This is my first post on this blog. I know that. I was working on a completely different first blog post, and then a thing happened: Brenda brought The Irish Game (technical name, Síochán Leat) to work today. This is going to seem like a post about the game, but really, it’s a post about me and why I do what I do, and who I am as a designer. I didn’t think it would be, but there you go.
If you’re not familiar with Brenda Garno Brathwaite’s series of board games, The Mechanic Is The Message, you should familiarize yourself. The most famous game, of course, is Train; the game where you put yellow pawns into train cars and send them around the board, only to discover that you’re sending Jews to concentration camps around WW2 Germany. It’s a game that’s shocking in its surprise, that makes you face what it means to be complicit in something of that scale and truly question what it means to follow orders. It is a game that makes people angry, sometimes. It makes people cry. People don’t react that way to Síochán Leat, a game about an invasion that happened to a small group of people in a small part of the world over 400 years ago. There’s no movie about it, no memorial wall. It’s more academic than personal, to most players.
Brenda asked me to help her set up Síochán Leat. She said she needed me “for something,” and that it would take fifteen minutes. A gentleman I work with offered to help us with the heavy box and retrieval of the game pieces; she graciously rebuffed him. “I’m sorry, but only Irish people can put this game together.”
I guess now is a good time to tell you: I am— my family is— Irish. Completely and fiercely and ridiculously Irish, in the way that only Americans can be. From what I understand, Brenda and I had very similar upbringings, and Síochán Leat is the story of her family’s history. Because of this, it is almost the story of my family’s history, too.
I say “almost” because while my family was also affected by the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland, it’s not my mother’s rosary in the cheap burlap pillow that the game rests on, or the spoons I learned to play— they’re Brenda’s. Her family’s history, buried in the scratchy brown earth of the game. You can put your hands into the holes and feel it there; you can try to make out the shapes, like feeling for a broken bone. Tenderly, as if you’re waiting for the earth to cry out where it hurts.
It hurts everywhere.
Next we placed small pieces of knitted fabric that represented grass. Someone asked her how many there were; Brenda said “One for each county currently in Ireland.” She made eye contact with me. “I’ll knit more when Ireland is whole again.” We’d talked about growing up Irish American before, but never had she sounded so much like my mother.
Another guy I work with, also Irish, was helping us place the grass. Brenda mentioned that they say Ireland’s so green because of all of the Irishmen that lay beneath the soil. For some reason I ended up reciting the last verse I know of “The Wearing Of The Green:” Though I care not for the thistle and I care not for the rose, when gray winds ’round us whistle neither down nor crimson shows; but like hope to him that’s friendless, when no joy around is seen— O’er our grave with love that’s endless blooms our own immortal green.
When I was a kid, my mom used to put on records of Irish songs of rebellion every St. Patrick’s Day. There were even measures of drinking, crying, and dancing— but always admonishments to listen to the words, to never forget where we came from or what our ancestors endured. I was never allowed to forget that I stood on the shoulders of men who made Ireland green.
Setting up the board was a delicate affair; the pieces don’t all fit in the squares, which aren’t neat. Everything about this game (about the Troubles, about growing up this way) is messy. The orange blocks are the English. They spell out MINE.
My hands were shaking a little, but I was doing okay. Then Brenda said I should read the rules, and excused herself for an interview.
You should know that the rules are written in a mixture of equal parts English ink and Irish blood. I can’t tell you what they are; you need to read them and you need to play it. I will tell you two things: the English go first, and when I got to the line “And then you displace the Irish in that square” tears stung my eyes.
My grandfather was a millionaire, back when millions meant something. My grandparents were Irish— and Chicago Irish at that. My grandfather was shot on the steps of the Chicago Public Library; they never found who did it, but there’s a park named after him in Elmhurst. Whether it was his Irish political connections, the fact he was president of the Chicago Teamsters or a combination of both, we’ll never know. But the point is, my family had money and love and safety, and then they had none of it at all. My mom was shoveled off to boarding school, rarely to see my grandmother— who was distraught over my grandfather’s death and apparently never fully recovered. I don’t know. My mom doesn’t talk about it much.
But I know this, and staring at these rules, thinking of my family’s history and sacrifices, it came back to me. My mom has often said that, regardless of anything else she may have done, she will always respect and admire my grandmother for one reason: after my grandfather died and my family lost everything, my grandmother took my mom to sell my grandfather’s clothes— because they were the only things left to sell. And on the way to selling them, my grandmother made the whole excursion into a game. To keep my mother happy, to keep her from dwelling on the task at hand. The admiration and love in my mother’s voice as she tells this story can’t be described.
So I’m staring at this game, and thinking about every exquisitely painful part of it, and suddenly it all comes rushing at me: the beauty of this, the feeling of connection with my heritage and Ireland and this line of amazing women, this instinctive need to create games that alleviate or distract from suffering. The path I have chosen in my life, making games, has always seemed almost frivolous to me; my mother has been at times the head of a halfway house for alcoholic men, director of a humane society and animal shelter, a volunteer and an activist and an organizer. My grandparents lost everything for their beliefs. I make games.
But I guess we all make games. It’s in our souls. And my mother always said that I was standing on the shoulders of the people who came before me, but I had never felt them under my feet until that moment.
So. I’m Elizabeth, and I make games. And I guess now we both know why.