“Where are you from?”
I had just sold him a couple of second-hand Joy Division 7 inches. He’d been in the shop a good half hour and hadn’t asked me a single question as I’d fetched him various records to listen to. But now that he had his records in his bag and his change in his pocket he lingered at the till to quiz me.
“Northern Ireland,” I replied. I was already making a compromise. I often say I’m from Northern Ireland but it always sits kind of funny. If I’m feeling comfortable and safe I tend to say, “I’m from Ireland. Derry. It’s in the north.” The linguistics of the whole thing are very emotionally charged.
He nodded to show he already knew where I was from, broadly speaking. He continued to probe, “Which part?”
My heart started thumping. “Derry.”
“You mean Londonderry!” His head lurched over the chest-height counter. He was almost spitting. “I served there. Fucking horrible place!”
I froze. He left.
My colleague came over to see if I was ok. “What was all that about?” he asked. I explained but he still didn’t understand. In the almost 17 years I’ve been living in London I’ve never met an English person without some personal connection to Northern Ireland who understands the conflict, the politics or the history the place.
I’m careful of what I say around people in London. I’m aware that you never know who might have had family members in the army or people close to them caught up in, injured or killed in IRA bombs. To some, like the ex-soldier in the shop that day, my accent is a trauma. I was taken aback by his rage towards a 21-year-old woman who was doing nothing but politely selling records. But the truth is I know rage too. Over the years I’ve realised I have access to a well of rage that is not my own. Or, I dunno, maybe it is.
In January 2002 two films about Bloody Sunday were broadcast on TV. One starring Jimmy Nesbit, the other starring Christopher Eccleston. The release dates were timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. 30th January 1972. The day when British soldiers killed 13 unarmed civilians during a civil rights march and shot 15 others, 1 of whom died from his injuries in the following months.
The year or so that preceded the film releases saw auditions, filming and re-enactments on the streets of Derry. 6 of those killed were 17-year-old boys and many more were very young men. Many of the casting calls were for teenagers. I was 16 or 17 at the time and there was excitement at school as news spread about who’d gotten parts. One of my friends had a speaking role.
There were notices in the paper about a re-enactment of the march and thousands of local people walked the route once again in front of the cameras, wearing the most seventies-style clothes they had. Dark colours, no neon, as requested. It was like the whole city was partaking in a collective re-telling. A taking back of power.
The broadcast of the films was a major event. The entire city tuned in. The next day at school it was the only topic of conversation. My friend’s mother was a teacher. I knew her to be relatively strict and boundaried. My friend told me that midway through the Bloody Sunday film this teacher had received a text from her sister – also a middle-aged, respectable, professional woman. It read, simply, “Fuck the Brits.”
I have this rage welling up inside from time to time too. I think we all do on some level. When my daughter was very young I took her to a mum and baby group with a few other women I’d met during my maternity leave. We somehow got around to talking about how many Irish people there are in the US, and one of them asked me, “Why is that, Megan? Why are there so many Irish people and people of Irish descent all over the world?” The others looked at me quizzically too. I was initially a little puzzled that they didn’t know, and then as I explained that a quarter of the population of Ireland either starved to death or emigrated during the Famine, a little rage started to rise within me. I contained it but I couldn’t believe this was news to these highly educated British women.
I mentioned it to an Irish friend later that day and she said, “I hope you told them it’s because they starved us during the Famine!” I didn’t even get into that. I didn’t know where to start. The trauma of colonialism is not often talked about. These women don’t know the full truth of their culture’s past, it has been obscured from their view, which I think does a violence to them as well as to me.
It’s not easy to look at the sins of our culture and our history. A few years ago I happened upon a book called, Bear In Mind These Dead by Susan McKay, a journalist from Derry. The book recounts many of the deaths of the Troubles. McKay tracked down and interviewed survivors and families of victims from every decade. She examines atrocities and dark acts committed by all sides – the IRA and other republican paramilitaries, the UVF and other loyalist paramilitaries, the British army, security services and the RUC (the police force). None of it makes for easy reading but I noticed how much I bristled reading the accounts of attacks done by ‘our side’. Even though I don’t consciously think in terms of ‘our side.’ At least, so I say. Looking at the pain caused by ‘them’ is hard; looking at the pain caused by ‘us’ is unbearable.
It’s very easy to get lost in the simplified narrative of what ‘they’ did to ‘us’ and to take sanctuary in the certainty and righteousness of rage. But the truth is not like that at all. The truth is much more of a confusion.