“Last Day in Mary Immaculate” | On Autographs

I love rooting in old drawers when I go back home. Old postcards nestle alongside colourful pastille boxes now rusted around the edges. Two brass rings on each drawer-front need to be pulled at the same time so the drawers will open. Inside it’s a treasure of historical family knick-knacks.

As a child, after orchestrating an extraction from the back of the drawer, I would carefully turn the pages of Nana’s autograph book. The dates range from the early 1900’s, when she was a teenage girl, through the time of the Black and Tans, to Irish school in Ring and her time in Mary Immaculate in Limerick. She was in the first primary teaching class in ‘Mary I’ as it’s called. It was no mere autograph book. Original rhymes and poems to her, both as Gaeilge (she was a fluent Irish speaker) and in English make up the bulk of the pages. Artwork in multi-coloured ink and watercolours fill double pages. These mementos are over a hundred years old.

This book was something I aspired to own, to have a collection of beautiful messages from people who cared enough about me, to make their mark in my book. Something you could pass down through generations that told the history of you. My Uncle had one too, he was a collector of stamps, G.A.A. programmes and stories. His is more organised, an autograph per page, mainly sports stars and TV presenters. He worked in a bank in London but I think it was his dream to be a radio presenter like Jimmy Magee. He certainly spoke as quickly.

My mother is a keeper of things. I didn’t know that there are two folders, in a filing cabinet, one for my sister and one for myself, where she puts mementos, keepsakes, letters and newspaper cuttings. She has kept a ‘letter’ I sent home during my first year in UCC, written on card torn from an old cornflakes box, asking for money to buy ‘books.’ Apparently, I was so poor I could not afford paper and an envelope. The stamp says Wilton. I have no memory of doing this, maybe I had spent the afternoon in the Outpost bar.

How will the next generation root through family heirlooms? Will they accidentally come across a digital file on grandad’s shared family folder?

During my last visit at home I ignored the plastic container collection that lives on top of the fridge and continued to the old dresser where I found two matching autograph books, mine and my sister’s in the drawer. Each has a hardback purple cover with a picture of a girl in a bonnet collecting flowers in a basket. Looking through the autographs, there in blue and black ink on pale pink sheets were the names of GAA players and an actress that played Snow White at a musical in Dublin, and Bruno Brooks. He went fishing with Dad once.

We associated autographs with famous people. I had a boyfriend in college that practiced his nightly. There’s a certain flourish to a signature that tells of a person’s personality. Maybe we just didn’t meet enough ‘famous’ people to fill our pages. I didn’t realise then, that the real famous people from my childhood were the characters that lived in our village; Jack and Aggie. a brother and sister that lived in the thatch cottage across the road from our house, who told me ghastly stories of a green fairy that kept me awake at night. Hookey Farrell who came up the village in his ass-and-car, who sometimes gave me a lift to school. ‘Major’ who sipped whiskey in the pub across the road. Mother Burke whose garden we topped and tailed cursed blackcurrants every Summer and the Brud Minogue a beekeeper that lived in the next village. In the past thirty years, these people are gone, their stories lost to the parish and future generations.

Mary I Autographs | HeadStuff.org
Last day in ‘Mary I’, Source: M.F. Whitney

Old Photos East Clare on Facebook is doing a noble job of preserving and identifying characters and villagers from times past, but their words are nowhere to be found, their voices silent. Facebook allows a fleeting glance at an image. Maybe a superficial like from a gang of acquaintances. Then it’s on to the next topic. Autographs seem to be a thing of the past; the flourish of a person’s signature isn’t something that is generally desired by the younger generation. Selfies have taken over, posed photos that get lost forever to the ether.

I think of American diners with photos of Sinatra, signed on the bottom coupled with a message to the owner. A snapshot of time, a memory, something that lasts through the generations, something that is not a ‘Snap.’

I have over ten years of photographs online, these will be lost forever if I don’t get it together to print them out, to note on the back of each shot, the time and place, the feeling. Places and people I don’t want to forget, time spent with family.

We fill our desire to express care and love for our friends through the click of a button. It gives us the false impression that we have done something good, that we have expressed our feelings.

How will the next generation root through family heirlooms? Will they accidentally come across a digital file on grandad’s shared family folder? That doesn’t generate the mystery and connection that coming across a box of old photos does. There’s a sadness and distance to online photo buckets that makes them real seem unreal. Friends, acquaintances and almost perfect strangers comment on news feeds daily. I think of my Nana’s book and look for carefully crafted messages sent to me. They don’t exist. I have deleted my account several times in the past year, then I wait for a text or a message from a friend, some form of direct contact. It rarely comes.

We have become careless of friendship. We fill our desire to express care and love for our friends through the click of a button. It gives us the false impression that we have done something good, that we have expressed our feelings. We hide our words behind emoticons. We top up our own digital dopamine reserves and stare at a screen with a stupid grin on our faces. It is not just fake news that is the problem, its words written without care, its care demonstrated but without meaning. ‘None of it is real,’ I want to shout.

My niece wanted a typewriter for Christmas, one with paper and ink, that makes ‘real words.’ Another wanted a ‘real’ camera, one that takes ‘actual’ photos. Will our generation be the only one to disappear into the Internet of Things? Will we leave nothing behind but a digital footprint? Facebook sent a message the other day to nominate a person to look after my digital legacy. No thank you, I’m going to keep mine in a drawer, or as the Donegal Catch fisherman says, ‘…in a filing cabinet.’


Featured Image Source: M.F. Whitney

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