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Original photo: Jeff Topping

Irish? Northern Irish? British? Ulster Irish? Well, it depends . . . and I know I’m entering dangerous territory here. My brother, more eloquent than I, and still living and writing in Ireland, had to remind me the other day of the “fractured and dissensual nature of [my] cultural background, where declarations of nationhood are open to contention (Northern Ireland versus the North of Ireland; Derry versus Londonderry) and can be dangerous, and potentially fatal.” Indeed, I have been away too long, forgetting the bombings, bullets, and roadblocks, the subtle and more overt means employed to determine one’s religion, one’s fate. It is in the remembering that we are revealed, I find, and this draws me once again to Seamus Heaney’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, in which he recollects a terrible event that happened in Northern Ireland when I was just 13 years old:

One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, “Any Catholics among you, step out here”. As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA.
It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir; that Tacitus was right and that peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power. I remember, for example, shocking myself with a thought I had about that friend who was imprisoned in the seventies upon suspicion of having been involved with a political murder: I shocked myself by thinking that even if he were guilty, he might still perhaps be helping the future to be born, breaking the repressive forms and liberating new potential in the only way that worked, that is to say the violent way – which therefore became, by extension, the right way. It was like a moment of exposure to interstellar cold, a reminder of the scary element, both inner and outer, in which human beings must envisage and conduct their lives. But it was only a moment. The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate, if also so much a part of the music of what happens.”

It is profoundly moving to consider Heaney’s “birth of the future we desire.” As an immigrant, I fell in love with the idea of America, and a future in it. Over recent years, I have observed that idea unravel at an alarming pace in the Arizona I call home.  I still consider myself Irish, but my “documentation” suggests a split identity. I was born in Northern Ireland and have carried a British passport; my American permanent residency card clearly states Ireland as my country of birth; my birth certificate states my birthplace as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. One of her Royal Majesty’s subjects. Except when I’m not, like the time a waiter at Heathrow Airport refused to accept my money because, although Stirling, it was printed on a Bank of Ulster note. My money had identified me as something other than acceptable.

A more subtle subtext persists even in America. In Arizona even, a flashpoint for immigration issues, it seems everyone is at least fractionally Irish on March 17th but no one. I’m bemused by the sheer volume of corned beef and cabbage washed down with putrid green beer on unseasonably warm and windy St. Patrick’s afternoons. Nary a decent pint of Guinness in sight. Corned beef and cabbage is as American as Lucky Charms cereal or Irish Spring soap. The only beef I ever had back home was far from corned. We had the best of sirloin from Stewart’s Butchers, a place with sawdust on the floor and young butchers in navy and white striped aprons smeared with blood which only made them look a bit more dangerous. Cabbage I tend to associate with the overcooked vegetables, lumpy custard, and tapioca of Antrim Primary School dinners. Mind you, as my mother will no doubt remind me, when fried up with a bit of good bacon from Golden’s corner shop, cabbage was hard to beat. But it had nothing to do with St. Patrick. Corned beef and cabbage would have been no more than a coincidence on St. Patrick’s Day back home, back then. Observed more as a religious holiday, I vaguely recall delicate shamrocks wilting in the buttonholes of suits. Our Catholic neighbors went to mass, as I remember, and I suppose most Protestants either “took no notice” of the holiday or characterized it as something reserved perhaps for those “on the other side.” I don’t remember it as being particularly relevant, and by the time I was living and studying in Belfast, St. Patrick’s Day had become a good excuse for an extended pub crawl with a motley crew of art students, engineers, and nurses. I recall one such March, when a bunch of us piled in a taxi bound for The Wayside Halt, a pub on the Ballymena line, where I tried very hard not to think of the Catholic publican, Sean Byrne, and his brother, Brendan, who had been shot to death, at point blank range, in that very place. Somehow, Mrs. Byrne, had kept going and on St. Patrick’s Day, she pulled out all the stops, with a giant pot of Irish stew reminiscent of the kind of thing you’d honestly expect Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne to scarf down between takes of “The Quiet Man.” Lamb, onions, carrots, and potatoes. Bland to the American taste-buds, I’m sure, but for us, when it was combined with an aromatic turf fire, a hot Powers whiskey, and someone like Big Mickey in the back bar, playing The Lonesome Boatman on a tin whistle, it was big and bold in flavor. Unforgettable. On such a night, we basked in our Irish identity. We knew who we were.

All of which leads me to the picture of myself with four students, each of us from a different corner of the world, each of us an immigrant in Arizona. And the simple declaration that has become increasingly important to me, “We’re all immigrants.” Taken four years ago, this picture was intended to make a point about immigration, the point that America makes immigrants of us all. Poring over it, I see myself as an immigrant once more, navigating her way within the context and complexity of cancer country. Again, I perceive a gulf between myself and others who do not yet understand the politics, the language, the business, the norms of this new, strange culture. Cancer country, where within confidences shared between kindred spirits in hospital waiting rooms and in the advocacy for change that ripples through the online community, I feel more a part, and at the same time, strangely more apart from the people who know me best.

I’ve been away too long.

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