I live in Ireland and have a very strong sense of my own identity. I love this country, and am proud to be Irish.
I was a child during the seventies and eighties. A time of tremendous unrest in the North of Ireland, when a lot of wrong was done on both sides, by the British and the Irish. It is rather typical of this country, and one of the many things that I love about the Irish, that this period, during which there were almost daily murders and bombings, is referred to as “The Troubles”. What an understatement!
Growing up, I lived in Dublin. There was no fighting or bombing there except on one occasion, and for those who lived in the South the “Troubles” seemed far away. Most did not understand it, and were not overly concerned about what was going on. For them it was irrelevant.
However we had Grandparents who lived in the North of Ireland, in County Donegal. Donegal is part of the Irish Repbubic, but it borders the six counties governed by Britain. In order to travel to Donegal we had two choices. Go the long way through Sligo, or our preferred choice, cross the border.
As a child sitting in a packed car, I always knew we were getting close to the border when my mom would begin to address the five of us in the back of the car. “These boys (the British soldiers) are only somebodies children, sent over here” she would say. “They had no choice whether to come or not”. One of my older sisters was of an age where she had made her own mind on the situation, and her opinion was that these “children” should go back home. She would voice this opinion loudly back to my mother, who would cut her off by saying “I’m warning you, behave yourself, and put away that bag”. My sister had a bag which was covered in hand written graffiti. It would be fair to say it had an anti British, pro Irish slant to it.
I was a child at the time with no great opinion on the matter. I tended to listen to my Mom, yet wonder at the situation. As we drove closer I took no notice of what looked like square rooms made of brick and barbed wire. Lots of barbed wire. These “rooms” had tiny windows through which a gun poked out.
Some days we got through the border quickly but often there was a long queue of cars. Eventually, a soldier with a rifle across his chest would call us forward. I can clearly remember thinking their strong British accents were very strange, and being fascinated by their guns. My father would hand over his drivers licence and then inevitably the soldier would stick his head in the window to see who else was in the car. Without fail at this point my sister would let go our small but deadly shih tzu dog, who would jump up between the back of my fathers seat and the window, barking her brains out. The soldier wouldn’t be long getting his face out of the car, but it did nothing to warm him to us as a family. The fact that we shared a surname remarkably similar to a notorious IRA leader, did nothing to speed up our check in.
There was always an air of tension as we approached the border. My parents were on edge and so too were the soldiers we encountered. I know now that these soldiers were sometimes shot at or bombed, but as a child it was just something I could sense.
On one memorable occasions we were returning home to Dublin after our holidays with my Grandparents. My youngest brother was only about four at the time. There was no such thing as strapping up in the car, so we sat anyway we liked. With five of us and the dog at times it was very uncomfortable, so my brother was small enough to stand up for a while, which gave the rest of us a break. We were coming close to the border, (my mother had begun her early warning conversation), and my little brother was standing up trying to see himself in the rear view mirror. He was busy with something in his hand which he was pretending was lipstick. My Dad asked him to move out of the way of the mirror and as he did he looked closely at my brother and shouted “What have you got in your hand?”. My mother looked back and quickly grabbed the “lipstick”, whilst shouting “It’s a bullet!”. My brother began to wail for his “lipstick” and my mom was shouting “Where did you get this?”. At this point my brother produced a few more “lipsticks” from his pocket, and told my mother who had given them to him. My father, who I always remember as a gently spoken individual, went ballistic. He grabbed all the bullets, opened the window and flung them out, cursing loudly the said individual who had given them to my brother. My brothers wails got even louder at the sight of all his lipsticks disappearing, not to mention my fathers raised voice.
However, as we drew up to the border his tears stopped and the rest of us kept quiet. Eventually we were called forward. As usual my parents tried to sound polite, the name on the drivers licence caused a bit of a stir and my sister once again “accidentally” let go the dog, but we did eventually make it through.
But just imagine what might have happened if we hadn’t spotted what sort of lipstick my brother was using!