Instructed to colour the area of the British Commonwealth red on a stencil map of the world, the Young Neo-Elizabethan in training hesitated when it came to Burma and Ireland. If I remember rightly southern Ireland had a cautious red line around it in the atlas. There was something odd here but the young patriot mastered his doubts and sealed the fate of millions with a few brisk red crayon marks. Not, however, without a feeling that all was not quite right. Had the young neo-Elizabethan not also been a high-performance autist in the making, he would have probably asked his teacher. I doubt whether he would have got a coherent answer.
Only recently have I realised the slowness of the divorce after the dramatic days of 1916, the war against Britain and the civil war in Ireland. The treaty between the UK and Ireland conferred not full independence but dominion status and many trappings of entanglement remained – the oath of loyalty was not removed until early 1933, legislation still had to be approved by the British monarch until the constitutional changes of the 1930s when Ireland set up the office of President. There was a Governor-General until 1936 when Ireland abolished the office, although it had been marginalised and weakened in the preceding years (finally disappearing at the time of the abdication of the last monarch of Ireland, Edward VIII, a fittingly bathetic ending). Ireland was a member of the Commonwealth (in name at least) until 1949 when the republic was recognised by all parties (by then presumably the young Neo-Elizabethan’s atlas had left the press).
After this, the Irish question rather disappeared from the Neo-Elizabethan’s agenda to be replaced by railway engines until they in turn were displaced by the stirrings of desire. We probably shouldn’t call him a Neo-Elizabethan any more as by this time (the early 60s), he had developed critical thoughts about the picture of Liz Windsor on the school canteen wall, when he had time over from other important pursuits such as surreptitiously spooning jelly and custard into the blazer pocket of a fellow diner.
Fast forward to 1967 and the former Neo-Elizabethan has become a student radical after a brief interlude of weekly sherry with the Vice-Chancellor. He goes to Ireland for the first time starting in Larne in the north and going round the whole of the island via Derry down past Sligo and Limerick to Cork and Dublin. He doesn’t know much about Ireland then so the sharp response of a republican to his careless remarks about the similarities of Ireland and England left an enduring impression.
He’s not untypical for an English youth as providing an understanding of the state of Ireland was not high on the agenda of those entrusted to form minds then.
He pops up again in August 1969 when, equipped with piles of a radical newspaper and an umbrella, he has an exciting, if somewhat hazardous, few days in the Bogside until the British army intervenes and temporarily defuses the stand-off between the nationalist catholic population and the protestant police, held at bay by a substantial collection of petrol bombs on top of one of the tall residential buildings.
As the 75+ year old guardian of the memories of this young man, I would prefer not to delve too deeply into all of his activities but concentrate on the state of his brain. He became aware of how little he knew about Ireland, particularly northern Ireland, the discrimination in housing, education, employment, the gerrymandering to ensure protestant majorities, its political situation seeming to him more like a protestant version of Franco’s Spain than the rest of the UK. And how, after the Irish question, a upas tree with three poisonous branches in Gladstone’s unforgettable words, had been so prominent in nineteenth and early twentieth century British political life, the great silence descended in mainland UK, and the English, including the Labour Party, averted their eyes from what was going on and abandoned the northern nationalists/catholics to their fate.
Our student radical had his romantic side and he was moved by Ireland’s landscape and culture, the exoticness and otherness of the Irish language, the struggle for freedom. At that time, he hadn’t read Yeats but was still swept along by the underlying feelings of Irish nationalism, respectful of the need of the Irish to conduct their own struggle but not realising that that respect need not exclude sharp independent analysis of the social forces at work in Ireland.
He grew up, matured at snail speed and reproduced a number of times. During the odd interval in the struggle for existence, he found out more about his mother’s joking references to the family’s Irish ancestry. His great grandfather was a McKeown and for a brief giddy moment he was at one with the romance of Ireland. All rapidly crumbled when further research revealed that the McKeowns came from Ballymena in the protestant heartlands of Antrim north of Belfast and belonged to the more austere reaches of the protestant faith. After a brief love affair, the vision was crowded out by dour men with orange sashes and bowler hats.
As a curiosity, I can mention that the local doctor in the small town south of Stockholm where I lived far too long was from Ballymena. I was at his surgery with my elder son once who, on removal of his nappy, did what boy children often do in that situation. The doctor, slow on the uptake, failed to take avoiding action but then, to the puzzlement of the nurse in attendance, uttered the following golden words “What are the folks back home going to say when I tell them that an Englishman pissed on me”. There is perhaps a small glimmer of hope for Ballymena, although, of course, he was an exile.
Now back in Ireland, an older and sporadically wiser man, my appetite for things Irish has reawakened, helped by the literacy of the land, where there are real bookshops and not just purveyors of candy floss. There I found “Ireland, Colonialism and the Unfinished Revolution” (subtitle “Anois ar theacht an tSamraidh”) by Robbie McVeigh and Bill Rolston. Among much else of interest, I’m fascinated by the descriptions of the various political parties and social groups. Here, for example, a quote from Unionist MP Captain Charles Craig in the House of Commons in 1920 “When we set ourselves to safeguard Ulster and to prevent Home Rule from being imposed upon us, the best way to carry that pledge into effect was to save as much of Ulster as we knew that we could hold. To try to hold more than we could hold would seem an act of gross folly on our part”.
The six counties they held were Antrim, Down, Armagh, Derry (Londonderry to the Protestants), Tyrone and Fermanagh. Three counties of historic Ulster – Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal went to the republic, these, according to Craig containing “70,000 unionists and 260,000 Sinn Feiners”. However, this was a brittle solution, held in place by discrimination against and repression of the nationalist population and favouring of the protestant working class as a kind of labour aristocracy, even though threadbare. This solution has now crumbled with the decline of the linen and shipbuilding industry, the diminished ability of the protestant industrialists and landlords to keep the protestant working class in line with favours, perhaps reflected by the decline of the traditionally dominant Ulster Unionist party. But also the demographic development where four of the six Ulster counties now have catholic majorities and the ability of the former protestant elite to control the numbers of catholics by discrimination in education, employment, housing and social benefits has weakened.
It will be interesting to look more closely at the political organisations in Ireland and to study the Irish, including northern Irish economy in greater detail (McVeigh and Rolston don’t have so much to say about, for example, the remaining influence of British capital in Ireland).
I did get myself a republican starry plough flag when I was at Connolly Books in Dublin. It’s not huge and was made in Taiwan but it amuses me to own it. It’s blue with white stars. I’ve always had a soft spot for this flag, I must find out more about its history. The anarchist in me is tempted to substitute it for an EU flag somewhere and see how long it takes for anyone to notice but the respectable 75+ year old citizen will fold it up in his cupboard and take it out for a respectful airing from time to time. You never know, it might come in useful and I have a residual tenderness for the romantic of my youth.