Dingle Harbour, County Kerry, Ireland
In 1967, having finished my final exams, I set off for an unashamed drinking expedition to Ireland with two friends in a VW Beetle. After reaching Dingle on the far side of the country and ordering a pint in my English accent, I was informed by the man on the end of the bar that I was unwelcome in a country which had freed itself "from the oppression of the likes of me." The barmaid castigated the speaker (his name was Jeremiah O'Connell - I kid you not) and assured me that I should take no notice of him, since nobody else ever did. But he was not to be ignored: he engaged us in conversation, asking us if we had ever heard of Winston Churchill. To two educated Englishmen and an even more educated American, all born in the 1940s, this question was a bit insulting but we chose to ignore it. Churchill, Jeremiah said, was the greatest man who ever lived and spitfire pilots were the greatest type of men who ever lived. He added that he himself had done his level best to help the war effort, despite the neutrality of the Irish Free State, by working in a canning factory in Lincolnshire. We stayed in the pub until the sun came up, managing to get a brief sleep at the home of one of the regulars, undoubtedly helping to protect him from a tongue-lashing from his wife. The whole thing was almost too good to be true and an excellent lesson in Irish ambivalence.
I have always liked the Irish and enjoyed being in Ireland. Putting aside all the sentimental hype about the "craic", the people are genuinely friendly and outgoing, willing to attempt wit, often with considerable success. As a Northern Englishman, I always find them easier to understand than the Southern English, often offering a kind of disarming honesty of which the latter are incapable. Recently we nearly drove off the road when we heard a Labour minister explaining why the party had abandoned all their promises to the electorate in joining the Fine Gael led austerity coalition. "That was because we wanted to be in government", he said. At one particular university I learned that the recently appointed principal from the South of England had inadvertently created a kind of Kremlinology around himself - because nobody could tell whether he liked them or their ideas.
We started in Stroke City, as the wits call it, or Derry/Londonderry. The current over-sensitivity about the city's name is an understandable part of the peace process, but it is also slightly ridiculous. As Richard Doherty points out in his 2008 film, The Siege of Derry 1689, during that period it was called both names by both the Jacobites and the Williamites. Though Doherty also suggests that there is serious doubt about whether there really ever was a siege of Derry, since the supposed Jacobite besiegers lacked everything they needed - knowledge, equipment and manpower - to take a defended, walled city. The inhabitants weren't up to much militarily-wise either, and, of course, very nearly "surrendered". If allowing your legitimate head of state, who has promised complete religious toleration, into the city can be called surrendering. It was the apprentice boys who declared "No Surrender" and locked the gates of the city.
The amazing thing about Stroke City is that a whole historical tableau can be seen there, making for a unique tourist experience. Up in the cathedral in the citadel you are told tales of plucky apprentice boys and benevolent bishops; down below the walls, the Bogside bristles with republican murals, flags and monuments. The city is fundamentally divided and so were we. My Roman Catholic wife, of wholly Irish origins, brusquely turned down the opportunity to view the locks with which the lads had secured the city gates, muttering something about history's leading troublemakers, whereas I began to rage with contempt the minute I entered the Bogside. What annoyed me was the victimised pomposity which allows you to attribute to yourself a sugar-sweet collection of virtues. The Bogside presents itself as the heroic locus of a struggle for liberty, civil rights and democracy with no mention of the murder of those who dissented. It is the pathetic innocence of those who never held proper authority or had to make legitimate decisions. There is a mural which shows Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa alongside more local leaders. Most annoying of all, there is a memorial to those who fought against Franco. Everyone in the city should be made to read Judith Keene's Fighting for Franco (2007) which shows that the Irish made up the largest group of non-Spanish who supported the Caudillo and the republic was the state most active in recruiting for him. "And what would you have done if you'd have won?" I ask those who haven't done enormously wicked things only because they haven't had the power and recall Thom Gunn:
"I praise the overdog from Alexander
To those who would not play with Stephen Spender . . ."
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