|"Untitled," 103" x 52", graphite on Arches, 2018/2019|
Maria Driscoll McMahon
By the Time You Cut Teeth You Are Already Ancient: A meta-genealogical investigation/spiritual quest/cautionary tale
While I have not yet solidified an artist statement, the following will give you an idea of what I have been thinking - sure to expand and evolve with upcoming travel and research, first to the home of my Irish paternal ancestors, County Cork, Ireland.
The title, By the Time You Cut Teeth You Are Already Ancient, is from the first line of a poem I wrote in the 1990's. Obviously, what I now recognize as a quest for identity - and, ultimately, meaning - through an imagined time travel has been something that has intrigued me for a very long while - well before the advent of the wildly popular at-home DNA kit. It is a personal quest, but the deeper I get into it, the more connected I feel to absolutely every living thing.
This sense of connection is what I believe to be the ideal outcome for such investigations reaching far back into the past - whether these investigations take the form of DNA testing or research or the simple realization that we all share the same origins, but I have found that is not always the case. Regardless, I believe this art project will speak to many (if not all) in this era of spit and swab.*
The idea for this project, germinating for years, was intensified by a trip to Ireland last year and discovering to my delight and surprise - and occasional shame - that there has been much written - including books - on my ancestors and their role to play in the very history of West Cork, Ireland. Subsequent to the trip, I, myself, ordered a DNA kit - one for my half brother and one for myself.** My project will be, in part, a reflection on why DNA testing is so lucrative. It is a human inclination to wonder about one's progenitors, but what is it we are purchasing when we send our saliva off in a tube parcel post? Hannah Mary Little describes genealogy as "theatre of self-identity."
My project explores this concept as it addresses history and genetic memory and serves as a meditation on how revelations of the cellular constitution of our spit - a body fluid most abject cum portal to other times and places - can stimulate a new narrative (even a glorious one) which invariably alters subjective perceptions of self. I know this because I observed it happening to me. In this “genealogical theater” history, national lore, and mythology can serve to inform and alter the perceived story and purpose of one’s own frequently comparatively mundane life. In some instances, information uncovered in the DNA test can affect the very trajectory of one’s life as the subject conforms to some perceived genetic pre-destiny. Thus, “the self,” in identification and sympathy with one’s ancestors permeates boundaries of time and space, for better or worse. Since history usually translates to HIS story, however, it should be noted that known ancestors are invariably male, thus genealogists can vicariously become hero, warrior, priest, pirate, martyr - even rapist, slave-holder, assassin, and murderer.*** I will go out on a limb here and suggest that it is no coincidence that television shows and movies replete with Vikings, warriors, and barbarians from other eras have become as popular as DNA testing itself. Therefore, embedded within the revelation encoded in our chromosomes is, I submit, more than one cautionary tale.
Once again, the outcome to be hoped for in DNA testing and genealogical research is a sense of connection to other human beings both within and outside countries of origin. After all, we are told that we all share African origins. Additionally, the human race includes some pretty remarkable specimens, including those who have hailed from Ireland. The penetration of deep history enables each one of us to claim a genetic connection to powerful people with extraordinary gifts of intellect, talent, and achievement. My project will celebrate and emphasize the promotion of connection through the history and ancestry ALL human beings ultimately share.
As part of my own personal quest for identity and meaning, as well as to discover what genealogy means to others, next year I will first be traveling to the ancestral stomping grounds of my paternal ancestors. While there, I will be meeting members of "my clan" from all over the world, including County Cork, Ireland, itself. Personal, ancestral and cultural memories will be collected here through informal interviews with these relatives, along with the “local” residents of County Cork (the Rebel County) and through research undertaken in local museums, historical societies, cemeteries, churches, historic sites and the internet.
My research will span a very large swath of time - from Megalithic era/Bronze Age through the Middle Ages through the famine which, of course, prompted mass emigration to the west.
Prior to the establishment of the county, County Cork was part of the more expansive "Kingdom of Munster," which was ruled in the seventh century by the Corcu Loigde ("Gens," sometimes translated as "tribes," of the Calf Goddess) under the Ó hEidirsceóils (Gaelic for O'Driscolls). O'Driscolls trace their lineage back to one of the Kings of Munster - Lugaid mac Con.
I also plan to spend some time at Lough Hyne, an environmental wonder - providing unique habitat in the form of an inland sea-lake. It also is home to 75% of the animal species found in Ireland! One of my illustrious ancestors, "Sir Fineen O'Driscoll," (the unfortunate chieftan who had to deal with British imperialists) was reputed to have died, alone, in his castle on an island here. The castle has been overtaken by vegetation, but it is still visible!
I will be based in Baltimore, Sherkin Island, and Cape Clear - all which will provide opportunities for research in museums, churches, cemeteries - even ancient stone circles (including the Drombeg Stone Circle, also known as "the Druid's altar," dating back to the Megalithic era/ bronze age)!
I will also be staying in Skibbereen, which has a comprehensive famine museum - Skibbereen Heritage Center - and graveyard and will offer a plethora of other opportunities for research. In addition to its historical significance, I chose Skibbereen because genealogical records indicate that my last Irish-born ancestor emigrated from this very town around 1850.
In short, all kinds of opportunities for research for my very ambitious, multi-disciplinary project incorporating large drawings, sculpture and, even, perhaps, animation. The conceptual aspects of my project will surely evolve as I spend some time there.
Of course, the project will transcend my research. In the end, my purpose is not to engage in a mere intellectual exercise, but to embark on, yes, “a spiritual quest.” Both my parents are gone…. My father died at the age of 60. He had one son and five daughters (his son and three of his daughters were through a previous marriage). Fortunately, the half-brother I am getting to know is still with us, but I am the only daughter left. ***No other of my father's daughters made it past the age of 60. I just turned - guess what? - 60!
To be clear, this is something I “have” to do.
I have, in fact, been spending a lot of time with my paternal ancestors these days - my father and my father’s father’s father’s fathers - as I stay up VERY late in my studio. I’m not so sure I believe in an after-life, but I have found the compression of time which is my artistic practice of late to be weirdly comforting - a kind of immortality - a “heaven” - I suppose.
The biggest downside: I no longer have Daddy issues, but Daddy’s daddy’s daddy’s daddy’s daddy issues.
*I have considered calling my project “Spit,” but I think I will stick with “By the time you cut teeth…”, though, and just title an individual work, “Spit.”
**My interest up until recently has been with my paternal ancestry simply because the stories about the male line are so vivid and accessible. I ordered a kit for my half brother who did the YDNA test which confirmed my paternal ancestry traces directly back to County Cork, Ireland.
***My mother also had five daughters - three to previous marriages - with four surviving.
My own autosomal DNA test, however, brought a new delight and surprise - In addition to my British Isles Ancestry, and a bit of mysterious "Eastern European" ancestry, I am 11% Jewish - on my maternal side, I presume. This new revelation will change the direction of my project (which I see as ongoing for a long time). This project is not only about the past, however. Future and present family genealogists will, and are, discovering DNA from nearly every continent, including N. America, S. America, Europe, Africa, Asia.
n sum: My project is one part spiritual quest, one part intellectual exercise, and one part cautionary tale.