It was January 29th 1972, when the blue sports car rolled off the mail boat, taking me onto Irish soil. I was 19. A student nurse in London, and this was my first ever visit to Ireland. This was strange, since I was, proudly, a quarter Irish.
We arrived, my boyfriend Michael, and I, on a grey Saturday evening, and drove to his mother’s house, which was impressively large, old fashioned, and had a view of the sea. Sunday was busy. There was a drinks party, where I was fussed over in welcome; then we climbed Killiney Hill, before going back for tea.
Later, sipping gin and tonic, we turned on the TV news. And stared in shock, as we learned of the 13 who died that day, in Derry. Even today, with knowledge and hindsight, those scenes of bloody shooting seem tinged with unreality. Watching them fresh; seeing the white hanky of surrender fill with blood; seeing people shot as they fled, was beyond bearing.
And I was English. Well, five eighths English, anyway. This was being done in my name against these very people I’d begun to love. Meeting friends in a pub, later, we were all subdued. And scared. Would this mean civil war?
English newspapers were banned. On Tuesday, visiting the long library at Trinity, we saw the crowds gathering to march on the British Embassy. We joined them for a while. We marched along merrily shouting, ‘Brits Out,’ with the best.
Drinking in the Old Stand, we parted with our cash, as sinister black clad IRA sympathisers circulated with collection tins. I was ashamed of my nationality. And confused by this shame.
Before setting foot in Ireland, I already loved the country; or loved my idea of it, garnered at it was through literature. My English teacher at A Level, was so passionate about Yeats, she’d made summer pilgrimages to Sligo. How could we not take the man scorned by Maud Gonne to our hearts too?
Since school, I’d devoured The Ginger Man, and The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. Donleavy’s decadent accounts were balanced by the romance of Edna O’Brien. I’d spent one summer, at 18, mesmerised by her writing. I read everything, from the Girl with Green Eyes, to August is a Wicked Month.
My grandmother was always talking about her homeland. Telling me of her childhood, followed by dances and balls in Dublin. I was friends with a girl whose brother was at Trinity; a stream of Irishmen passed through, using our flat as their London doss house. We’d come off night duty to find all the beds full, and a row of bodies strewn across the floor.
That’s how I’d met this new, London based, boyfriend. And he, hearing I’d been allocated a January holiday, had jumped at the chance to show me his country. And if there was, that week, an undercurrent of fear; if driving in his ancient MGB GT with GB plates felt risky, Ireland, in recompense, had decided to seduce me with its charms.
The day we toured Wicklow, it was blanketed in snow. Its frozen lakes sparkled. We climbed the sugar loaf in sunshine, before drinking hot whiskey in an alpine Enniskerry. Connemara gave us such a spectacular sunset; orchestrated to be seen reflected into a lake, with the mountains as a backdrop, that I was moved to write my first ever – and last- poem.
I took the wheel, unlicensed, driving over the mountain passes in Kerry. The views down to lakes, in crisp sunshine, were Hollywood perfect. And it wasn’t just the country making me love it. The people made me feel understood in a way I never quite did amongst my countrymen.
When the Embassy went up in flames, we were dining with Michael’s Uncle and Aunt, and with most of their nine children. I was subsumed into the circle, unquestioningly.
All the talk that week, of course, centred on the troubles. I shared in the outrage, and strived to hide my accent. My postcards home raged about, ‘those bloody paratroopers.’ But our return home, where family and friends didn’t understand the true outrage, coupled with the revenge killings, sobered me more than a little.
Ireland, though, kept its hold. When in April, still nineteen, I said ‘yes’ to marriage; and when that same October Michael and I made it to the altar, I knew that I was, also, pledging to a move to Ireland.
That it took until 1988, had to do with work circumstances, rather than desire. We had meanwhile, visited often, through bomb scares on the boat; through the hunger strike; the bank and the petrol strike. But I’ve never, since, felt that sense of being present while history was being made. Or felt so personally confused and involved.