inherited). This picture constitutes the only documentary evidence that he was ever on the island. Scattery’s round tower and ruined cathedral, poking out of the background, are proof. Here my dad’s life on the island – a family story, recounted so often it has acquired the status of myth – becomes incontestably true. The picture reminds me what extraordinary journeys we make in a single life, and what a long way it is, as Ralph McTell sang in a song that my dad loved, ‘from Clare to here’.
Joe Moran is a Professor of English and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. He is the author of, among other books, Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness , First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing … and Life , and If You Should Fail: A Book of Solace .