“When the Bough Breaks” and “Shaking the family Tree”
Good evening all and thank you Margaret for asking me to do this important job launching not one but two results of your hard work and courage.
First a permission. In a town just west of Burrowa an unprepossessing local was to address the citizens in the School of Arts about his overseas travel. The mayor gave an overheated introduction and your man commenced. “G’day everyone.” Mumbled unenthusiastic “G’day.” “Can youse all hear me?” “Emm” mumbled. “Can you down there hear me?” Pointing. “Yes I can but I am willing to swap places with someone who can’t”. So feel free to do such a swap.
“When the Bough Breaks” and “Shaking the Family Tree” cover similar areas. The genres of autobiography and family history are vulnerable territory. It is also an impregnable area as no one can deny or contradict a writer’s reaction to incidents.
Margaret’s territory is also pegged by her father Barry’s writing, and that of her sister and her brother. So unsurprisingly there is a tinge of having to justify the writer’s unique version.
“When the Bough Breaks”
Takes two little children from the care of their mother, to their maternal grandparents, to their paternal grandparents and then to a blended stepfamily. That is a lot.
But it is further contaminated by the grandparent asking a child to promise not to love her new stepmother. That seems to block the possible nurturing warmth from a new maternal person.
Barry, Margaret’s father, must have been shattered by the death of his wife while he was a new enlistee in the army posted to Western Australia. Adding to his pain was the charge that he was just trying to get out of an army for which he had volunteered. One doubts if Barry ever really grieved for his wife or instead used denial, workaholism and whisky. Perhaps too he was terrified of losing a second wife’s affection and so gave priority to his new family over Margaret and her sister. Work is such a respectable defence against living a fully human life. Philosopher Joseph Pieper, in “Leisure the Basis of Culture” talks of work; negotium in Latin as the negation of otium meaning rest which is our default state.
“Strong women” or tough women surrounded Barry. He physically sparred with his daughters. Margaret laments his underdeveloped feminine side. Whence though would he have had the models to be more feminine? Margaret’s ambivalence toward her semi absent father, who was scant protection against his second wife, is evident. But he was the only parent she had to love and she did.
Her mother Bunty dying young achieves canonization along with priest Uncle Robert.
“Shaking the Family Tree”.
The second launch is “Shanking the Family Tree”. Margaret is still a bit behind Kim Jong-un but this is her fourth launch in two years.
Convict ancestor James Barry emerges from the family mist like the convict in the opening scenes of the film of “Great Expectations”. He looks scary but becomes more human as we get to know him. Margaret provides details of Irish history and nineteenth century occupied Cork. This is the landscape from which James Barry moves to primitive Australia. (And there are still Barry families in Cork).
Governor Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane said of people like James, “…every murder or diabolical crime, which has been committed in the Colony since my arrival has been perpetrated by Roman Catholics. And this I ascribe entirely to their barbarous ignorance. And total want of education, the invariable companion of bigotry and cruelty as well as the parent of crime”. A bit rich coming from a Scot who left his country to join the British Army and who collected his wife’s name to enhance his status. Governor Brisbane calls the Irish Roman Catholics ignorant. It was the British government who forbade them their schools from about 1695 though they conducted illegal “hedge schools” a risk they took because they valued education. The British also made it a punishable offence to speak their own language. As in our days with Aboriginal people? Asylum seekers? Punishment for the effects of what we have done to people?
James had two children with his wife Margaret Barry who died aged 24 from tuberculosis in 1853. Margaret McMahon’ sympathy for the two bereaved children Margaret Mary and William patently parallels her own loss of a mother at as a little child with a younger sister.
Outside the family and intermingled with family perceptions is the cultural context. That context is as fickle as fashion. Cultural norms are like good glasses they change focus and are imperceptible to the wearer. Just think how society’s views on gender have shifted in the past thirty or so years.
There are also the pervasive social barbed wires of family/religious judgments based on societal norms. Often the connections one has with a respectable person can be redemptive. But should not always be relied on.
My grandfather, who was asked to change his German name during two world wars, had a story of a well-known Sydney identity that was chairman of the water board. The said identity got into an argument with a tram conductor. At full charge he demanded, “Do you know who I am? I’m so and so. I’m connected with the water board.” The unphased conductor replied, “So’s my dunny”.
These days you can cut corners for social renovation. You can be a criminal banker and use your gains to enrol children at private schools thereby elevating your and their status.
Religious intolerance, which threads through both books, has declined along with religion itself. However, racial intolerance in our multicultural society is alive and well. It is a highly inflammable seam of gas ready for politicians to ignite for their own benefit.
Reading, “When the Bough Breaks” and “Shaking the Family Tree” I enjoyed what I learned about nineteenth century life, rural life in Ireland, in Australia, about the Hunter Valley and its prominence in the Colony. About Mudgee, and the goldfields their miners and suppliers as well as learning about moves to the city and back to the bush again. At times I could smell fresh cow’s milk or leather dressing on harness or saddles or the smell of a horse. Or I could imagine the view to the side of a bush track curtained with thick flora now gone.
Margaret’s work is impressive. It is the grinding, lonely unsure work of writing. Her children and their grandchildren can be grateful they have so much to go on.
Margaret deserves our attentive reading and appreciation for sharing her paths, and that is why we are here
Michael D. Breen,