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“On yonder hill there stands a lady
Who she is, I do not know.
All she wants is gold and silver,
All she wants is a handsome beau . . .”

© Sheila Dee “Double Dutch”

My breath quickens with every tentative jump over the skipping rope arcing above me, either end twirled by two girls on the primary school playground. They are singing about the lady standing on the hill, in unison, expressionless almost perfunctorily.

I am wearing glasses to correct a lazy eye, and there are scabs on my knees from falling because I hadn’t been looking where I was going. I was good at spelling, reading, and music, but I could never quite pull off a handstand or a cartwheel. I could swim, sort of, having been taught by my father, a seasoned distance swimmer, who, along with his pal Bobby McVeigh, trained for the bitterly cold North Atlantic swim from Ballycastle to Rathlin Island. As far as athletic pursuits were concerned, I was competent in three areas – hopscotch, skipping, and riding around the Dublin Road estate on my red bike. On school sports day, you would find me giggling with a friend in the egg and spoon or three-legged races. I had no interest whatsoever in the more serious events like the high jump or the long jump or the relay race, where competition was fierce and stainless steel trophies were up for grabs. I wanted to be by under a tree somewhere reading or making daisy-chains, or circling the estate on my bike or on my rollerskates. Alone, I could daydream. I could be Melanie singing  Brand New Key. But when everyone else came out to play in our Housing Executive estate, I was the scared one, the one afraid to jump off the roof into the barley field or to ride my bike with no hands. Always afraid of what letting go might mean for me, afraid of getting in trouble, of falling . . . 

Across time and distance, I can still hear those sing-song voices and the catch of my own breath and the self-doubt criss-crossing my mind. If you were to give me a million dollars, I could not tell you the rest of the song, what comes after “gold and silver” or if the lady got the nice young beau or if she ever came down from the top of yonder hill. Still, whoever she was, she has been in a corner of my mind for over forty years. Perhaps she had been one of the landed gentry, or maybe she just represented whoever it was we were supposed to be when we grew up. Who were we supposed to be? It was in the mid-1970s, and we were female, Protestant, working class, and we were in Northern Ireland.

I did not know what “working class” meant; I thought it had something to do with my mother and father not playing golf, and me not being interested in hockey. By the time I was a teenager, I read Jilly Cooper’s razor-sharp Class and had a better idea of the role of class and religion in our beleaguered little country. For a time, I didn’t even know what “protestant” meant. Once, when my Roman Catholic friend, Mary, took my bike as a joke, and kept it for only an hour or two, I retaliated by calling her a “Protestant” thinking it was a suitably bad word but not quite profane enough to get me in trouble. I was wrong. My father and mother were mortified and told me in no uncertain terms, that there were two words that would not be spoken in our house – Protestant and Catholic. At the time, I didn’t really understand. I just knew there was a difference between us and Mrs. Allen the grandmotherly woman who used to babysit me when ma and daddy went out to dances, and the Crillys, the family who lived around the corner, a difference that manifested itself on Sunday mornings when we went to different houses of worship and on weekdays when we children went to different schools. It had something to do with religion and at set times throughout the years, it was more noticeable than others.

In the early 1940s, my mother attended her first school, Lemnaroy Public Elementary School, in rural County Derry. She remembers there were just two teachers, and both Catholic and Protestant children attended class together. Mrs. McCurry taught The Infants and Mrs. Mulholland taught Third class and up. Once a week, for twenty minutes, the local Catholic priest came and offered religious Instruction to the Catholic pupils, but in all other areas, the children learned and played together. Although not declared officially “an integrated school,” those teachers created a small and integrated, cohesive community such as that President Obama described when he spoke at Belfast’s Waterfront  last week:

“Whenever your peace is attacked, you will have to choose whether to respond with the same bravery that you’ve summoned so far or whether you succumb to the worst instincts, those impulses that kept this great land divided for too long. You’ll have to choose whether to keep going forward, not backward.’

Obama went on to endorse an end to the segregated housing and schools that kept  us apart. Maybe he was invoking Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream for a future where there was a seat at the same table for children of every creed and color, a tomorrow where Catholics and Protestants would attend the same school. But President Obama cannot know those impulses that are alive and well in a country much older than America.

In 1981, it was a small group of Belfast parents who dared to change the course of history, to force the issue, to confront aloud what happens to the heart of a country and the identity of its children when they are educated in segregated schools. Ordinary Catholics and Protestants, we already knew what happened. And even though we still don’t have the answer, it gives me pause to know that in 1957 by  Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Lester Bowles Pearson asked this of us:

How can there be peace without people understanding each other, and how can this be if they don’t know each other?

How indeed. From almost three decades as a professional educator, I know there is no better place to learn about one another, to learn about humanity, than in the safety of a classroom.  In 1981,  Lagan College became the first integrated secondary school in Northern Ireland to offer such a space for boys and girls, Catholics and Protestants. On the first day of school, under armed guard, Lagan College opened its doors to  28 children. It is different today. According to the school’s website, as of September 1, 2012, there were 1,253 students at Lagan College. I wish it had been an option for me.

I was the first in our extended family to pass the eleven-plus exam, “the qualifying” as it used to be called and to go on to a Grammar school rather than the Secondary. Like my Uncle Jim who had long since emigrated to America, I was bound for university. My parents were delighted. I would attend Antrim Grammar School in a French blue blazer with “tolerance and development” embroidered on the breast pocket, a gray pleated skirt and black laced shoes the heels of which could be no higher than an inch.tn_18866_441300947511d284ac08b0 My mother and father had done everything to make sure I had a chance at a lifestyle that had eluded them, perhaps a chance at being that lady on the hill. There were elocution lessons with the delightfully named Mrs Lavender and later, a correspondence course to help prepare me for the eleven-plus. And, there were private piano lessons, and exchange visits to other European countries in the summer, traveling with an orchestra. For a time, I think my father wanted me to be a doctor. In vain, he tried to help me understand the value of science and mathematics, the burgeoning opportunities in those fields, but I fought him on it. I was a teenager and rebellious and didn’t know any better, but I thought I did. He wanted only for me to be equipped with an education that would keep me competitive, to ensure me options and opportunities that had been denied him. He didn’t understand that I loved only literature and music, and I didn’t even try to understand that science and mathematics might open doors for me as a woman. He wanted me to be in control of my destiny, with a string of letters after my name that no one could ever away from me. And reminding me now of Seamus Heaney who grew up just down the road from her family, my granny always said, “A pen was easier handled than a spade.” Thus, off I went, in 1981, to live In Belfast, to pursue, of all things, a teaching degree in English and Music, with no intention of ever using it.

I’ll tell me ma when I get home,
the boys won’t leave the girls alone;
They pulled me hair and they stole me comb,
but that’s all right till I go home.

She is handsome, she is pretty,
She is the Belle of Belfast city
She is courtin’ – one, two three.
Please won’t you tell me who is she?

Please won’t you tell me, who is she?

Almost thirty years later, I have a better idea of who she was and who I am. A wife and mother who works at a university in the southwestern corner of the United States of America, I miss home. I have written about it before. With every year that passes, every month, and every day, my thoughts invariably turn “back home,” sometimes, maddeningly, to the very things that drove me away from it, the relentless rain and the low-hanging clouds, the lack of anonymity and, of course, to the uneasy and fragile peace. Sometimes, I have to remind myself that I left Northern Ireland not to find myself; there were bigger and more powerful forces at work. Segregated schools, hearts hardened by sectarianism, high unemployment – a potent brew of diminished possibilities and broken promises drove me into exile, into the global embrace of the Irish Diaspora.

Perhaps I am not too different from the characters that fill so many stories of the Irish in exile, like James Bryden in George Moore’s Home Sickness,”  who works in the Bowery in early twentieth century New York. When he falls ill, his doctor recommends a sea voyage, so Bryden decides to see Ireland again, an Ireland he has since romanticized. Thus, when he returns and encounters again the harsh realities facing the peasants in his village, his disillusionment with Ireland is replaced with a yearning for the America he has left behind. The slum in the Bowery now transformed in his memory, he wholly rejects the prospect of spending his life in Ireland with Margaret, a woman whose memory will return to him many years later when he is old, back in the Bowery, with a wife and family:

There is an unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself and his unchanging silent life was his memory of Margaret Dirken. The bar-room was forgotten and all that concerned it and the things he saw most clearly were the green hillside, and the bog lake and the rushes about it, and the greater lake in the distance, and behind it the blue line of wandering hills.

Ostensibly, it is the simple tale of a malcontent for whom the grass is invariably and always greener on the other side. I suspect a similar tension lurks in the heart of every Irish immigrant, and with age, grows a desire to hold on to home or some pleasant version of it –  yet from a distance.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2011, I craved home. I wanted my mother, but she was so far away. I wanted to press my ear into the phone and retrieve from rainy, rural Northern Ireland, those comforting colloquialisms that would ring odd and foreign in the desert southwest of the United States with its impossibly predictable sunshine. Home brings the language I know and love, words like these from a neighbor from my childhood leaping into my heart from  a Facebook message: “It must be so difficult to cope with that burden when you are so far from your mammy. I’m sure she is all you want at the minute, as always, when trouble visits your door.”

When trouble visits your door … I had not heard that phrase in years. In an instant, I was 12 years old all over again, in the house where I grew up, stretched out on the good settee, trying to concentrate on a new Enid Blyton book rather than the blistering chicken pox my mother tried to soothe with great pieces of cotton wool saturated in Calamine lotion. From the farthest edge of America, I reached out to that big Catholic family that grew up around the corner. Within hours, they had rallied the troops and were with my mother who felt so helpless and so faraway from her “wee girl who got cancer,” for my stoic father who could fix anything. I will never forget their kindness.

Following the shock of that diagnosis, the biopsies, the mastectomy, the behavior of those who, while the cat was away, played a new game, and the continuing treatment, I found myself nostalgic for the rhythms of home. Thus, I was delighted to find on the internet a site devoted to the town of my childhood, where long-time and former residents could post pictures and memories of growing up there. Initially buoyed by the well wishes of people I hadn’t seen for years, I was enchanted by faces softened with age and experience, with children and grandchildren. But too, there was something that troubled me – an elephant in the room. I began noticing the heavy presence of photographs of July 12th parades, Lambeg drums, of men in bowler hats and orange sashes. It felt like looking back and turning back at the same time, back to a time when we were told who we were by the schools in which we were placed, the flags that flapped above us, the bonfires that blazed on the eleventh night, the colors painted on the kerbs, the bunting strung between lampposts. Oppressive, exclusionary, and incendiary. No flag ever hung from the windows of our house, my parents sensitive to the fact that we lived in a mixed community and much more interested in what we had in common than our differences. Thus, it was jarring to see on this website, the smiling profile pictures, including my own, alongside pictures of Union Jacks and flags bearing the Red hand of Ulster.

Decades later and living in America, I may still be unsure of myself, but I am certain that there is more to me than the flag of any country. Accordingly, I remarked on what I perceived as exclusionary the relentless parade of pictures of bands marching through our hometown and banners depicting William of Orange and an ancient battle in 1690. Polarizing, political, it made me feel uncomfortable, especially for the Catholic members of the group who did not share a loyalist background. Less a way to reconnect over the things we all had in common, it seemed more an overt celebration of the Orange Order.  Well, the denial came swiftly. I was told to keep my opinions to myself and that I should be ashamed of myself for not being proud of “my culture.” Who was I to question? And just as I left Northern Ireland all those years ago, I left that group. Good riddance, I could hear them say.

But I think of my parents and all those who remain there, who are good and decent and just want a quiet life. In the summer of 1987, I visited home. It was “marching season,” with bonfires being erected all across Northern Ireland. In the once pristine field in front of our house, where we all used to play football and rounders and build forts of fresh-cut grass, the Royal Masserene Golf Course looking over Lough Neagh behind it, was a monstrous mound of tires and pallets that would be set alight on the Eleventh Night. Out of curiosity and concern for the air that hung above the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles, for the air we all breathed, I walked over to the site of the bonfire to count the tires piled there. There were hundreds.

All grown up and ready to take on the world,  I contacted the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland and the local Housing Executive to ask if anyone was concerned at all about the environmental impact impact of bonfires or the potential threat to public health. I deliberately avoided any mention of sectarianism or politics. In fact and ironically, my comments seemed more incendiary than the bonfire itself.

A decade later, I learned that smoking had been outlawed in virtually all enclosed public places and workplaces in Northern Ireland. The irony of it. A smokefree country except on the 11th night of July when those in power sat back and watched while thousands of burning tires released styrene, butadiene, benzine, lead, chromium, cadmium, mercury, hydrogen sulphide, zinc, and god knows what else into our air, putting at particular risk the children who danced around those fires. For days afterwards, smoke continued to waft high from the embers, and my mother daily wiped the black sooty residue from our windows. I wonder often about all the fathers of neighboring families who died so young and how environmental toxins may have contributed. Who cares? Well, some people do, of course, but my growing sense, based on those recent online interactions, is that they may be the exception rather than the norm.

No matter how you color it, a bonfire in Northern Ireland on the 11th July is a political statement. Those who say I am disrespectful of my culture and my heritage and that it is a good thing I left  (too bad about the cancer), please explain to me how a bonfire such as this benefits you or your children. And then tell me how you will leave Northern Ireland better than when you came into it?

Who you are, I do not know.

11th Night Bonfire, Antrim Town, Northern Ireland photo by Johnny McKee SIXMILE IMAGES