Back row, left to right: My mother Rita O’Brien, sister-in-law Clare O’Brien, brother John O’Brien, nephew John Joseph O’Brien, and sister Molly Sheehan.
Front row, left to right: My nieces Orla O’Brien, Cara O’Brien and Molly McCarthy, nephew Eoghan McCarthy, and niece Mary Sheehan
The rural area I grew up in, Canovee, is a remarkable place: verdant, welcoming, wholesome. From a vantage point thousands of kilometers away, in the clamor of a city with over 20 million inhabitants, it takes on an otherworldly quality. It’s not unusual for families there to trace their genealogy back up to nine generations on the land. Tales beginning, “your great-grandfather and my granduncle…” are routine. There’s a sense of rootedness and connectedness only possible within a community knit together by hundreds of years of shared ancestral history.
Relics and ruins bubble from the soil at the touch of a plough: stone-circle ritual-sites from the bronze age, ringforts (enclosed farmsteads) from the early Christian period, an inscribed monastic cross displayed throughout my childhood at the primary school, its carved arcs retraced by every child that passed it by, medieval soutterains (tunnels and chambers cut from the rock and earth to store food and hide people from attack) – the historical artifacts that studded my childhood are abundant, and easily accessible.
My love of history was incubated by community enthusiasms. Curious about the untold stories surrounding us, my parents, along with neighbors and friends, were founding members of Canovee Historical and Archaeological Society. The society invites expert speakers to visit Canovee and lecture on local history, and organizes field trips to both local and national historical and archeological sites.
Outings take place in summer: a trek across a meadow to the shell of an abandoned manor house, or to a dark patch in a tilled field showing where a fire pit had been. As a little girl I was regularly taken on these excursions by my mother, then the headmistress of the local primary school. An unruly, energetic child, (I might have been diagnosed with ADHD a decade later), my goal was to find other playmates, move out of arms length, and invent complicated, and sometimes noisy games. Still, enough knowledge permeated to provoke a lifelong interest in history and narrative.
Today, community passion continues to inspire the next generation of O’Brien children in Canovee. Family friend and neighbor Peter Scanlan, a keen amateur historian and photographer, kindly gave beijingkids permission to print the accompanying photos. They show my mother, and some of my siblings and their families, taking part in a heritage evening two summers ago. The whole community turned out to reenact a scene from the War of Independence with the customary spirit of enthusiasm, cooperation, and fun that makes Canovee so special.
This month the story of your child’s next year at school begins. We look at the places in Beijing, outside the classroom, where history and learning come alive. We encourage you to take your kids into our city’s museums, and onto its ancient streets, to celebrate its past and discover its secrets and stories for yourselves.
This article originally appeared on page 7 of the beijingkids August 2015 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Aisling O’Brien and courtesy of Peter Scanlan