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


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.

In my sheltered south-Dublin fastness I was entirely removed from what was happening. It didn’t make a difference who was killing whom or why: the whole thing sickened me. I couldn’t fathom how a person might come to believe that ripping through flesh, mincing vital organs, splintering bones belonging to real, live humans was a justifiable response to a political situation. (I still haven’t got my head around that.)

I don’t know where precisely my grandmother and great-grandmother stood on the question of armed struggle, or even whether their views were alike. My father, I knew, had rejected his mother’s brand of patriotism – perhaps perceiving one or two disparities between the freshly minted Irish Republic she loved so fiercely and the narrow, hyper-conformist episcopocracy it had grown into by the time he was born. Coming of age in the 1960s, in a Europe recovering from a cataclysm that put Ireland’s story in the shade, he felt little obligation to adopt the values of his parents’ generation. His refusal to venerate either the 1916 revolutionaries or the Catholic Church was very frustrating to his mother. When he in turn became an author, it was to write scathing crime novels set in a dysfunctional, morally bankrupt Ireland.

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? By the same token, if we argue that the violence of the Troubles is unjustifiable, can we do so without also rejecting the very basis of our independence? Patriotism in Ireland is a cracked vessel. No matter how carefully we articulate our rational framework, it’s hard to make it hold water.

Consider, for instance, that even in liberal middle-class Dublin, where overt support for violence is practically unheard of, it’s not unusual to encounter a vague sense that the burning of the British embassy in the riot that followed Bloody Sunday was basically fair enough (a view evidently shared by many gardaí at the scene). Some petrol bombs are more equal than others.

As a teenager I wanted it all to be neat and tidy, so I took my cue from what I perceived as my father’s root-and-branch repudiation of the entire nationalist paradigm. In 1991, a journalist from the Irish Press rang me to know what it was like growing up with such illustrious ancestors as mine, such a glorious heritage. I outlined with adolescent certainty my pacifist stance, and explained that I couldn’t support political violence under any circumstances. Predictably (in retrospect), they didn’t print a word I’d said.

These days I have a more nuanced understanding of the historical context of both the transition to Irish independence and the outbreak of the Troubles; I also grasp, to some extent, the problem of an uninvolved, 21st-century Dubliner presuming to make underresearched pronouncements about either. In my mental court of justice nobody is off the hook for murder – and I’d distinguish, conceptually, between a willingness to die for your principles and a willingness to kill for them – but the issues are more complex than I realised at age 16. Probably more complex than I realise at age 39, come to that.

In any case, despite everything, I’ve just published a novel, The Living, about Irish identity, complete with murky family secrets and a Belfast bomb scare.

In writing this story, I have deliberately avoided centring the Northern Irish conflict. My protagonist, Cate Houlihan, has come of age in a (broadly) peaceful, (broadly) prosperous Ireland; the historical battle lines are irrelevant to her daily life. I’m exploring the long aftermath of conflict, what it’s like to carry the emotional legacy of the past without having been through the underpinning experiences.

Cate’s position, both oblivious to and compromised by the details of her family’s history, fascinates me. She is naïve, of course, because her generation has the privilege of naïvety. And maybe it’s helpful to cultivate a more open, naïve sense of each other if we want to move on. Let tweed-capped boys and bayonet-toting Tommies alike rest easy in their graves. They were humans, after all, more similar than different, and their stories will never be fully known.

Léan Cullinan grew up in a relentlessly literary family and published her first novel, The Living (Atlantic Books) this month. A graduate of the TCD MPhil in Creative Writing, she lives in Dublin with one husband and two sons. leancullinan.com @leannich

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