Today is the birthday of my oldest friend, my childhood companion, my ‘little’ brother. Looking back on my childhood he’s there in almost every memory. Here is just one of many magic moments in which he had a staring role. I shared it a few years ago so dusted it off and here it is again for your reading pleasure.
I was a child in Ireland during the seventies and eighties. It was 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, Protestant’s and Catholics. It is 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 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 County Donegal. Donegal is part of the Irish Republic, 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, to 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)” she would say, “are somebodies children sent over here. 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.”
At the time I had no great opinion on the matter. I tended to listen to my Mum, yet wonder at the situation. As we drove closer I took no notice of brick towers surrounded by barbed wire. Lots of barbed wire. These towers had slit windows through which a gun poked out.
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.
Some days we got through the border quickly but often there were long queues. Eventually, a soldier with a rifle across his chest would call us forward. Hearing their strong British accents was strange, and I was fascinated by their guns. As my father handed over his drivers licence a 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 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. The fact that we shared a surname remarkably similar to a notorious IRA leader, did nothing to speed up our check in.
My story takes place as we were returning home to Dublin after our holidays with my Grandparents. My youngest brother was about four years old at the time. There was no such thing as safety belts or booster seats in the back of cars, so we sat anyway we liked. With five of us and the dog we were squashed but my brother was small enough to stand up for a while, which gave the rest of us a break.
As we approached the border, my mum began her early warning conversation. My little brother was standing up trying to see himself in the rear view mirror. He was holding something in his hand and pretending to put on lipstick. Dad asked him to move out of the way of the mirror and as he did he caught sight of my brother and shouted “What have you got in your hand?”. My mother looked back and quickly grabbed the “lipstick”, shouting “It’s a bullet!” My brother began to wail for his “lipstick”
“Where did you get this?” roared Mum holding up the bullet, “Have you any more?”
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 into orbit. He grabbed the bullets, opened the window and flung them out, cursing loudly the said individual who had supplied them. My brother’s wails got even louder at the sight of 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. As usual my parents tried to sound polite, the name on the drivers licence caused a bit of a stir and my sister “accidentally” let go the dog, but we made it through.
Just imagine what might have happened if we hadn’t spotted what sort of lipstick my brother was using!
Happy Birthday little brother. So many memories. xxx