Which was the more likely scenario … that at the end of the Second World War, Samuel Beckett would leave Ireland for France? Or that my grandmother would leave France for Ireland?
I mean, Leaving Ireland is part of Being Irish. Whereas good blue-blooded French people rarely leave French soil and when they do, they don’t move to Ireland. Up until very recently, no one moved to Ireland — no matter how misty or enchanting.
“Present but distracted” is how my grandmother describes the Beckett she once knew. While they were never close, they were both stationed at the Irish hospital in Saint-Lô. Set up by the Irish Red Cross as a great act of charity (though not always welcome by the local French physicians), the hospital was part of an effort to rebuild a town that was almost completely decimated during the Battle of Normandy.
Known as the Capital of the Ruins, this is what it looked like then:
Beckett was 39 years old at the time, my grandmother somewhere in her early twenties. Beckett had already made a good dent in his career — having lectured and published some books. And thanks to the war and German-occupied Paris in particular, my grandmother had already been forced to grow up fast. As a French Red Cross ambulance driver she was dispatched to open the concentration camps. As a history student, there are so many things I want to ask her, but my grandmother comes from an era where the past is not for analysis and in certain instances, it’s not even for discussion.
Like many other people at the end of a war, Beckett and my grandmother, whether they knew it or not, were at cross-roads in their lives and it seems that their work at the hospital became entwined in the two different decisions they made — one leaving Ireland for France and the other vice versa.
Scholars claim that Saint-Lô marked the end of Beckett’s early career and made way for what became known as his “middle period” when he would produce his best known work. According to a piece in The Irish Times (written by Phyllis Gaffney, a lecturer in French at UCD, the author of a history on the hospital and the daughter an Irish pathologist who served there), “Saint-Lô was a crucial cultural watershed for Beckett, pivotal in prompting him to cross over into Frenchness and to write in French.”
This “spiritual exodus” occurred in a liminal setting: an Irish hospital in the heart of Normandy. At Saint-Lô, Beckett was living in France yet consorting on a daily basis with a greater cross-section of Irish people than he had previously mingled with in Portora or Trinity. The close juxtaposition of the two cultures helped confirm that he had more intellectual affinities with his host country than with de Valera’s Ireland
Now, no one who has ever met my grandmother would think to suggest that she’s shed any of her Frenchness despite having now spent most of her life in Ireland. And she certainly never chose Ireland for its Irishness. No — she left Paris for Dublin because she met a man with a fast car. Which is a fairly French thing to do.
Having made friends with one of the nurses, my grandmother paid a visit to Ireland (and we’re told that even that caused panic amongst her blue-blooded relations who weren’t at all sure that Ireland was a safe place to go.) But go she did and during that short stay she was introduced to a man who would later race his car through Paris. She’s often joked that it was the car she fell for — which he then unwittingly sold to pay for the ring.
I don’t know if my grandmother has ever suffered dual-ness. I think she’s too deep down French to have got confused. (I suspect it was a good deal blurrier for Beckett.) But dual-ness did make its way down into the generations my grandmother created.
Almost all of her children met and married foreigners — French, American, English and Dutch. My mother didn’t, she met and married an Irishman, but they then made their way to America where my brother and I were born and grew up.
No one understands dual-ness better than the Americans. Actually, they insist on it.
Kindergarten children are routinely told to raise their hands if they’re
[Notice, they never bother to ask about the French, who for the most part are all back in France.]
But if dual-ness can create a sense of specialness in America, it can also trigger identity crises in other countries. Being of two places can often mean never being fully accepted by either. That’s the subject of this weekend’s blog where guest blogger Katarina Linden will take the idea of dual identities one step further.