Only once in the last two years have I left the ‘jurisdiction’, and that was for a short break in Northern Ireland. Our journey took us north-west through a landscape utterly familiar. It is a place of green hills, fields of sheep or cows and winter-swollen rivers that meander in languid curlicues .
Less familiar were the rural bus shelters and the shrinking distances as we shifted from kilometres to miles. The place names were recognisable, in a different kind of way. They carry the echo of violence, pockmarks of the Troubles. Omagh, Enniskillen, Sion Mills.
We were heading to Derry, a place we have visited before. Derry is a city I like. It is not entirely at ease with itself, but is its own place. The people have always come across as some of the friendliest we have met anywhere. It is like being at your granny’s. Not having a granny from Derry, we spent the night in a hotel.
As in most hotels, the staff were generally young, and I was struck by how they must have no direct memory of the Troubles that blighted their parents’ and probably grandparents’ lives. And I thought, rather naively, what a wonderful blessing that is. These young people live far less contaminated by the inequality, the fear and the sectarianism of those directly before them.
I know the problems of Northern Ireland still exist. The basic tension between those who want to live in a republic and those who wish to remain part of the UK persists, but there is peace, and the longer that peace lasts and the more generations that grow up in a relatively normal society, the stronger that peace becomes.
Walking around the city, we stopped to ponder the imposing war memorial that remembers those who fought and died in both world wars. My first reaction was visceral. I was somewhat uncomfortable and unmoved by something that commemorates a ‘foreign’ war. Then I remembered that my paternal grandfather was one of the hundreds of thousands of Irish men who fought in the British army in World War I.
I know relatively little of his story, other than I think he may have been at the Somme and was shipwrecked off Africa. In the shadow of the war memorial in Derry, I had a eureka moment.
There and then, I understood I need to accept this history is part of my history too, even though it feels somewhat more difficult to embrace than the story of my maternal grandfather who was in the North Cork Brigade of the IRA during the War of Independence. I know all about his ‘exploits’ and have ensured my daughters do too.
I know that many men like my grandfather joined the British army because it provided an income rather than from any sense of loyalty to old Blighty. But the fact remains that they did risk – and many lost – their lives in the horror of what was called The Great War.
My grandfather was lucky. He returned uninjured. The British provided him with a cottage in Killester, Dublin. He lived there for most of the rest of his life.
Frailty in old age meant he came to live with my family for a few years before finally ending his days in Leopardstown Park Hospital, another legacy of the British caring for those who had served. My maternal grandfather had no such assistance from the new Irish State he was very much involved in creating.
As our brief time in Derry came to an end, I returned home, a chastened woman with a clear realisation that I need to amend my inner family history and place my paternal grandfather on an equal footing with my maternal one. Somewhat unintentionally, I had relegated him to a lesser league until I stood in front of that war memorial.
The history of any country is the history of its people and the stories carried through generations. Not having direct experience of terrorism or sectarianism does not mean you are uncontaminated by it.
If peace is to last on this island, we must all review our attitudes to our family stories and to things that are considered British. I think of all this as we drive back south, me and my British husband and my slightly reduced load of unconscious bias.