Taking issue with our patriotic past

Léan Cullinan’s family were not just writers. Some were authors of the State. Here she explains how she tackles that legacy in her first novel

Léan Cullinan: “There’s a doublethink at the heart of Irish nationalism: if we want to honour the men and women who fought and killed and died to found this state, asserting by implication that their actions were reasonable, can we do so without also condoning the obscenities of modern terrorism?” Photograph: Alan Betson

Léan Cullinan: “There’s a doublethink at the heart of Irish nationalism: if we want to honour the men and women who fought and killed and died to found this state, asserting by implication that their actions were reasonable, can we do so without also condoning the obscenities of modern terrorism?” Photograph: Alan Betson

Mon, Jun 30, 2014, 01:00

When I was in primary school we all had to learn Joseph Mary Plunkett’s poem I See His Blood Upon the Rose off by heart. In fact, if memory serves, we had to learn it several years running. Each time, the teacher explained that the reason we were learning it was me – specifically, my family connection to the poet. (Thanks, teachers. Really.) Plunkett was my grandmother’s Uncle Joe.

My grandmother, Eilís Dillon, in fact never knew her uncle, as he was executed for his part in the Easter Rising four years before her birth. Times were intense: the War of Independence was in full spate, the family was deeply involved, and Eilís’s earliest memory was of watching her mother – Joe’s sister – being arrested in 1921 by the Black and Tans. They frightened the children, tore up the floorboards looking for guns, and paraded their prisoner through the streets as a warning to others.

My grandmother grew up in a country of which her parents, their siblings and friends were among the principal authors. In due course she became an author herself, and wrote vivid, eloquent novels set in an Ireland that shines with optimism and right action. It’s easy to imagine how her formative years left her with a sense of her country as a vital, compelling ideal, which had been fought for and obtained, to which allegiance was due.

That image, of the wide-eyed children looking on as purposeful adults ransack their home and take away their mother, has a chilling resonance in more recent times. My great-grandmother was luckier than some: she survived her capture and lived into her nineties. I remember her as a bright-eyed, trenchant old woman who embodied the term formidable.

Plenty of Irish families have similar stories from those chaotic years, multilayered human interactions often crystallised into narrative tropes: wary-eyed boys on the run in tweed caps, wily aunties baking rasps into prison birthday cakes, underage election fraudsters chancing their arm at the polling stations, and so forth.

Also common: not talking about it very much. It’s a rare family that speaks openly about suffering and trauma. The process of telling the children what really happened is fraught with complexity. More direct is the picking up, by the younger generation, of the attitudes and assumptions behind the stories – but these, of necessity, pass through the intergenerational filters and are changed in the transmission.

In this respect my family was typical: although I sensed the importance of the past, I rarely heard my adults discussing politics. Like most people growing up in Britain and Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, I first encountered the modern republican movement in connection with the writhing mess we call, with a coyness that seems almost wistful, the Troubles – meaning news story after news story about bombs, more bombs, guns, intimidation, hunger strikes, hatred and still more bombs.

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