Prevailing winds were mentioned briefly over the tinny loudspeaker but they figured little on my consciousness as Helen and I crossed the short stretch of water between Scotland and Northern Ireland on a ferry packed with dog owners precluded from flight by the vagaries of air travel. As land loomed into view I looked at Helen and said “I’m home”.
Politically this may have been a ridiculous statement but it felt true at the time. When we left the ship we remained on the queen’s territory and despite this fact I felt a familiarity.
We cruised, tired and exhausted from a cross-Scotland trek, on smooth roads that were silk to the steering wheel and a navigator’s dream.
Our mission was simple, to collect the detritus we had left behind after our many moves between nations but there was something more behind it.
Driving through Belfast I remarked how different it looked without gun turrets and army vans with swinging flaps to prevent petrol bombs from being thrown underneath. The image seemed to surprise Helen, her only memories being of television news reports of the “troubles”.
The difference in how the various atrocities committed in this land in the name of belief were reported on RTÉ and BBC over the years as we grew up are a column in themselves, but suffice to say they were radically different.
We left Belfast and headed south. In an inadvertent detour from the motorway we found ourselves in the countryside. It was not countryside familiar to us from living in Scotland, or Britain. This was an Irish countryside. I felt uneasy. This kind of thought process was surely verging on blind nationalism?
This myth was soon shattered by the crossing of the sham border. An independently erected tricolour on a back road informed us that we were now in the “Republic” but, more importantly, the roads began to worry the suspension. It was a shock at first but I soon grew alert to the danger of gaping potholes looming up out of the tarmac and veered wildly try and preserve life and limb.
Soon the number of legible licence plates far outnumbering the jumbled alphabet-soup-splashes of the British system. BBC Radio Four ceased to be and a crackly report of the Leinster game in the Heineken Cup began to seep through on the wireless receiver.
As we sped through the landscape Helen remarked that it was difficult to imagine that this place was once at war in our lifetime.
The overriding ordinariness of it was stark. I agreed but bemoaned the fact that violence remained a threat. “Hard to imagine how!” The answer said more than it belied.
It was testament to the willingness of the ideologue to ignore what it is they are fighting for. Any “patriot” on either side of the conflict in Northern Ireland could look at the landscape in front of our eyes and be besotted by the genuine beauty of it. Both sides would appreciate that beauty for what it was; but disagree over the details of its ownership for political reasons. It doesn’t make sense.
In the intervening days since we crossed that border I have been able to make little sense of the difference. As I write, there are 50 hours until I re-cross that border and enter a non-euro-using-zone with a rabid nationalism representing the overruling, political umbrella simplistically describing it internationally.
“I am Scottish, I’m not British!” “I am Irish, I’m not European!” All these exclamations –excluding expletive nuance – have strictly limited merit and value in themselves, but seem alien and closed minded to me. Understanding this, it was an enormous shock to me to be once again at home in Clare and to be so overpowered by the sense of belonging and contentment.
From the initial shock of listening to RTÉ news to speaking to friends face-to-face, I was aware of a deep sense of pessimism in the country; but there were so many positives in the experience.
Perhaps it was the good weather that swayed my view, but there is not another place on earth like Ireland. I am obviously biased; having my family and friends here and coming home on a short visit, but despite the economic shock therapy currently being undergone the ability of “my people” to laugh in the face of obliteration remains undaunted.
This is a dangerous and perhaps unwise to phrase to use so I should clarify. By “my people” I mean anyone living in Ireland today. I care not a damn for passports or permits; I mean the attitude of enduring difficulty and overcoming it. As a nation we collectively persecute minorities with a reprehensible tenacity, why not politicians?
Politicians would relentlessly ask us to isolate and identify difference but what we should be seeking out is commonality. The lines drawn on maps should have less to do with us than with seeking a common benefit, culture is not exclusive.
Perhaps this is a plea for internationalism. In many ways it is. I want to be Irish, I love being Irish. In many ways I believe that this means nothing, but in other ways I believe it means everything.
I just know absolutely that I do not wish to be prevented from living in this country because a group of politicians have decided that I, and those I love, cannot have access to healthcare, a pension and the possibility of a comfortable retirement.
Despite the fact that I miss this country and the people in it with every fibre of my being, certain life choices make themselves.
Perhaps nationality is just brand loyalty, if it is I’m partially sold, but every salesman knows there needs to be a real, desirable and decent product to back up the pitch. Maybe this needs some work.