When the killing starts do you defend God or family?
Humour is blended with rage in this masterful examination of Ireland's bloody early history, says Emer O'Kelly
Published 24/08/2008 | 00:00
Once Upon a Hill, Love in troubled times
Glenn Patterson's Once Upon a Hill is part memoir, part history of Lisburn, part history of the Irish War of Independence and its aftermath. It doesn't set out to be any of them in particular, and thus has a glowing honesty and objectivity. And, above all, the author has a vicious sense of humour, his comments on his family's history explosively funny and unerringly truthful as they prick the balloons of pomposity and hypocrisy that have always surrounded petit bourgeois life in small-town Ireland.
Because that's what Lisburn was: a small town where people lived their frequently penurious lives, draping their windows in lace curtains as they rose painfully in status and respectability. Respectability was all, to be achieved in this staunchly Protestant bastion of loyalism and fierce independence by unremitting toil and an almost intemperate level of frugality.
It was that town that Glenn Patterson was born into in 1962. It was a time when attitudes were easing: education was becoming more than a dream, and a wider world beckoned. Certainly a wider world than had been available to his aunt Eileen, the woman who triggered his search into the family archive. Patterson's wife Ali is Catholic: they met in Cork. To their generation, religious differences are a matter of indifference. When his father had married a Catholic in 1953, things had been different. He left a Belfast ballroom for a Babycham, Glenn's mother told him, and found her. They had gone to Canada to look after her ailing father but when he wrote home to say he was to be married to his Catholic girlfriend, his father Jack, staunch member of the Plymouth Brethren, wrote back, offering advice rather than congratulation: "Make sure you know what you are doing." And he added, "I'm surprised at you especially". That line puzzled Glenn's mother, looking over her young fiance's shoulder as he read the missive from his father.
Half a century later, wearisome hundreds of hours of research later, painstaking interviewing of relatives later, many funerals later, and Glenn Patterson has found and written the explanation.
It began when his Aunt Eileen was reaching her 50th birthday in the early Seventies. That momentous date prompted the young Glenn to ask his grandparents Kate and Jack about the number of years they had been married: what about their fiftieth wedding anniversary, he wondered? And he got short shrift.
His grandparents lived on Antrim Street in Lisburn, in a house from which Jack and Kate crossed the street each Saturday evening to "burnish" the Brethren's meeting hall. Their branch was the "Exclusive Brethren", referring to the practice of excluding any other form, whose members are known as "lepers". They met in the round, all "saints" together. Jack even refused to attend the school prize-giving where his eldest son was a star: the school was Presbyterian. Kate, though, was softer: barely able to write more than her name, she had been a mill girl, and in old age liked to stand outside her house, pressing small gifts on passers-by.
Jack and Kate had married, though, in Lisburn's Christ Church (Church of Ireland). Being saved came later. Something else came later too: Jack and Kate had been married only on February 6, 1925. Three years later comes the first entry for Glenn's Aunt Eileen, whose half century began the saga. But Eileen was 12 years old at the time of that record in the family papers. No wonder, Glenn writes, the family didn't go in for anniversaries.
And what was the reason? Nobody can know for certain, but Kate, the bride of February 1925, belonged to a still different Church: St. Patrick's on Chapel Hill: a Catholic church. And all of the registries begin only when Jack's mother, the formidable Eleanor Spence, was safely dead.
None of this might have mattered, except for one terrible week in Lisburn in 1920. In March of that year in Cork, the IRA had shot dead an off-duty policeman. Tomas MacCurtain, the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Cork and IRA commander in the city, was dragged from bed and shot dead in retaliation. An RIC district inspector, Oswald Swanzy, was one of those named at the inquest.
By August he had been transferred to Lisburn, and on the 22nd of the month, he was leaving church when he was shot dead by a detachment of IRA men. It was the signal for what can only be called a pogrom, with lootings, burnings, and shootings. Grandfather Jack Patterson was able to recall it for his grandson almost two generations later. But he was living with his mother, and as Lisburn burned around them, and Catholics were fleeing for their lives from the town, there is no record that he made any attempt to find and protect Kate and their baby daughter, left to fend for themselves in a world which had gone mad with hatred for Catholics.
Glenn Patterson's tracing of the history of those few years at the start of the Irish state is masterly. His loathing of the bigotry on both sides of the divide is clearly evident, leavened with a sense of mischief and self-mockery which punctuate the text even when his rage is barely suppressed at the failures of his grandfather to stand on principle when it really mattered.
But then, Kate, the little woman in the flowered dress and the expanding waistline, always called her husband "the best man that ever lived". He in turn called her "the greatest little woman in Lisburn". And ultimately, Glenn Patterson accepts that he had become a better man in his later life. But there is enough of his bible-quoting ancestors in him to write that until he began his search he did not know how far short of "good" Jack had fallen in his earlier one. But perhaps, Glenn now hopes, not so far short that he had cowered in fear or turned in indifference when Kate and Eileen needed him so desperately in August 1920.
This is an impressively researched piece of work; but more than that, despite dealing with the darkness of early 20th-century Ireland, it is a testament to what a sense of humour can do for the spirit: it's uproariously funny without in any way diminishing its own dark undercurrent.