Embracing the Ireland we don't fully understand
It was the late Douglas Gageby, that sharpest of editors, who perhaps put it best. There were, he said, no aborigines in Ireland.
He wasn’t, of course, denigrating a particular people. He was just pinpointing, in a shorthand way, that our ancestors are descendants of invaders, planters and settlers of varying kinds. By extension – and this was reflected in his editorials – the specific century our antecedents arrived on this island should not be a measure of our Irishness. It might shape our culture, religion and our way of perceiving the world but it doesn’t give anyone the right to write us out of the national story.
Many of us, of course, are hybrids, the result of ancient strategic family alliances, marital or transient couplings, or marriages of convenience.
What makes us ourselves materialises because of past decisions or actions. I’m me and anything I think, do or say is partly because in the late 1920s my paternal grandmother and her five children were forced on to the Dublin train by a Belfast loyalist mob.
I’m me because one of these children, my Dad, loved a Dublin woman, an orphan who was raised mainly by empire loyalist grandparents. These castle Catholics stood for wireless renderings of God Save the King and were proud of the husband’s Royal Dublin Fusiliers service in the Boer war.
And one grandchild at least was still writing “Kingstown” on the back of family photographs well into the 1940s. At the same time my father’s family home was under continuous Army surveillance because of the household’s anti-British and pro-German views. So who can we exclude from our idea of the nation?
At first glance, or so one narrative ordains, there is no place for the Beryls and the Myrtles who sold poppies on Dún Laoghaire streets 50 years ago, or for the kind Protestant woman who asked me as a little boy if I was allowed go to Kingstown.
But, as Gageby would have stressed, they were of Ireland, although perhaps with a different view of their place in it and its place in the world. Their patriotism might not have been green but it was patriotism nonetheless. It was a patriotism that accommodated the new order, sometimes late but often with some grace.
Molly Keane, in her evocative yarn Good Behaviour, caught a comparable tension so well. The bumptious solicitor Mr Kiely, a “common little man” as the daughter sees him, revels in outlining the estate’s precarious finances. Kiely might have lived only a few boreens away but he was from another country as far as the aristocratic major and his family were concerned.
Kiely, as Keane so perceptively depicted, was of the new Ireland: on the crest of power, gauche and somewhat insensitive to southern Protestant unionists.
The late Lionel Fleming, in his amusing 1965 memoir Head or Harp, was in like vein when describing his new job as Cork correspondent of The Irish Times. He found it strategically useful to identify himself as Bill rather than Lionel when he set about exploring a “world of which my parents and relatives cared to know nothing”, where apart from a few big businesses and solicitors, “the ‘superior’ Protestant element did not really matter very much at all”.
Austin Clarke presents a somewhat similar culture clash in The Planter’s Daughter. She, the planter’s daughter, was “the Sunday in every week” and “Men that had seen her/Drank deep and were silent”.
There were social and caste differences but there was a deep yearning to get close to the house of the planter which was “known by the trees”. And, as “few in the candlelight/Thought her too proud”, dare we suggest the planter’s daughter had her own yearnings to move beyond those trees. How this State addresses comparable yearnings is the test of a true republic.
Ruth Dudley Edwards said “what we have on the island of Ireland are two tribes who might be from two different planets”. For the late FSL Lyons there were four “co-existing” cultures: Gaelic, English, Anglo-Irish and Ulster Protestant. But we now have many more with Latvians, Poles, Nigerians and Filipinos all anxious to stir the brew and help fashion a vibrant State.
They will be creating their individual patriotisms, ones that respect the land from which they came but which seek to embrace their new home.
It would be easier for all of us if, in John Montague’s words, “old moulds are broken”; and if, like John Hewitt, we scrutinised the myths of our tribe. We would inhabit a happier island if we imbibed some of Hewitt’s gritty integrity that sought to comprehend the other tribe so that the “goat and ox may graze in the same field/and each gain something from proximity”.
Hewitt, like Clarke before him, understood the other. He grasped tribal complexities and the difficulties in finding one’s place in our island’s narratives. He knew that “this is my home and country. Later on/perhaps I’ll find this nation is my own/but here and now it is enough to love/this faulted ledge, this map of cloud above”.
He sought to embrace that which he did not fully understand. A patriot in the best sense.