I was driving through County Wexford recently on my way to a meeting in a small rural community centre. About three miles from the village I stopped to pick up a hitcher. She was a woman of about my own age, otherwise, before you start to worry about me, I probably wouldn’t have stopped.
We immediately started chatting and I admired her tan, saying she must be enjoying the summer. Oh that would be the French side of the family she said. Being as nice as she could about my complete lack of tan she said to me, you are very fair yourself. That would be the Scandinavian side of the family says I, thinking of the Viking relatives of yore.
Her eyes popped, do you have Scandinavian family? Funnily enough says I, my sister lives in Sweden. I lived there for ten years myself says the tanned Wexford woman. You will surely know my sister Grace says I. Of course I do says she….and we were off….sharing anecdotes and happy in ourselves that we had so quickly found how and by whom we are connected. I spent the day telling everyone. By the time I had parked and arrived at the centre, she was ensconced telling them all and we enjoyed it no end.
My favourite story like this was when I was at a conference in Taiwan. I had been given a scholarship to speak to a women’s conference and I had just arrived in Taipei jet lagged and anxious. I was coming down from my room on the 76th floor when an Irishman stepped into the lift with his secretary. By the time we got to the lobby we had established our 6 degrees of separation. When he heard my name, he realised that he had bought a house from my Dad in the 1960s. When I heard his name I knew immediately that he had taught my husband in school. To this day I am amazed at how quickly we had established these facts even though we had never met before or even since. It’s an Irish thing; always on the look out for our tribe.
When I was growing up I used to hear the older generation hold these kind of conversations all the time. They would categorise people by their seed, breed and generation. They would describe people by who their parents and grandparents were, they would usually know their house and their occupation too. I used to love hearing the names fall off their tongues with ease and the exact townlands and cross roads that connected everyone. The Powers of Portlaw, the Widow Walshe of Touraneen, the Kelly’s of Mountrath.
With my Dad, it was all about cousins, first, second and third which (like everyone else) we have all over the country. It was far too much for my Father to pass it all on, or to make a family tree so most of this information is now lost. We might be driving through some midland town and he would say; “That undertakers is owned by a cousin of mine.” Or we might see some one on the telly and sure enough it would be a cousin too. Or maybe a place in America would be mentioned somewhere and he would say, “ I have cousins there you know.”
I’ve been wondering if these days we are more likely to create our own tribes? Those friends and colleagues who we spend most of our time with and who journey with us through our lives. People we meet “virtually” on twitter and facebook, connecting us to people all around the world.
Most of the wonderful creatives, photographers, writers and artists that I have met online I will probably never meet in reality, but I have met some. A New York blogger I know came to Ireland and we met up in Dublin. Another photo-blogger joined us from the Netherlands and we had a great day out walking through some of the 1916 history and the market stall sellers on Moore Street (their highlight). A community choir leader from Michigan used one of my images for her last CD. She visited me with a couple of her friends and we walked the beaches of the Copper Coast and she played her fiddle.
I love how we value and connect with our own tribe but there are huge rewards in stepping outside of our comfort zone and making friends farther afield. We can make our own inter-connecting tribes, people who we see eye to eye with, people who care about the same issues, people who are just great fun and make us laugh.
And maybe some of our tribe are not a million miles away, and are instead right under our noses, in this changing melting pot world….