Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Family

O Brave New World

Tattered-Union-flag

Nothing happens in a vacuum. My words are shaped by the experiences I’ve lived through. Everything has a cause and effect. Some events resonate so strongly within their own context that the echoes can be heard for years.

I moved back to England 5 months ago yesterday. My return was shaped by my departure many years before. I knew that the European Referendum would be the defining story of my first year. I was a journalist for a long time. I still think in stories. My own view of Europe is coloured by my experiences. While I was in college I produced and presented a European news show on community radio. I considered myself European, as a blow-in in a country of race memory it was the most comfortable choice. Europe was everywhere, the little blue plaques on public buildings, the awarding body for any funding. I visited Brussels on a press trip for local journalists, we all knew that the European funding for radio documentaries was so much easier to get than the Irish alternative and often more generous. In college I got the opportunity to mix with journalism students  from the Netherlands and and spent a semester in France with European funding. I studied French as part of my course, the better to read European documents and legislation. There’s an innate understanding in bi-lingual Ireland that translation can be a slippery thing and the devil’s in the detail.

Europe was labyrinthine, a gestalt entity built on centuries old rivalries and jealousies. A squabbling family that will stand together when it matters. I’ve watched that relationship grow tense and strained and the dream to falter but you can’t choose your family. You can refuse to attend a family Christmas but the ties and the shared history are still there. We’re shaped by our history and so much of that history is shared. That’s just the way it is.

Nationality is a funny thing. I chose to define myself as European for most of my adult life because the choice was either to be the member of a club that had the blood of half the globe on its hands or one that constantly told me I didn’t belong. I spent years viewing Ireland through a English lens and now I’m in England I view it through an Irish lens. At this point I don’t know where one nationality begins and the other ends. Being transplanted does funny things to the sense of self. I know my father spent many years without a nationality. An accident of birth. I have a form in a family file to apply for British citizenship when it’s not automatically given. My dad was born in India. A generation earlier my grandfather fought in the 1st World War in the Indian Army Medical Corps. He didn’t get his medals automatically like every other British subject. He had to apply more than a decade later. I never questioned those medals when I saw that multicoloured ribbon as a child. As a researcher looking at the documentary evidence from the National Archives I wondered, as I had wondered when I saw my great uncle, his brother, describe himself in various American documents as Indian, Irish or British as the occasion suggested. Nationality is a curious thing.

Given my experiences, a lifetime of noticed things and lessons learned, I cannot imagine voting anything other than Remain on Thursday. It saddens me but I understand why so many others will vote Leave. It’s a fairly safe bet that when Thomas Mair gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” in court, he views the world through a very darkened lens. That case is live now so that’s all I’m going to say but those views don’t grow in a vacuum either and only time will tell what shaped them, if it’s possible to tell.

One thing I’ve noticed since I moved back to England is how many people take the whole “Island Nation” thing very literally indeed. I’ve spent the largest part of my life on a smaller island but Ireland has always looked beyond it’s rocky borders. For hundreds of years the Irish have been populating the globe – or at least making sure that there’s an Irish bar in every town, village and urban conurbation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain that Dublin is not in the UK. Given that this is a country that appears on the weather map I’m still a little shocked at the lack of understanding of the next door neighbour but perhaps that’s the crux of it. I’m also discomforted by the all the little jumps to the right in everyday life. The fact it is now seen as normal to be vetted at almost every stage of setting up a life because everybody knows that people are inherently untrustworthy and they’re all just out to scam you so you might as well scam them first. So estate agents charge exorbitant fees for opening a Word document and credit checks have become so ubiquitous they have become a growth industry.  When you assume ordinary people are only on the make it’s easy to assume that anyone from outside is at least ten times worse. We’re seeing the results in the Leave camp of prejudices left unchallenged. If no one is correcting long held false beliefs then it’s easy for the cynical and power hungry to use half truths and fantasy to stoke a fire. This is something that is beyond newspaper columnists to fix, it needs to be addressed on a societal level through education and investment. I wouldn’t trust the current UK government to do any such thing so here’s hoping that European funding will still be available in the future.

Living in Ireland you get used to the fact that Europe is the voice of reason when all else fails. If it wasn’t for a European Court of Human Rights ruling many years ago Ireland would not have got as far as a referendum on marriage equality. For years it’s been Europe piling on the pressure to reform abortion law in Ireland. And that’s the one thing this referendum campaign has reminded me of through my Irish lens – it’s as divisive and poisonous as an Irish referendum on the family.

The point I’m trying to make is that just as I could no more be on the Leave side than sacrifice my first born child to a snake god, so a lot of people here are shaped by the world they live in. And when that world is shaped by papers who go out of their way to demonise the poor and the different, when ordinary people are vetted as naturally untrustworthy just to go through life. The world does feel just a little less fair, a little more brutal. An unjust, brutal world shapes the people who live in it. Not everyone will respond by looking beyond. Some will lash out. Some will kill.

This isn’t just a British problem it’s everywhere. It’s polarising people to the left and the right. The vote on Thursday worries me but I’m more worried about the world that we’ll be living in next week. It’s the same world we live in today and it’s a terrifying one.

A Question of Identity

Colin-Rieley-Feb-15

My father, Colin Rieley with his bearer and his older sister in India in the 1930s

I’ve grown used to not fitting in. That’s not a plea for sympathy or a “poor me” just an expression of the status quo. I moved to the west of Ireland from London in my teens. Even though I’ve now lived most of my life in Ireland, even though I care very deeply about what goes on here, even though I have dear friends and family here, even though Ireland is my home, on some very basic level I will always be an outsider. Those formative years in London shaped me in a way I just can’t change. They shaped my sense of humour, my political leanings, my values – my reticence. A million little things that make me who I am.

Over the years, on days when that cultural gap felt a little too wide, I thought at lot about where I’d come from, where my family had come from. Having an Irish surname has always been a bit of a double edged sword. One the one hand it proves the fact that I have some Irish roots, on the other hand – it’s spelled wrong. I get corrected all the time on that. Everyone knows how you spell “Reilly”.

So a few years ago I decided to find out where the Rieley came from. Find out where those Irish roots actually were. How hard could it be?

Now, I had some experience of genealogy. My first job after leaving school was working for the Sligo Family Research Society and helping people find their relationship to Yeats. I knew there were one or two issues with the Irish records but I didn’t think I’d have to go back that far. As far as I knew I would have been able to play on the Irish soccer team – not because I can kick a ball of course, but because my grandfather was born here. I knew that my dad had been born in India – that’s him on the left in the picture at the top of this post – but I remembered a story my mum had told me about him applying for an Irish passport at some stage but being told the records had been lost in the Four Courts fire. I knew my grandfather had been born at the end of the 19th century so I didn’t think I’d have much difficulty finding him in Ireland.

The best laid plans…

I started to look for my grandfather and almost immediately hit a brick wall. Apart from one marriage record I couldn’t find him anywhere. I ordered a copy of certificate and found out his father’s name and the fact that he was a bank manager but apart from that, there was nothing. I decided to go back a step and try to find my father’s birth record so I turned to the records of the British India Office and the East India Company, as well as the records painstakingly transcribed by the group FIBIS, the Families in British India Society. With a crash the wall came tumbling down. I found my dad – and my grandfather – and my great grandfather. They were all born in India, and married in India and died in India until my grandfather took wife and children back to England. The more digging I did the more people I found, great sprawling branches of people – all of them born and bred in India. I was back to 1820 and had yet to find anyone who had been born in Europe. I was puzzled with what I found. How had I got it so wrong? Was I misremembering?

Over the years I kept digging as more records found their way on line. I started to discover what jobs people had and time and again, when I did further research, I found that these were typical jobs for Anglo Indians. Could that be a reason why I had heard nothing about this Indian past? Why the Four Courts fire seemed so convenient? Had my family tried to “pass”?

I knew that to be considered Anglo Indian the Indian generally passed down through the maternal line. These were the children of Indian women who had children with European men. Could one of the women in the records have been Indian? The names really do not help.

My best bet is that she was the Sophia who married a Patrick Rieley in Madras (now Chennai) in May 1819. She had grown up in the Female Orphan Asylum. Patrick was a teacher in the Free School. The children who went to both the male and the female orphan asylums in those days were often the children of Indian mothers and fathers from Europe. The fathers’ would leave and the mothers would have no way to look after their children – so they would leave them at the orphanage, where the church tried to turn them into useful members of society. I can’t find Sophia’s birth record so I don’t know for certain, but along with everything else this is what fits. It explains a lot, looking at that sprawling tree. It explains why my grandfather’s brother Terence, who ran away to sea and went to America, would tell the Federal Census that he had been born in Ireland. It also explains perhaps, why he wrote on his draft registration for the First World War, that he was a citizen or a subject of India. It explains why they were such a close knit family, never moving far away from each other, intermarrying – because they were “that” community – neither one thing or the other – both.

My theory is that young Patrick Rieley left Cavan or wherever he was from, having grown up with talk of rebellion. He would have heard stories of 1798 and 1803. He would have perhaps had contact with some of the progressive education reformers around at the time. People like Maria Edgeworth, who thought that Ireland’s troubles could be eased if only the children were taught well and taught together. Perhaps young Patrick thought that he could do something good with that education, that he made his way to India. A generation before he arrived, a teacher at the free school had pioneered the method of peer education known as the Madras system. This system of pupil teachers revolutionised teaching in places with a shortage of teachers. Perhaps Patrick wanted to be part of that legacy.

Whatever reason Patrick went to India for – if indeed he was the one who went there – he started a fascinating history. It’s been exciting tracing all those different branches and there’s a lot more work to do. I’ve only found out the direct line. I still don’t know if any branches of the family stayed, if any are still there. I find it hard to understand why anyone would hide such a story – but of course there were, there are a lot of reasons why people choose to do the things they do. This was not and is not a particularly tolerant world.

When I was very small, even before we moved to Ireland, I was still used to looking different. Every now and then I would get asked where I was from, because my face didn’t fit the standard British model. Over the years, I’ve been told my colouring came from Spain, or the Celts, or the Baltic. Perhaps the reason for the dark hair and sallow skin actually goes back to Patrick Rieley. I never did find those Irish roots but I’ll keep digging. Maybe some very early records didn’t get burnt in the Four Courts fire. It’ll be fun looking anyway.

In Praise of Women

 

Photo property of Abigail Rieley all rights reserved

When I was a child I never doubted I could fly. I never saw any reason why I couldn’t rule the world one day. I could be a doctor, or a spaceman, or a time traveller. I could be a famous artist or an explorer or have my very own book shop. I never saw being a girl as a help or a hindrance, it was just the thing that occasionally meant I had to wear rather uncomfortable woollen tights. When I was a child I was surrounded by women, women who showed me a world that was waiting to be discovered, women who were the best role models I could ever ask for, women who made me the woman I am today.

After my dad died it was just me and my mum. Despite her own loss my mum was the heart of my childhood. It was she who taught me to love books and music  and who, when she discovered the contraband lipgloss and black eyeliner hidden in my schoolbag, sat me down with a drawer full of makeup with names like Biba and Miners and taught me how to apply it like a pro. My mum was the one who, when I was in the school production of Hiawatha she stayed up all night stitching together scraps of leather to make a costume on a budget. My mum taught me how to make an entrance. She taught me how to be strong in a crisis. She taught me how to create magic out of nothing. I knew she wasn’t happy when I was a child but I knew that she would always be there when I needed her.

My mum was strong but I don’t think she could have coped without the friends and family who surrounded us in those early years. I remember Alison, who’s lifting me up in the picture that accompanies this piece, who came to help after my father’s death and stayed for my early years. Alison was one of the first people I talked to about writing and was the person who told me, after I joined Mensa to vanquish an ex boyfriend’s taunts, that I didn’t have to prove myself in the face of other people’s insecurity.

There was Dee, my mum’s cousin, who was always her rock. Dee was a second mother. I remember having my tea at her house while a malevolent tortoiseshell cat eyed me from the top of a cupboard. Dee taught me not to be afraid. She taught me to face things head on and not to be afraid of speaking up. Her house was always full of life and noise, so different from our solitary quiet. She brought calm practicality into our sometimes chaotic existence and a normality that couldn’t be washed away by moments of panic.

There was Branny, my mum’s best friend, who told me,when I needed to hear it, that my mum was human. Sitting up the night before my audition for the drama school I didn’t really want to go to we sipped tea laced with left over Christmas brandy and I laughed myself some perspective over stories of my mum’s less edifying exploits. Branny confirmed that my mum and I were very different people and much as I loved her I would never be her. Drama school was the dream she had attained. My dreams were somewhere else.

There was Anna my godmother. An actress and broadcaster, she would fly in from visiting  the flat she kept in Paris with fresh-baked croissants and lie in our garden soaking up the paler English rays of sun to top up her French tan. Anna was always impossibly glamorous but still ours. I grew up wanting to have a flat in Paris, to work for the BBC. I grew up wanting her independence and freedom.

When I was about eight my Gran came to live with us. Like her daughter, my grandmother could be an impossible woman but she had the trait that a great many women seem to have in my family – bloody mindedness. When my Gran broke her back in her 60s the doctors told her she would never walk again. She proved them wrong. She would never break any speed records but when she lived with us a year or two later, if the bus was late she would walk home. My Gran told me stories about her life. How she had run a record shop and a hair salon. How she had been offered a scholarship to the Slade school of Art on the recommendation of her art teacher Archibald Knox. My Gran still said her Us the old fashioned way with a hidden i and taught me phrases like “too, too bay window” and “all fur coat and no knickers” – goodness knows what kind of conversations we were having!

Then there was my aunt, my wonderful extraordinary aunt Jill. Jill has always been there for people. She’s been a teacher, a social worker, a missionary and a vicar. My earliest memories of Jill are of her warmth and her quick affection. I’ve always been a little in awe of her but Jill was particularly amazing when my mum died. She made family seem immediate again instead of distant.

These are just a handful of the women who shaped me into the  woman I am today. There are many, many more.  I count myself fortunate to have been surrounded most of my life by a multitude of wise, funny, generous, warm, wonderful women who have enriched my life and given it colour. In previous years I’ve marked International Women’s Day by writing about how much further there is to go. I’ve talked about violence against women, about the pitiful sentences for rapes, but this year I want to celebrate. I want to raise a glass to extraordinary women in my life, in yours, everywhere.

As I sit at my computer and type this post I’m looking into the faces of three more extraordinary women, subjects of my current book. I’ve been privileged to look into their lives, lived so long ago, and get to know their strength. I wouldn’t have found them, might not have listened, if I hadn’t been taught to look.  I stand here at this point in my life because of all the women who’ve known and shaped me. Thank you ladies! Here’s to you!

Seeing Through his Eyes

 

My dad's front of house picture from the Brian Brooke Company

My dad’s front of house picture from the Brian Brooke Company

The projector whirrs into action, throwing a shivering oblong onto the magnolia wall. At first all that’s visible is a few random pairs of feet, white walled tyres. tarmac with the sky below it. Eventually the picture settles down. I’m transfixed, staring, afraid to blink and miss a single frame. I’ve had this ribbon of tantalising history for weeks now but until this weekend I had no idea what was on it. It was among a random assortment of things that had belonged to my mother. There was nothing written on it to suggest what it could have been. All I had was the phrase “It’s from your father’s time.”

For weeks I’ve been looking at the round yellow Kodak case imagining it’s contents. There were no cine cameras in my childhood. My mum might have left a suitcase full of snapshots chronicling random moments of my childhood but there are no moving images. Growing up I had few pictures of my dad. They were too painful for my mum, I think. She carried a passport photo of him in her wallet and I had a miniature of him painted just before he left his Indian birthplace at seven to go to school in a cold, unfamiliar England. Neither of these pictures seemed to relate to the smiling young man with the movie star looks who stared out of the black frame propped against the wall in the dining room. I knew the picture as “Daddy with his hair on”. I knew it was him because his name was printed below it and underlined with a flourish, but this young man bore no relation to the balding, bespectacled teacher who held the baby me in photographs. That was the man whose hair oil had left a dark stain on the brown fabric of his chair, who had sat there every evening with a book in one hand and me sitting in the other. I knew he had met my mother in a theatre company, I knew that he used to act as well as stage manage, but these were abstract facts that didn’t fit with the man whose absence was a constant hole in my childhood.

When I was a child I used to dream that my father had come home. There would be a knock on the door one day and I would run to open it and there he would be looking tanned and relaxed. I knew it would never happen, I understood death, but it seemed extraordinary that the person whose presence I could still feel would have left life without leaving some living impression. My mum kept him alive for me so successfully I could never quite shake the feeling he was just beyond reach, just outside my touch. When I got that reel of film a part of me was triumphant. That child in me was crowing “See, I told you he wouldn’t have left us with nothing.”

So on Saturday I finally sat down to watch the film, more than half expecting to finally see him smiling back at me, found after all these years. Instead I was watching tourist snaps. Stretching away from the camera were rows and rows of rounded Deco windows. The camera panned away, past vivid bougainvillea to smiling black faces waving from a field and white ones waving from a beach. After only a couple of minutes the clicking came to a clacking stop as the film ran to it’s end. There were no familiar faces and after all that no sign of my father. But I knew that I had been seeing through his eyes as he excitedly recorded the sights and sounds lately come familiar, capturing them before they faded and he returned to cold, grey Southampton.

That movie star picture of my father that now hangs above my desk was once in the foyer of a theatre in Johannesburg.  In 1955, at the age of 24, my father travelled to South Africa to work for the famous theatre impresario Brian Brooke. I had known about this as a child, because of the photo. I knew it was a pretty big deal. As an adult I found other proof, corroborating evidence existing outside family legend. Searching Ancestry.co.uk for a family paper trial I chanced upon his arrival in Southampton in April 1956. The trip survives independently of our idiosyncratic archiving.

Among the clutter I inherited earlier this year, as well as the picture and the Kodak reel, was the passport he brought with him on that trip. It was the same passport he had since school. His picture is gawky, a child I’ve never seen before. I had always assumed that the trip was merely something he had done in an a cosmopolitan life. He had spent his first few years in India. From my vantage point in a London suburb I couldn’t imagine how you could top that, I assumed that after a start like that travel would be something simply taken in one’s stride, something to be enjoyed but not viewed with the wide eyes of a little suburbanite like me. But watching the film I begin to see something different. A young man intoxicated by his surroundings, who never wanted to forget the sights and sounds that he was seeing. This was a young man striking out on his own for the first time. These were his experiences, his memories, not those of his family or his schoolmates. This was a year he would never forget.

I don’t know what happened that year. I don’t know what parts he played, if he fell in love, raised hell. All I know is that the gaze he turned on South Africa was an affectionate one. I can forgive him never turning the camera on himself. He showed me something that he would never forget. That’s precious in it’s own way.

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