I WAS filling out the census form on Sunday evening when an awful thought struck me. Someday, I’m going to be an ancestor! As they say in the new online alternative ‘Census of the Heart’, I’m an ancestor in training.
The thought filled me with panic. The last time I felt even remotely like this was back in 1997 when Hale-Bopp was fading away into the void after several months streaking brightly through the night sky. One memorable article at the time reflected on the fact that the last people who had seen the comet from earth were the ancient Egyptians when they were building the pyramids. The writer pointed out that it wasn’t due to come round again for another 2,800 years and he wondered what the spectators then would think of us “who once looked up at it in our own ancient evenings”. Perish the thought, I said to myself.
Now the census has re-ignited my obsession with posterity. I’m not alone. The whole country is obsessed with posterity but I think we can blame Padraig Pearse for that, rather than the census.
Now, I’m fully aware that the purpose of the census is not so much to provide an ancestry trail for inquisitive descendants, as to provide a full picture of where we are right now so that we can plan for the future. We need to determine how many of us there are, for a start. The population could have spiralled out of control in the last five years, for all we know.
But like it or not, the forms we filled in on Sunday night will be on public display a century from now and will be devoured by another generation exploring its ancestry. My problem with that is that there is no scope on the form to project a better image of myself so that I won’t appear so anaemic to my descendants. But, short of dying for Ireland, there’s not much I can do about it now. Can I suggest that the next time they carry out a census that they might, first, get our address right, and second, leave a space on the form for a personal ‘message to posterity’.
Meanwhile, the filling in of the form caused no end of frustration in our house. It only takes a few minutes, I was told, but I spent half the night searching for the bottle of Tippex and I couldn’t decide either whether my daughter who works in Dublin but who comes home regularly and keeps a wardrobe full of clothes here, still lives here or not.
Now, there are people in life who, annoyingly, tick all the boxes. They’re confident, clever, academic, sporty and personable on top of everything else. I used to envy them, not being able to tick any box myself. Now I’ve discovered that the world is more interested in people who think outside the box rather than those who just tick it, and I think I might be one of them because I found it incredibly difficult to fill out the Census form.
By the way, I’m not even the head of the household, but the said head, who is great at delegating jobs like this to his deputy, gave me the form and said: “Here, fill that in. I haven’t time.”
Every official form reminds him of the Headage application which drove farmers to distraction back in the last century leaving them with lifelong phobias of form filling. I have a touch of it myself, sparked, I think, by an inability to fit the Irish version of my name on a single line of my copy book when I was in second class in primary school. The last three or four letters of the name nearly always ended up written on the desk.
But I digress. The census form looked like a piece of cake at first, so I skipped the instructions and embarked on a mad spree of ticking boxes, until, halfway through page 2, I realised that I shouldn’t have been ticking at all. I should have been marking the boxes with a hyphen or a straight line. Panic all round. The head of the household said he should have filled it in himself.
I found the Tippex, but then decided that if the ‘sophisticated scanners’ in the Central Statistics Office couldn’t get the message from a tick, they’d be doubly confounded by a smudge of Tippex. So I doctored the ticks and now some of them look like hockey sticks. I may have to ask the enumerator for another form when he calls around and I’ll be mortified. But at least the descendants won’t be confronted with a great-great-granny who couldn’t fill out a form without making a mess of it.
Apart altogether from the ticks, I have a couple of other problems with the census form. Yet again, the questions about one’s use of, and proficiency in the Irish language give too much scope for delusion, especially if you’re trying to impress the descendants. I also note that secularists are advising Roman Catholics that they shouldn’t list themselves as Roman Catholics if they’re not practising the Faith. Rubbish! Most people I know who aren’t practising Catholics still hang on to it – just in case.
I also agonised for hours over whether we should even mention the well – in case Sinn Fein ever gets into power and decides to nationalise it.
Anyhow, the form has now been duly signed by the ‘head of the household’ who thought it did indeed look a bit messy. The signature, with a distinctive flourish is, by the way, identical down to the ‘t’, to the signature of his grandfather of the same name who signed the 1911 census. He never knew his grandfather, but when I showed the handwriting to him, he thought he had signed it himself. Uncanny, I know, but, as I’ve already pointed out, the census is never just about the here and now.