A voice from an age of innocence – and wisdom

Contending with the Waste Land

Certainly, if the headlines are anything to go by – and it’s better not to go too far beyond the headlines on this one – August was a wicked month for teenagers and their reputation for any kind of propriety and common sense this year.

Did “Slanegirl” and Miley Cyrus really say it all? Hopefully not. Nevertheless, something I found among some old papers – harking back to the month of August, precisely, 110 years ago – made me feel a little like old Tiresias contemplating more young men carbuncular than even he had to perceive. It was the contrast which hit home.

On an August day in 1903, a young 18-year-old girl was passing the time in her family home in Donegal when an inconsequential idea struck her. The house may have been undergoing repairs – or at least some floorboards were loose. She got the idea, executed it and then, probably forgot all about it. It took nearly a hundred years for her idea, in terms of the request which it embodied, to have any consequence at all.

Annie Brigid – for that was her name – wrote a message, put it in a bottle, and placed it under the floorboards in her house. Her little trick only came to light in 1997 when workmen with the National Parks and Wildlife Service – which now owns the house – discovered her bottle and its message.

That a young girl should do this in an idle moment is not what is particularly interesting. What her message reveals about herself and her time is what is remarkable. It is remarkable in the stark contrast it shows between her preoccupations, her vision of life and its ultimate destiny, and those reflected in the behaviour of our contemporaries of a similar age.

Annie’s message was this: “I, Annie Brigid Evangeline MacGlinchey, aged 18, write this on 27th day of August, 1903, and intend putting it in a bottle under the floorboards upstairs. Whoever finds it, I ask that person to pray for my soul. If not, my ghost will walk about upstairs. Annie B. E. MacGlinchey, Undergraduate, R.U.I.” (Royal University of Ireland).

A jest? Yes, but like many jests, revealing more than they may mean to reveal. The poignancy for us comes with the question, would any teenager in a thousand today, in a 100 thousand even, think of writing a message like this? Among the few million on Copacabana beach this summer would we have found even a few who might think it important to ask someone to pray for their soul?

I wonder what Annie Brigid might have thought of the preoccupations of contemporary Ireland this summer when a Bishop was heaped with sanctimonious opprobrium for failing to feel the pain of those who saw their relatives and friends pass from this life. He had the temerity to try to bring his Catholic people back to an understanding of what funeral Masses were supposed to be about, intercession with God for the souls of the departed. Annie knew, and we might remember her request in gratitude for reminding us of what we foolishly choose to forget.

Addendum – in case you don’t feel my Tiersian pain, read this from the Washington Post today.

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