Next to the fresh grave of my beloved grandmother
The grave of my firstlove murdered by my brotherPaul Durcan
Today the world celebrates St Patrick’s Day. Covid restrictions permitted, people around the world with precisely no Irish heritage, or a sliver of it, or a lifetime of it, will don silly hats and ties and aprons and sing “Whiskey in the Jar” and “Danny Boy”, badly, into their poorly poured pints of Guinness.
Seamus Heaney will be quoted by the literary. Shane MacGowan by the drunk. Robbie Burns by the confused.
I was named after St Patrick, having been born just four days before 17th March, in Northern Ireland. I spent my first five years in a tiny village in South Armagh, two minutes by car from the Republic of Ireland, as the Troubles stained the fields around our house with blood, and history with a legacy of lost parents and bomb-ripped children.
My father was a Presbyterian Minister, and preached each Sunday on both sides of the border, crossing back and forth to deliver sermons at three churches: one in Northern Ireland, two in the South.
No other part of the world has ever been so dangerous for someone wearing the uniform of the British Army as South Armagh. It’s predominantly Catholic. We, the Protestant family, lived one minute from the border, where men were shot and strangled and dumped, and where weapons and prototype bombs were tested. “Bandit Country”, they called it. I called it home.
British soldiers would land their helicopters in the field behind our house and come in for tea. I have grainy photos of them reading me stories, their camouflage clashing with the swirly seventies carpet, their rifles at rest.
The IRA did not like this. Our dog was taken and killed. A brick was thrown through my bedroom window. I was saved from injury or death only because that morning my mother had moved my cot to the other side of the room. I have the newspaper clipping still.
When a man knocked on our door one day and told my father he was on an IRA hitlist, my parents made plans to leave, and in 1974 we arrived in New Zealand. My parents, dragged far from everything and everyone they knew and loved. Their three children, safe. From terrorism, at least. From sectarian violence. Sure we’ll find no such thing here, said my father to my mother.
Northern Ireland is beauty and music and craic and adventure and Celtic myth and rich literary history and every superlative under the sun.
Northern Ireland’s history is also tar and feathers and strangled men with sacks around their heads and garroted women and bodies and lives blown apart. Belfast, one of my favourite cities in the world, is still divided by giant graffitied walls, crowned with barbed wire. The Peace Walls, they call them. Palimpsests of war.
Today, I celebrate my heritage. I even have a green wig and a giant badge: Kiss me, I’m Irish! But I also remember the time I asked my father if he knew anyone who had been killed, and he said, “Oh, yes. Seven of my parishioners.”
The Northern Ireland Question
Two wee girls
were playing tig near a car…
How many counties would you say
are worth their scattered fingers?
Born in this island, maimed by history
and creed-infected, by my father taught
the stubborn habit of unfettered thought
I dreamed, like him, all people should be free.
So, while my logic steered me well outside
that ailing church which claims dominion
over the questing spirit, I denied
all credence to the state by rebels won
from a torn nation, rigged to guard their gain,
though they assert their love of liberty,
which craft has narrowed to a fear of Rome.
So, since this ruptured country is my home,
it long has been my bitter luck to be
caught in the crossfire of their false campaign.