How do I explain Irish nationalism to my Tasmania-born daughter?
‘That’s in the UK, right?’ she asks, when I tell her I’m from the same county as Joe Dolan
Philip Lynch with his daughter Molly in Tasmania.
One morning recently as I was about to drop our daughter off at high school, I was taken aback to hear Joe Dolan on the car radio. It was the late, great man himself on our local FM station, here in rural Tasmania, almost as far from Mullingar as you can possibly get.
In a reflex response that surprised me, I leaned forward and turned up the volume. As we swung into the pot-holed school carpark, still shrouded in an autumn fog, and in spite of it being the start of another working week, I was suddenly singing along to the lyrics of Make me an Island. For a brief moment, I could’ve been back in Westmeath.
An image of Joe’s modest-sized bronze statue with his arm outstretched and clasping his trusty microphone that proudly honours his memory, back in Mullingar’s otherwise nondescript Market Square, suddenly springs to mind.
I was never a massive fan of Westmeath’s one-time most famous bachelor. That mantle was snaffled by one of my older sisters, who was terribly bereft at his sudden passing back in 2007. For this sister, Joe and the Drifters were the real deal, top shelf performers.
I once did see Joe sweating profusely in his white shirt on stage as he belted out his hits to a jam-packed, enthralled crowd one night at Kilkenny’s Newpark Hotel. The atmosphere that night was electric. Although, all the pints and shots being knocked back could also have been a contributing factor. I preferred acts from further afield; Fleetwood Mac, Al Stewart, Kristofferson and Joni Mitchell, to name a few. Maybe even back then I was already looking beyond Ireland.
“That’s Joe Dolan,” I exclaim to my slightly startled but mostly underwhelmed passenger, as she gathers up her assorted devices and prepares to exit the car. Being an older dad, I’ve become used to being the object of bemusement; it comes with the territory.
Nevertheless, ignoring the risk of further diminishing my credibility, I press on. “He was a famous Irish singer, way back before you were born. In fact, we were from the same county,” I add, as if to provide some context for my spontaneous summary.
“From the north or the south?’ she asks, venturing into my past territory.
“The south,” I say, making sure to add an extra emphasis to the end of that word, and to pre-empt any auto-phonetic correction. “I thought you already knew that.”
“And that’s in the UK, right?” she asks, without a hint of irony or mischief, as she zips up her schoolbag and untangles her earphones. I sigh and summon up some mock-outrage.
Perhaps my daughter’s limited knowledge of Irish history is an indictment on this long-gone migrant. In the evenings we bunker down behind our screens. Maybe her grasp of history is being limited by her prism of these small screens. Or have I’ve simply drifted too far from the auld sod? Maybe that’s it.
To think there was a time - I would’ve been her age - when I was so immersed in it all. Dan Breen’s My Fight for Irish Freedom read like a boy’s own adventure. Back then, I too had hoped for a united 32 counties. Tiocfaidh ár lá struck a chord with me.
An interminably long list of ultimately doomed conflicts saturated our school syllabus. From all Parnell’s efforts ending in ignominy, to those stony-faced pale portraits on the Easter Proclamation on the wall of our national school, to Yeats’ poetry of that era. There was the ill-fated carnage of the Easter Rising, followed by the War of Independence and the Civil War. The senseless eleventh-hour demise of Michael Collins at Beál na Bláth.
And of course, in more contemporary times, when I was growing up, the savagery of the Troubles that looked like as if they would drag on for years. Bad news filled the hourly bulletins on the radio in our kitchen and our old man would hush us into silence so he could hear about the latest atrocity in Belfast, or a dozen other locations across the north.
A staunch republican, he used to carry around newspaper clippings in his wallet, of some of the extrajudicial killings carried out by the British soldiers. But as the violence ground on I think even he too was sickened by the bloodshed.
The fall-out of the long shadow of Irish political dissidence even reached these shores. At the ruins of the Port Arthur Penal Settlement, the exiled Young Irelander, William Smith O’Brien was detained at Port Arthur for five years from 1854. When he was finally pardoned and he returned to Ireland, all the political fight had left him. Perhaps the far-flung remoteness of Tasmania has a cooling effect on some exiles’ political ardour.
Off my daughter goes, a spring in her step, weighed down by the contents of her schoolbag. As I continue on my way, the radio lurches back into familiar territory; Sheeran, Drake and Taylor Swift, and poor old Joe suddenly seems like an aberration from a bygone era.
For now, my daughter remains none the wiser about Ireland’s history. I guess I’m loath to lumber her with all that historical baggage. And I wouldn’t want to sow some incidental anti-British sentiment. I sense it’s all of little relevance to her busy adolescent life with enough worrying events unfolding in the world, and her world, occupying her thoughts and motivations.
So, the chequered history of Irish nationalism, I’ll continue to set aside. And as for the one-time highly regarded Mr Dolan - I guess there is always the nostalgia of his music, for anyone so inclined. And, there’s that statute with his outstretched arm and his microphone at the ready; but suspended in time now, like my Irishness.