‘I presumed the two tribes of Ulster might eventually blend, as folks do at a wedding’

Michael Harding: The blood shed during the Troubles only nourished separate identities

“The wedding brought the two families together in one hotel and transformed everybody into a single tribe, for the course of a day.” Photograph: istock

“The wedding brought the two families together in one hotel and transformed everybody into a single tribe, for the course of a day.” Photograph: istock

 

I was at a wedding recently of two young people who have been in love since they were teenagers.

Even though their families are from different sides of the county border, the teenagers became best friends at school, and later travelled to Australia for a few years before settling down back in Ireland.

The wedding brought the two families together in one hotel and transformed everybody into a single tribe, for the course of a day.

Such is the nature of country weddings. They begin with separate teams, on either side of the aisle in the church, and by the time the last drinks have been served in the hotel bar, 12 hours later, they have woven themselves into a well knitted tapestry of affection.

We ate and drank all day, danced quick time and old time waltzes, and shared stories at the bar. I met an old friend from my college days, and we discussed prostates, cancers, stents, and other carbuncles that accrue with age, and we praised the youth, because tomorrow belongs to the young.

We compared notes on hip operations, and spoke of the dead, and drank lots of wine and agreed that the rain outside was definitely an indication of climate change.

Some declared that they had never seen such a beautiful bride, and they never heard a better speech than the heartfelt words of the groom. And I agreed with everybody.  

I didn’t get home until the following morning and I lay on the sofa for half a week, staring at the lake, and the mountains beyond it. 

I love springtime, when the snow still lingers on the top of Cuilce mountain. When the sun shines on the white ridges that glisten in the distance. 

Snow in springtime doesn’t carry the same melancholic ambiguity as it does in the darkness of winter. Snow in March is giddy; more Bach than Beethoven, more like a Dermot Healy poem than a paragraph by John McGahern.

Embattled community

Sometimes I look at the mountains of west Cavan and think of people on the other side of the same ridge, whose lives were scarred by what was called “the struggle for Irish unity”. 

In south Fermanagh, Protestants died in school buses, classrooms, and their own back yards, as the gunmen chipped away at the fabric of unionist culture along the border.

An embattled community endured a merciless slaughter for 30 years, and republicans got bogged down in the art of war. And if the day comes for reunification, I fear some unionists would probably leave their homeland altogether, rather than sup with the enemy. Because the Troubles was a binary game, and the blood shed only nourished separate identities.   

I grew up in south Ulster, in the shadow of the beautiful Church of Ireland Cathedral at Kilmore in Cavan. Our next door neighbours were Protestant and my childhood was brightened by their company and their cats. In summertime I lingered along the River Erne that flows through Cavan and Fermanagh. I dallied all day long in the woodlands near the lakes on Lord Farnham’s enormous estate.

The farmers who spruced themselves up every Sunday morning in white shirts and dark waistcoats were familiar to me, and I was fond of their clergymen and their clerical wives.

In the south, people my age grew up without British television. They longed for Top of the Pops and Match of the Day, as hidden English treasures beyond their reach. But we were different.

In south Ulster we grew up with Doctor Who, the Lone Ranger, and Coronation Street, long before the Late Late Show. And I took for granted the jigs and reels that flute players in south Fermanagh played, many of which were first collected by Protestant clergymen, whose contribution to Gaelic culture was enormous even as far back as the 16th century.  

Like everyone else in south Ulster, I lived for three decades in the shadow of the Troubles, and two decades more in the edgy lull that has been sustained since peace was agreed. And things had been going so well that I presumed the two tribes of Ulster might eventually blend, as folks do at a wedding, and that we would come to enjoy each other like two sides of the same family.

Because the mountain ridges that straddle the border between Cavan and Fermanagh are beautiful either in sunshine or under snow, and when all is said and done they will still remain, to be loved and shared, when this Brexit thing has been long forgotten.

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