Brendan Duddy died earlier this year. In recent years he became known as the ‘Secret Peacemaker’ as his role as a back-channel between the British government and the IRA became public knowledge. He served as a go-between for over 20 years and was instrumental in brokering peace talks. Brendan was married to my mother’s cousin, Margo.
Another man I knew to be a pacifist was my grandfather. He and Brendan were close. As a young married couple Margo and Brendan lived next door to my mother’s family and Granda and Brendan would sit up until the wee hours talking in the kitchen. Years later my grandmother died and Granda spent the following six months or so in bad shape. He wouldn’t leave the house and spent most of his time sitting in the corner of another kitchen. Brendan came to see him one day and in an effort to give him a pep talk told him it was time to pull himself together and “get up out of that corner.” Granda rose from his seat and punched Brendan in the mouth. Knocked two teeth out. Blood on the ceiling.
The Granda I knew was not a violent man in any sense. He was soft and gentle and warm. I remember asking him for money to go to the shop to buy sweets. He would empty the contents of his pocket into his open hand and let us take as much as we needed. I still vividly remember the soft, smooth feel of the palms of his hands. It’s funny how when we reach a ripe old age our hands seem to begin to revert back to the feel of an infant’s.
I knew my grandfather during the final 13 years of his life. The story I have to tell about him reflects how he was in that phase of his life. Our experience of people – when we knew them and what we saw – sets the context in which we experience their behaviour and actions. It influences the story we call ‘the truth’.
It wasn’t until I was an adult and Granda was long dead that I heard the story about him knocking Brendan Duddy’s teeth out. And there were other stories too that I’d never heard before. Like the time he hopped over the counter in his shop to deliver a swift punch to a man – a customer – who had angered him. The man in these stories, the one filled with anger and capable of violence, he too was my grandfather, whether I recognise him or not.
The poet, Marie Howe grew up in a family of 11 siblings and she highlights the fact that there are 11 different stories about what happened in their house when they were growing up together. In one of her poems she says:
This no one told us / There is no such thing as family
There are many versions of the truth. All sorts of things happen in families, in relationships, in communities that fragment us and leave us with sometimes very different perspectives and very different versions of the truth. All we can do is tell our version and perhaps most importantly, not deny others theirs.
Other people’s version of the truth may even be offensive to us but that’s not our business. Our business is being authentic in how we live and the story we choose to tell. There is no need to compete for the truth or to apologise for your version of it. We’re probably all kinda right and kinda wrong anyway.
It’s a frightening thing to do to tell your truthful story when you know it’s certain not to gel with others’ accounts. But we have two choices: silence our stories or tell them. We can’t live in anticipation of someone else’s truth. We can only present ours and make room for theirs alongside it. This is not easy but it’s all there is.