Category Archives: History

Heroes and other strangers

Last night I went to bed way too late. Not because I was out partying. It’s true I did go out for a drink. But the way-too-late bit is thanks to the fact that when I came home I made myself a cup of tea, got into bed with my laptop and stayed up till 3 am watching a documentary about Steve Jobs.

I’m not even interested in Jobs (sorry). But I couldn’t find any episodes of Pan Am on the BBC iplayer (what? has it ended already?!) and I’m all caught up with Death in Paradise. So while I wasn’t all that interested in Jobs, I was already committed to the idea that I was going to unwind by watching TV in bed on my laptop … that I was going to stay up late just because I could!

The only bit of Jobs’ story that I was curious about was the reference to him as The Hippy Billionaire in the strapline of the show. Ever since I went to see my friend Zac’s play at The Fringe Festival in New York this summer (Heroes and Other Strangers*), I’ve been wondering about something:

How come a whole generation of people went counter-culture in the 60’s and they still turned out wealthy and bourgeois? Or if not wealthy, then certainly not poor. How is it possible to drop-out in your early twenties and then come back in your 30’s with a house and a car and not even a job but an actual career?

Zac Jaffee, writer and performer, in Heroes...

Jobs may be an exceptional case, but from the anecdotal stockpile in  my head, he’s not the only hippy drop-out made good.

After Zac’s show (which has been described as a hippy-fueled coming-of-age detective story), I asked his partner about this. His partner also happens to be my high school buddy. I thought she might know because along with most of my other high school friends, her parents were around for the 60’s (while mine were in Ireland — a country that skipped that decade).

The difference between my parents and the parents of my high school friends seemed stark to me at the time. Other parents had done drugs. Other parents had had some pretty intense “experiences”.

Other parents had different attitudes towards parenting than my own.

It was also clear that by the time I met these Other Parents they wore suits (with padded shoulders) and did things like commute to an office. At the time I didn’t think this was weird — but now I do.

My high school friend’s reply to my question had been that I was over-estimating the number of people that participated in the counter-culture movement and while many of these parents might have been at college at the time and up for the odd protest here and there, my friend explained to me that they were not necessarily fully-fledged members of the moving images I had in my mind. (Think Forrest Gump). They never really dropped out, she said. It was just fashionable at the time to be a bit of a hippy … but not necessarily to embrace the full Yoko Ono.

While I do trust my friend on this matter, I remain curious and let’s face it – clearly envious, that lots of people did opt for a life of love-in’s and parties and questioning the Vietnam War and fighting for civil rights …. So how did these people re-enter the commercial world and begin to command the sort of paychecks and lifestyles that their more conservative peers had been sweating over and working more steadily towards …

How did they have their cake and eat it too? The answer in Jobs case seems to be that he was amazingly visionary and utterly ruthless. But what about the average hippy? Or were none of them all that average — were all of them special sorts of people to begin with.

I still wonder about this.

The Jobs documentary shed no light on these matters for me. So if anyone out there can either shut down or verify any of the sweeping generalizations I make in this post — or even better, recommend a good book about what happened to all those hippies … please share!

* * *

*I loved Heroes and Other Strangers – and for anyone who knows me well, live performances are not really my thing — normally I get too stressed out for the people on stage to lose myself in the show and can never quite forget I am watching make-believe. But Heroes really grabbed me. Here’s a bit more about it straight from the show’s writer/performer, my friend Zac.



Filed under Current affairs, History, Identity, Money

Trading places with Samuel Beckett

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?

The former.

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


Or Italian

Or German

Or Polish

Or Russia

Or African

[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.


Filed under History, Identity