Not the same sky

Not the Same Sky

I’ve just finished the most marvellous book, Not the Same Sky, about some of the Irish Famine Orphan girls shipped out to Sydney in 1849. I bought it from the author, Evelyn Conlon, at the Irish Famine Memorial Anniversary at Hyde Park Barracks a few months ago and was saving it until I had time to read it properly.

The book tells the story of around two hundred girls selected and shipped out on the Thomas Arbuthnot, and the unusually caring Surgeon-Superintendent, Charles Strutt, who looked after their welfare onboard ship and after landing in their new home. He took 120 of them on an overland journey to Yass and Gundagai to find employers of suitable character for them.

This story is told in A Decent Set of Girls, by Richard Reid and Cherly Mongan, which reproduces Dr Strutt’s journal and gives documents, facts and statistics of the journey and the lives of the girls in Australia.

A novel, though, is a different creature entirely. The facts – 194 orphan girls between 14 and 20 years old were rounded up from work houses around Ireland and sent to Sydney – cannot possibly convey the bewilderment and aching loss of these girls in the way that a novel can. And this one does, superbly.

… Matron’s voice sounded muffled until she began to name names.

‘Mary Traynor, Anne Sherry, it’s Australia for you. Honora Raftery, you too I think. And Julia Cuffe, maybe.’

‘What do you mean Australia?’ a small pale girl asked.

‘Not you. It doesn’t apply to you,’ Matron said. ‘No it wouldn’t apply to you. You’re too young.’

‘I’m old enough, ‘ the girl said, but Matron said, ‘No,’ again.

‘And you, Bridget Joyce, it’s Australia now for you.’

‘When?’ a voice dared.

‘Next month, yes, the sooner now the better,’ Matron added.

‘Can I go too?’ another voice asked tentatively.

‘No, Betsy Shannon, you’re too old.’

‘I’m young enough,’ she said. ‘Twenty-four.’

‘Duffy, you’re young enough, you’ll do. What’s your first name again?’

… Matron left the room, the girls looking after her. Honora Raftery sneaked a look at Anne Sherry and Julia Cuffe. Others looked at the ground. It was a lot to take in. Staying alive was the job they were all involved in now.

Matron rubbed her hands down her front, as if wiping off the part she had just played in this scheme. She didn’t know what she thought of it.

The girls knew it must be far because they needed several changes of clothes for the voyage, but they refused to believe the rumours that it was going to take 3 months to get there. That’s just too impossible. 3 months!

Later, on the ship, the doctor has been showing them a map to show them where they are and where they are going, although concerned at how the news of how far away this is will affect them. He is not sure whether they will all understand, but he sees that at least a few of them do when they recognise that the ship has turned east to sail past Africa and on to Australia:

Charles was leaving the deck to go to his quarters when he heard one of the older girls shouting out to the sea. She was hollering so loudly the words could be heard perfectly by all who stood ready to dance. Her voice even carried above the sound of sail and water and wind.

‘The ship has well rounded the corner now. There’s no going back.’

She followed with another wail of a sentence – she seemed to start high and go low. It was hard to know what effect, if any, that she intended to have by making this noise. But hot on its heels followed the slowest, lowest moan, which moved up first one pitch, then swelled into a second, gathering a scream under its echo, and rising further, if that were possible, into the most ferocious howling. Everyone was now involved in these gutturals, weeping for their lost land and their families, immersed in their threnody. Charles stood rooted to the spot, helpless in the face of this terrible sound, the hairs standing up on his neck. It would have to stop. It seemed to him to be the erasure of hope.

The girls found it necessary to forget where they came from, who they were, and the family they had lost, in order to survive in this strange new land where the birds made such an enormous noise and the trees were white and the grass was yellow and the sun was so hot. They didn’t pass their memories on to their children – those memories were too painful, too dangerous to carry lest they overwhelm.

The names of the girls used in the book are fictional. It is impossible to tell the story of 194 women in one book so the author has selected four and followed them through the voyage and in their new lives, showing what they had to do to survive.

To survive. We do not have any idea, really, about what the bare struggle for survival does to a person, where parents and brothers and sisters die in front of you and the routine of living falls away until there is nothing but the roaring in the stomach. The only people who understand this today are refugees, because famines still occur and people are driven from their homes and farms by war and drought and other catastrophes, and they try to find safety in a new home, anywhere that will take them.


Social Media for Family Historians

Social Media for Family HistoriansMy first book, Social Media for Family Historians, was published in late 2010 by Unlock The Past. It explains what social media is; what use it is; and introduces you to more than 25 social media sites that can help family historians to communicate, share and collaborate with other family historians and with their own families.

It covers new ways to communicate such as Sykpe and SecondLife; social networking sites such as Facebook and GenealogyWise; blogs and microblogs such as Twitter; sites for sharing family trees such as Ancestry and MyHeritage; sites for sharing photos and videos such as Flickr and YouTube; and community information sites such as wikis and social bookmarking.It explains in some detail how to get started with Facebook and blogging.

1. Introduction
2. What is Social Media?
– The Internet
– Self-publishing
– Social media
3. Why use it?
– Advantages
– Disadvantages
4. Communication
– Chat
– Mailing Lists and Forums
– Social Networking
– Blogs
– Microblogging
– Virtual Worlds
5. Sharing
– Family Trees
– Photographs
– Videos
– Social Cataloguing
6. Collaboration
– Wikis
– Social Bookmarking
– Documents
– Questions and Answers
7. Dangers
– Risks
– Some Simple Rules
8. What Are You Waiting For?
Appendix 1. How to Get Started with Facebook
– Sign Up For Faebook
– Using Facebook
Appendix 2. How to Get Started with Blogging
– Find a Host
– Create an Account
– Name Your Blog
– Set Security
– Create your Profile
– Select a Design
– Start Writing!
– More Advanced Blogging

You can buy it from Gould Genealogy, and I hope you do!

Modern happiness using ancient wisdom

This title is a play on the word of the subtitle of a book on happiness called The Happiness Hypothesis, Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by social psychologist Jonathon Haidt. I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone who is seriously interested in what happiness is and where it comes from. I’ve been reading it, and it seems to me that the best way to understand and process it is to write about it – after all, we learn by thinking about things afterwards; by reflection.

So here, for your enjoyment and edification, is my potted summary of Chapter 1. You really must read it for yourself to understand it properly, and then think about what it says. I’m just writing this to help me understand it, and it in no way represents an accurate summary of the book. Any errors are mine.

The human mind is split. We are divided in ourselves. Even though we intend to do something, like go to the gym, and we tell people we are going to go, we don’t. We are controlled by something other than our conscious will. One way to look at this is to imagine an elephant being controlled by a rider. The rider is smarter but the elephant is big and doesn’t always do what it is told by the rider.

This division can be seen in four different ways:

1. Mind and Body – our bodies behave independently of our minds. Our skin sweats, our stomachs rumble, our sexual organs seem to have “minds of their own”. No matter how determined we are that these things won’t happen to embarrass us, they do.

2. Left and Right Brain – the two hemispheres of our brains are responsible for different functions and can act independently of each other. This has been shown in studies of people with damages parts of the brain, and where the connection between the two hemispheres has been cut for medical reasons. The left hand may suppress, or work against, what the right hand is doing. People make up stories to explain what has happened, or what they have done, that do not reflect the facts. This is called “confabulating” and can be seen everywhere, not just in the brain-damaged.

3. New Brain and Old Brain – the “old brain” is the more primitive parts of the brain that we share with the “lower” animals, such as the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the amygdala, which control basic drives, memory, and emotional learning and responding, respectively. The “new brain” is the neocortex – the grey matter that mammals, particularly primates, have that performs more complex thinking and decision-making. So the neocortex is perhaps what makes us rational and releases us from the mercy of our basic drives and emotions.

Part of the neocortex, however, the orbitofrontal cortex, is responsible for emotional reaction when we are making judgements or decisions. If it is removed then people are LESS able to make decisions, which shows that emotions do not get in the way of decision-making, but rather emotions make decision-making possible by letting us know how we feel about the options. We make the many everyday decisions without conscious thought, and this is not possible without our emotions. So emotion and reason are not as divided as we think.

4. Controlled and Automatic Mind – the older, more primitive parts of the brain have been functioning for millions of years in an automatic way to keep the animal, the primate, and then the human alive and reproducing. The newer, rational, thinking parts have not had as much time to evolve and perfect the way they function. Which part do you think, then, will take over when things get tough? When a lightning-fast decision is needed? When we are under stress? Which parts are working when we don’t do what we know, rationally, we should do?

The elephant. “Gut feelings, intuitions, and snap judgements happen constantly and automatically” (p.21-22). When we’re asked to explain our reasons our rational mind doesn’t always know so it will make something up – confabulation again. Just because the rational mind decides to do something doesn’t mean that, when the time comes, it will be in charge of making the decision to do it. We’ll turn off the alarm and go back to sleep because more sleep sounds better to the elephant than getting out of bed to go to the gym.

So we have “two minds”. Really, though, they are both us, so it helps us to know how they work and why they behave the way they do.

Jonathon Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

By the way, the ancient wisdom came from quotes from Plato, Ovid and others about competing parts of the mind, which I haven’t quoted.