I was born in 1961, chronologically, you might even say, anagrammatically a grandchild of the 1916 Easter Rising and the events leading up to it North and South, as we would say now, though then those were purely geographical terms.
In 1962, a couple of Saturdays before Easter, I was taken in my pram to Belfast’s Balmoral Showgrounds for the 50th anniversary of an Easter Tuesday anti-Home-Rule rally attended by Andrew Bonar Law, leader of the Conservative Party, and, among 200,000 others, the Lisburn Conservative Flute Band with lead-flautist and arranger Jack Patterson, my grandfather— who walked to the Showgrounds again beside my pram that April 1962 day.
Or so I am led to believe. Where childhood memory is concerned it’s always a little difficult to separate the bespoke from the off-the-peg or hand-me-down. I will stick my neck out, though, and say I do have at least a hazy recollection of my own of the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar on Dublin’s O’Connell Street in the early hours of March 2nd 1966, five months before my fifth birthday by a group of former IRA members to whom the Admiral’s continued presence, half a century after the Easter Rising, was a clear affront.
Within days, it seems, a group of Belfast schoolteachers had—as the Go- Lucky Four—released a single on the Emerald label, ‘Up Went Nelson!’, which according to one popular online encyclopaedia topped the Irish charts for eight consecutive weeks that spring.
I went looking, elsewhere on the web, through the Irish charts of the period, but couldn’t find trace of it. (I said popular online encyclopaedia, not 100 per cent reliable.) I did find that at number 1 for the weeks spanning the 1966 50th anniversary celebrations was ‘Black and Tan Gun’, by the Johnny Flynn Showband, featuring Pat Smith on vocals, one of the most lachrymose of a tear-drenched genre of Irish rebel balladry, being the dying wishes of a soldier of Ireland, cut down by the gun of the title, that he be buried out on the mountain, near the town of old Bantry (‘where most of the fighting was done’) so that he could see where the victory was won.
The Johnny Flynn Showband’s own victory reaching the pinnacle of the Irish charts was achieved despite a blanket RTÉ ban on ‘rebel songs’ over the Easter period, which does seem a little like banning red coats, white beards and Slade singles over Christmas.
I should point out that at the same time in the US charts Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler was at number 1 (number 24 in the UK) with the ‘Ballad of the Green Berets’, a song which moves to the beat of a different, military snare drum, but which nevertheless builds to—guess what?—the dying wish of a Green Beret, in this case that his son should become a Green Beret in his turn.
The lyrics were inspired by the death of Green Beret James Gabriel Jr, who was executed by the Vietcong on April 8th 1962, the day, as it happens, before I went with my grandfather to the Balmoral Showgrounds. The tune was a variation on ‘The Butcher Boy’, which coincidentally had been a 1965 hit for the Carrick-on-Suir trio the Ludlows, who in spring 1966 displaced the Johnny Flynn Showband at the top of the Irish charts with Dominic Behan’s ‘The Sea Around Us’, a more tongue-in-cheek take on Anglo-Irish history and antipathies: ‘The sea oh the sea… Long may it stay between England and me, it’s a sure guarantee that some hour we’ll be free, thank God we’re surrounded by water.’
On April 6th 1966, the Beatles gathered at Abbey Road studios to start recording the tracks that would become their seventh studio album, Revolver. They finished on June 21st with ‘She Said, She Said’, a John Lennon song. (Revolver was the first of those seven albums to reveal the reality of the Lennon and McCartney partnership by listing the lead vocalist, and therefore principal songwriter, next to each track.) They began, that weekend before Easter 1966, with another Lennon song (although it, not ‘She Said, She Said’, closed the album), ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the sessions for which—on the 6th, 7th, and 22nd of April—top and tail the Easter Week commemorations Ian McDonald, in Revolution in the Head, concludes his analysis of the song—one of the most socially influential the Beatles ever made, introducing LSD and Dr Timothy Leary’s psychedelic ‘revolution’ to the young of the Western world—by saying that the drug that inspired it left Lennon a mental wreck: ‘only the scepticism that balanced his questing gullibility warded off a permanent eclipse of his reason… Many others like him never came back.’
I want to say I stray, but the events of spring and early summer 1966, the period roughly of those Revolver sessions, set the tone for the next half-century in Northern Ireland in particular. They didn’t dictate it, but starting with the bomb in O’Connell Street, they reintroduced into the vernacular certain terms that had appeared moribund since the IRA had abandoned its ‘border’ campaign in 1962.
North of that border, the initials UVF, dating back to 1912 and the anti- Home Rule protests, were also revived, to murderous effect.
Between June 11th and 27th, two men—John Scullion and Peter Ward, Catholics both—were shot dead and an elderly Protestant woman Matilda Gould died from burns sustained in an arson attack aimed at the Catholic- owned bar next door to her house off the Shankill Road.
Talk about an eclipse of reason.
I had a notion early in 1999 to write a story called ‘The First Anniversary of the Bicentenary of the Rising of the Society of United Irishmen’—get ahead of the game for once in your writing life, I told myself. I never got further than the title, largely I suspect because the title was pretty much the whole of the story… Which reminds me I have been thinking of late of abandoning narrative altogether in protest against politicians’ increased appropriation of the word. There is a long history, after all, of musicians objecting to the use of their music at political party conferences—Johnny Marr, Radiohead, The Horrors to name but three. Maybe writers should petition to get narrative back, or maybe we should just let the politicians get on with debasing it and revert to stand-up: old-style stand-up, a string of one-liners, no patter, no context, make of them what you will.
The idea behind ‘The First Anniversary of the Bicentenary of the Rising of the Society of United Irishmen’ story—or at least title—was that we were getting to the point, and that long before this ‘decade of centenaries’, where the commemorations were being hugged too close, that even the best intentioned were distorting the present. As the saying goes up North—or at least in that bit of up North that maps on to my house—if the Titanic hadn’t existed they’d have had to build it.
What I did end up publishing the year I didn’t write the story was a novel, The International, set in January 1967, but reaching back to the previous June (five days after the final Revolver session, as it happens) and the murder of Peter Ward, a barman in the ‘Blue Bar’ of the hotel from which the novel takes its title.
Around the time I was starting to think about writing The International, the Provisional IRA, officially on ceasefire, used the cover name Direct Action Against Drugs to murder twelve men, including Paul Devine, shot as he sat in his car one Friday afternoon a few hundred yards from where I was having coffee with friends. How we respond—or had failed to respond in the past—to the murder of our fellow citizens was much in my thoughts.
There is a passage in the novel where another type of international, a Northern Irish footballer, called Ted Connolly (I was doing the equivalent of the Guardian cookery section’s ‘one ingredient, four meals’: ‘one word, four meanings’, or as many as I could squeeze out of it), in drunken conversation with another of the hotel’s patrons mentions an English friend of his who had been in Dublin, having an affair, the Easter of 1966. He was taken aback, this friend, by what he witnessed, the commemorations: Ireland walking backwards into the seventies is how he describes it, prompting Ted Connolly to ask the man he has cornered in the International, ‘Do these people ever stand back and think? Does it ever occur to them how this all looks to loonies like Paisley, never mind my mate?’
Ted Connolly is, I have to stress, a fictional character—he’s a Northern Irish centre forward who scores hat-tricks, of course he’s fictional—so he’s allowed to say ‘loonies like Paisley’.
In the spring of 1966 Belfast City Council gave in to pressure and prevented an Easter Rising commemorative event from being held in the Ulster Hall, which was instead allowed to host a rally by Paisley—the Reverend Doctor Ian Paisley (for I am not a fictional character)—an expression, Dr Paisley said, of disgust that any Easter Rising commemorations were being permitted anywhere in Northern Ireland. Among those who attended that rally were several of the gang who, taking to themselves the name Ulster Volunteer Force (and it cannot be repeated often enough that all such organisations are self- designating), killed Peter Ward.
Fast-forward half a century and Belfast City Council now has a nationalist majority that begins to look irreversible, although the office of Lord Mayor continues to rotate between the parties and across (dread term) the sectarian divide. It is spending several hundred thousand pounds on cultural events to coincide with the centenary of the Rising.
There has not been, that I have yet heard, much opposition voiced from within what is these days referred to as (dreader term) the ‘Protestant Unionist Loyalist Community’. (This place, if they can’t claim you one way, by hook or by crook or outsize-umbrella-term, they’ll claim you another.) I did have fears from that quarter (half?) in the run-up to the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence, not least because of the calls from another quarter that a referendum on Irish reunification follow what, in the final days, looked like being a ‘yes’ vote.
Talking of referendums, time was the chief attraction of travelling south of the border from Belfast was it gave you somewhere to feel superior to. Yes, Belfast was bombed to fuck, but at least it had (in between their being melted by bonfires and burning-bus barricades) proper roads, phone boxes that didn’t require you to press button A to speak, button B to retrieve your unused coins. (God, how we laughed at those.) And as for attitudes to sex and sexuality… I give you the ‘condom train’, which brought forty-seven women from Dublin to Belfast in May 1971 to buy the contraceptives banned under Irish law.
The overwhelming Yes vote in the Irish marriage-equality referendum on May 22nd last—the first popular endorsement of same-sex marriage anywhere in the world—confirmed that the rest of Ireland had in recent decades left the North behind.
I had to travel to Dublin on May 24th for a celebration of the life of poet and novelist Dermot Healy. It was Eurovision the night before: the votes had taken longer to count than the Irish referendum’s own. I fell asleep on the bus and woke as we came into Drumcondra on the north side of the city. Looking up, my face pressed against the bus window, all I could see were rainbow flags— in windows, on lampposts—and instantly I thought of, and revised, the old Unionist slogan: We will not forsake the blue skies of Ulster for the (forget grey!) red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet skies of the Irish republic: we’ll bring them up here!
What was remarkable in fact in those days after the referendum was the instinctive identification—the fellow feeling—evinced by many, many people north of the border. I would go so far as to call it unity of mind: this was a land they—we, for I was and am of like mind—wanted to live in.
On the second Saturday in June we marched in our thousands—tens of thousands (well two tens)—through the centre of Belfast partly in celebration of the southern Yes vote and partly, more pointedly, to demand that the same marriage rights be afforded all our citizens too.
We chanted for a referendum of our own, like a polite version of the Clash calling for their white riot, although most of us knew that there can of course be no such referendum. The best we can hope for under our current carefully calibrated political structures is that the matter will be brought—even more politely—before a committee that might, but most likely will not, bring it to a vote in the assembly, where if a ‘petition of concern’ (a sectarian veto in all but name) doesn’t kill it the resulting cross-community vote undoubtedly will.
Time and again of late it is our anomalous nature, on the island, in the United Kingdom, that strikes one. The reforms to the libel law enacted in Great Britain in the 2013 Defamation Act—and cited by Alan Rusbridger in his leave-taking from the Guardian as one of the highlights of his two decades as editor—did not extend to us in Northern Ireland. The fact that Northern Ireland, whose own citizens have been known to go out of their way to be offended is now an open invitation to citizens of other countries to go even further out of their way to be offended, and to threaten to sue for it—as lawyers for the Scientology movement did in respect of Alex Gibney’s Going Clear earlier this year—is almost enough to make you smile.
But not quite.
The atmosphere in the south, post-referendum, reminded me of the atmosphere at home in the years immediately before—note before, not after—the 1994 IRA ceasefire, a sense abroad that things could not simply go on as they had been going on.
The euphoria seemed to—I was going to say seep, but in fact it poured— into every area of southern Irish life. In early June my wife was in Sligo at an All-Ireland Performing Arts Conference whose strap-line was ‘Question Everything’ and whose logo was a giant question mark. The conversations around as much as in the conference were about what not just Irish artists, but Irish citizens, could and should do now.
They might have taken note of the Skype presentation—‘The Artist as Activist’—by Birgitta Jonsdottir, a poet elected to the Icelandic parliament in the wake of the banking collapse there, and, in particular, her suggestion that after six years in power the politicians who had been voted in to replace the old corrupt order were themselves corrupt, or at least compromised.
I was in Dublin again on June 23rd, for a book launch, and met up with two friends: the writer Carlo Gébler, born in Dublin, long resident in the north, and the publisher Edwin Higel, a blow-in, forty years ago, from Germany. We went for dinner in the Kimchi/Hophouse (one side bar, one side Korean restaurant) formerly the Shakespeare, which was once, Carlo assured me, a meeting place for the IRA, which might account for our conversation turning from the state of Europe in general (‘I am encouraged,’ said Edwin, ‘by the dialectics of European history: the movement towards one extreme triggers a movement in the opposite direction’) to the state of Ireland in particular, or the State of Ireland.
Twenty-five years ago when I first met him, Carlo, who was then in the process of moving from London to Enniskillen, had told me he had not moved south because he would not allow his children to grow up in a place where they could not have access to contraception. One of them, as I recall, was still breastfeeding.
Carlo is nothing if not thorough in arriving at his decisions, and opinions. ‘I recently read the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic,’ he said. ‘Not one article of it has been met.’
(Said it as we walked, dinner over, down O’Connell Street past the giant spire—‘the Monument of Light’—on the site of the pillar that was blown up by the men, or possibly women and men, immortalised, at least according to the popular online etc etc in the song by the Go-Lucky Four—and how misplaced with repetition and at a distance of half a century of louder explosions that ‘Go-Lucky’ sounds.)
And yet he acknowledged that Ireland is much changed for the better. The question was, had it changed despite its political classes rather than because of them?
Carlo attributed part of Ireland’s success to English being its predominant language, the same as the island to the east and the greater landmass to the west: no check on the flow of ideas. There had been too in recent years—we all acknowledged and rejoiced in—a steady flow of newcomers to the country. (Well, it seemed like a steady flow then: a drop in the ocean of need it seems now, a tiny, tiny drop.) We must have talked faster than we walked. By the time I arrived at the Merrion Square club-cum-guesthouse where I was supposed to be staying the desk was shut: I was too late to collect my room key, so I walked back through the city at approaching midnight asking at hotels along the way whether they had any rooms free, or at least any rooms that would otherwise be lying empty that they would allow me to occupy for, say, half the advertised rate, as opposed to the double they seemed inclined to charge me. My mini-odyssey led me eventually to Busáras, the main bus station, half an hour early for the one o’clock Goldliner Express to Belfast, or led me I should say to the wall outside Busáras, the concourse already being locked for the night.
And of course it being a mini-odyssey—and Dublin, and June—it was only appropriate that I should encounter a middle-aged Hungarian man who told me that I wasn’t safe hanging about there. I pointed out the Garda station across the street. ‘I wouldn’t be pinning my hopes on them,’ he said. ‘In Hungary the police hit first and then ask questions, here they have you fill out a form before they can leave the station.’ The weather also, he told me, although I had the evidence at my (numb) fingertips, was pretty shit.
What was clear, though, from the way he spoke, was that it was his useless police force now, his shit weather, his country.
It is not just the to-be-expected January-looking-at-June-ness that makes me feel wistful already thinking about that night, but the fact too that it belongs to a window of time when it seemed the lead-in to 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising, might just after all not be dominated by the politics and language of 1916, or 1966 for that matter: post-referendum, pre the shooting dead in Belfast of Kevin McGuigan, in the middle of August, in revenge it is widely believed for the murder of Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison, one-time Officer Commanding of the IRA in Belfast and a former comrade of McGuigan’s. Both men’s names have been associated with Direct Action Against Drugs, the IRA cover name for for the murders carried out at the time I was writing The International.
John Lennon supposedly took the title ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ from a Ringo Starr malapropism: ‘you never know what tomorrow will bring’, is what Ringo meant to say. And you don’t of course.
But now and again, really, you can have a pretty fucking good guess.