When news came of my aunt Mary P’s diagnosis I was in London studying for my finals. They thought they would operate and they tried but couldn’t. It was terminal. From that moment on I started living this dual reality. My body went about my day-to-day life in London but the rest of me was at home tracking every minuscule up and down.
It’s difficult being so far away at a time when all there is to do is just be there. London, which has always felt so homely to me, suddenly didn’t feel like home anymore.
I had that feeling again unexpectedly in 2010. David Cameron issued a formal state apology on behalf of the British Government for what happened on Bloody Sunday. The Bloody Sunday inquiry had been going on for years and there was no doubt in my mind that this would be the result of it but watching the apology that day was unexpectedly emotional for me.
I wasn’t personally affected by Bloody Sunday. My mother had been on the march with my grandfather. My cousins’ uncle was one of the unarmed civilians killed by the British soldiers that day, shot in the back at point blank range while he lay on the ground having been paralysed by an earlier burst of fire. But it all happened years before I was born and Derry’s such a small place everyone has some kind of connection like that.
Still, as I saw the people of Derry watching the Prime Minister’s apology on a big screen in the centre of the town I had this overwhelming sense of ‘I’m not where I should be right now’. As I heard Cameron say, >em>”The conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong,” I had this unexpected longing to be in Derry. And I was grateful for Cameron’s humanity, which was a turn up for the books if ever there was one.
Martin McGuinness died in 2017, two months after resigning as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in the power-sharing government, and I started to have that feeling once again. Because of his involvement with the IRA, McGuinness is a controversial figure at home and certainly on this side of the water. As I read the media coverage I quickly turned to the Irish media as my news source because much of the British coverage seemed to display a fundamental lack of understanding of the history and politics of Northern Ireland.
My cousin Caoimhinn Barr is a journalist in Donegal and he wrote a piece for the Inishowen Independent entitled ‘Memories of Martin McGuiness,’ which set the man in context. “Martin McGuinness did not start the conflict but was a product of it… half of the young men of the Bogside joined the IRA in the tinderbox years of the late sixties and early seventies.”
Caoimhinn recounted his memory as an eight-year-old boy of watching McGuiness help carry our grandmother’s coffin on the day of her funeral. He wrote, “Later I learned that McGuinness, who was in the same class as my father Brian at the Christian Brothers school, had been a great friend of the Barr family during the Troubles – and vice versa. It was not a time for asking questions however.”
Derry is a small place. My mother’s family home was a few streets along from McGuinness’. My first memory of him was seeing him talked about on TV. It was some kind of current affairs programme recounting a raid on his home while his children were asleep upstairs. My great aunt Joan sighed, “poor Martin,” and I was confused because the message I got from the TV was that this was a bad man.
My grandfather was a pacifist yet he remained a friend to McGuinness. And it was McGuinness who eventually led the IRA to politics and peace. Over many years he repeatedly engaged in behind-the-scenes talks with the British government with another friend of my grandfather, Brendan Duddy, acting as a go-between. Duddy, who was married to my mother’s cousin, was a Derry businessman who came to be known as the Secret Peacemaker when his identity was revealed in 2008. Without his work, without his connection to Martin (McGuiness used to deliver beef burgers to Duddy’s chip shop), the peace process would not have come about as and when it did.
I saw Martin on the news when I was growing up but I also remember him as a guy we might bump into at mass. My great aunt Joan lived with my mother’s family her whole life. After a terminal diagnosis she moved in with us and my mother nursed her though her final months. McGuinness came to visit her a few times. It was the year before I moved to London for university, the early days of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government in which Martin McGuinness was serving as Minister of Education. I remember someone asking him how it was all going and he recounted a story of sitting with one of his Unionist counterparts – the two were former sworn enemies – talking about their grandchildren and showing each other photos. “That’s what we need to be doing,” he said.
I have very conflicting emotions around the recent history of my community. Gratitude, pride and righteousness mingle with horror and confusion. I grew up in extremely complicated times in a small but very complex place and I still don’t know what I make of all the individual characters who were born of that place and those times. But I do know this. We must never stop trying to find the humanity in each other. When we lose that, we lose everything.
This is a series about how cultural forces shape the work that only we can do. I engaged in it as an experiment and didn’t plan what to write about in advance. It’s going places I hadn’t expected it to, but I think it is certainly unearthing the origins of many of the questions that underpin my work. It’s no coincidence that my work is about empathy and helping people tell their authentic story. If you are doing work you care about then the questions you ask professionally and the themes you explore in your work are always born out of the questions you hold personally – often subconsciously. It’s impossible to do any work other than your own.