I’m starting with a story that should have had star billing in last week’s hippophagographical disquisition. Not a story so much as an anecdote, a bit of family lore about the horse of my great-great grandfather or my great-great-great grandfather – I’m not sure which. Both were Irishmen and both were named, as were their fathers and their first sons, Joe or John or James. Let’s call the horse Tinker. As you can tell I’m a bit rough on details. I only recall hearing the story once as a kid, told by my gab-gifted father after a few drinks, or by his brother after a few more. With great ranging embellishments.
I tried ringing my sister last night to get the actual facts. She’s the family historian and genealogist, all paid-up with the online Mormons, but as she was at the library, and as my Substack deadline, self-inflicted but real to me nonetheless, was and is approaching, I’ve pushed on, the truth be dulled if not entirely damned.
A Horse, a Kingdom…
The story, then, as I know it, of old Joe and his faithful horse Tinker took place somewhere in Ireland and sometime during the famine years – 1845-52 – when poor old Joe, a Catholic family man with the bog-standard dozen kids on his tab, fell on hard times and had to eat poor old Tinker, who had no more meat on his bones than his master; but, as all horses, according to whoever told me the story, probably W.T. in his cups or uncle Lorne in his, were the property of the occupying king, Joe was marched off to gaol, and from there to the occupier’s court, and from that place to another place and then to a place of execution, and there hanged by the neck until he was dead, and may the Lord have had mercy on his soul.
This unhappy story was not included last week because I was only reminded of it this past Wednesday, during the birthday dinner of a friend, after a ginger-haired woman who I have known peripherally since 1995 – I see her once a year at the birthday celebrant’s Thanksgiving dinner party – approached while I was tweezering winter purslane onto the second course, a salad of beluga lentils on a bed of stracciatella di bufala (with crispy chilli sauce, no less), and asked, “Are you in any way related to the Johnston, Mooney and O’Brien Mooneys?”
It was the first time I had noticed her Irish accent. I shook my head. “Not that I’m aware of,” I said. Her face went stern. “You know who they are, though.” I shook my head again. She shook hers, with, I’m guessing, or projecting, incredulity. “They’re the best bakers in all of Ireland,” she said, with a little more lilt in her voice. “My father went to their opening day in 1930. He wanted to be the first customer, but when he stepped in the door there was already a woman ahead of him.”
I stopped tweezering and gave her my full attention. Something in her voice told me that this story of her father’s disappointing second-place in the bakery that day, 92 years ago, was still important to her. I could not fathom why.
The dinner continued. Conversations went elsewhere. The ginger woman, let’s call her Valerie because that is indeed her name, was seated across and away, and at the 20-minutes-after or the 20-minutes-to lull (my mother believed that the tide of table talk always goes slack at one of these two moments in each hour of a social dinner) she turned to me and asked, “So then, where is your family from?” To which I responded, as I always do, “I haven’t a clue.”
This I could tell distressed her. How could you go through life not knowing where you were from? She knew. She was born in Sri Lanka, married to a Croat and a long-time resident of France, but her origins were West Corkonian, as were her parents and theirs before them, and theirs before that. She tsk-tsked into her wineglass and repeated the question, adding, “Are they from West Cork, then?” To which I responded, as I always do, that the name Mooney is as common as mud in the south of Ireland, and just as much mud in the north, and, regardless of where the compass needle points, when attached to first names like Joe, John, or James, even muddier all around.
“Yes, but surely you’ve done the research. Americans are always going to Ireland to do the research.” I didn’t wince at or correct “American”. I successfully curbed that umbrage-taking reflex years ago. Along with the “He’s Canadian” impulse every time, say, Michael J. Fox is brought up in conversation. I now fully accept that Canadians are Americans, just as Colombians, Curaçaoans and Cubans are Americans, and that nobody gives a shit that Michael J. Fox is from Burnaby.
Instead, I chewed my ossobuco and remained silent.
“You’ve never done the research?”
After a few more deliberative chews, I sat up straight and pronounced, in the rumbling tenor of my most authoritative Wikipedian, that the name Mooney derives from Ó Maonaigh, pronounced “Om-weeneey”, which in turn is derived from maoin, a Gaelic word meaning wealth or treasure of treasure, and, hence, when O'Maonaigh was anglicised to Mooney, it meant the descendant of the wealthy one.
“But where was your family from?” she asked, exasperated.
“According to Mooney lore,” I continued, “we come from a noble line, said to be descendants of the ancient Irish King Heremon, who conquered Ireland with his brother Herber, then slew poor Herber in his tub and went forth to father a line of Irish kings that included the fearless and fertile King Niall of the Nine Hostages, whose DNA is said to be found in one in 12 modern Irishmen, and in a further three million worldwide.”
“But which village?”
I told her Mooney could also be spelled Moony, Moonie, Mainey, Mauney, Meeney, Miney and Moe.
“Yes, but, where?"
I mentioned my sister and the online Mormons. She looked at me with withering sadness and offered up her genealogist friend in Dublin. “If you can be found, he’ll find you.”
This gave me pause. Do I wish to be found? Am I lost? Am I my genes, my class, my colour? My tastes and tendencies? My thoughts and dreams? My ossobuco? Who am I, what am I? All these and more poured in, a cascade of questionings overflowing the rims of my very soul, and yet I was stone-cold sober, halfway through a dry January only dampened by three nights on an intemperate Italian lash.
It was then that the story of poor old Joe and his Tinker leapt into my head. And I told it. Which made someone else at the table, a loyal Hexagon reader from Brooklyn who can only trace one grandparent back to the old country, shake her head and say, “Might have told that story last week, no?”
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In 1629, a tragic event in the annals of Hippophagy occurred in France. A groom named Claude Guillon was condemned to death and executed for having eaten part of a horse at Saint-Claude on a Saturday in Lent. As a contrast to which it is worth mentioning that on the 27th of February 1848, the Parisian insurgents cut up, distributed, and ate a horse which fell dead on the pavement during the combat. — Journal of the Arts, 27 March 1868
We understand the Parisians in the emboldened passage above. Nothing whets the appetite like a bit of insurgency, and the horse was right there, dead on the pavement. But the groom’s story, like old Joe’s, is a puzzle. Not why he ate part of a horse at Saint-Claude on a Saturday in Lent, but why was he executed for it? I have unearthed online no shortage of men, Irish, French and otherwise, hanged for stealing horses, but none for dining on them. It’s hardly an aberration. Ptolemy in the second century was the first to call certain races who subsisted on horse meat “Hippophagists”. Herodotus (b.c. 484 - 408) tells us that rich Persians “on their birthdays, serve up oxen, horses, camels, and asses, roasted whole; but the poor use smaller animals.” And so on. And so enough. Dead horses were last week. Let’s not flog them any further. Instead, return with me to West Cork and Michael J. Fox and King Niall of the Nine Hostages, and the rest of the cluttered blarney above. For surely there is a point to all this?
Indeed, there is.
My ten-year titre de séjour, pictured above, expires this September. If I wish to maintain my principal residency in France, I will have to renew it.
Or apply for French nationality.
The deadline – not this self-inflicted one, but the one to renew my residency card, and/or apply for citizenship – fast approaches. And I am not sure what to do. I hesitate. I balk. I flinch. Not about renewing the card - I’ll be on that this week - but about becoming French. Why the hesitation? Again, I have no clue. The amount of paperwork to be sure – dozens of official documents no more than three months old and each officially translated at 75 euros a pop. And you have to memorise all the words to “La Marseillaise”. And the names of every member of Macron’s cabinet.
But my reluctance must also have something to do with the am-I-lost vanity expressed above. The usual romantic bunk: I am a citizen of the world, independent of all but the most immediate ties of blood and kinship. Nationalism is beneath me. Identity politics, like party politics, are for the existentially stunted. I am not the sum of my cultural capital, my clothes, my hair, my tattoos, my sexual proclivities, my sports team, my books, my music. My knowledge, my refinement. My winter purslane, my beluga lentils, my vin nature. I am these words. Etcetera.
So what’s left? “At home everywhere,” the writer Georges Simenon said. “And nowhere. Never a stranger, never quite belonging.” Yup, pretty much. You wouldn’t know it to hear me say it in French, but I have lived in this country for more than half my life. I’ve lost touch with my Canadian heritage and have no patrimoine français. My children were born here, they have French passports. They vote in French elections. I do not. Not because I don’t want to. I am not allowed to. So there’s that. But beyond that? Do I need to be French? Do I need to be anything?
The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. – Hugo of Saint Victor
Mormons are fixated on family trees because they need to baptise by proxy all ancestors who died before learning about the restored Mormon Gospel. They need their names to save their souls. I am unaware of the need for such needs. I am nothing except matter and its movements and modifications. I am a subject without predicate, a body without organs. Again, the usual romantic bunk. But do I need to have a horse in this race? Do I need to be saddled with more bona fides? Or am I better where I am, up in the stands, a spectator above the fray, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring my fingernails like James Joyce, whose line from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I just cribbed. He never became French. Nor did Samuel Beckett. Nor did Georges Simenon.
Me, a Frenchman? Moi?
Vanity, thy name is Mooney. (Pronounced “Om-weeneey”.)
Obviously, I need help. Which is why I am turning to you, dear readers, to continue the good work begun by Valerie, and find me a post on which to tether my stubbornly unaffiliated, individually atomised and epistemically unburdened horse’s ass of a being. Emmanuel Macron can trace his line back to his great-grandfather, George William Robertson, an English soldier and butcher who fought at the Somme. Marine Le Pen’s great-grandmother was born in Alexandria, Egypt, from the union between a Swiss expat and a Maltese whose name, Micallef, can be traced back to the Arabic mukallaf, meaning one who is religiously responsible.
Should I join Manu and Marine? Please scroll down and click on the COMMENT button below, which is nicely nestled between the equally important LIKE and SHARE buttons and just below the much more material and indispensable UPGRADE TO PAID button.
Once clicked, tell me to what I should do.
Time is of the essence. My past and my present are decided. My future is in your hands.
PS. I have no tatoos.
This may not be helpful, but it sums up my approach to similar circumstances:
"Listen; this world is the lunatic's sphere,
Don't always agree it's real,
Even with my feet upon it, and the postman knowing my door
My address is elsewhere." ~ Hafez
Maybe change your name to Valerie and move to Croatia. But whatever you choose, just keep writing.