Last weekend, I marked Saint George’s Day in my own little way at a cookout with friends. No one batted an eye for the Patron Saint of England here in Athens, Georgia, of course; strangers wouldn’t have seen anything remarkable in the specially-chosen red and white outfit that I wore. But this Saint George’s day, it was important for me to do something. The past few months have offered me many reasons to celebrate being English. First, back in September, Elizabeth II overtook the record set by Queen Victoria and became Britain’s longest-serving monarch. Then, in March, England not only won the Six Nations, but the Grand Slam (we won’t talk about a certain rugby tournament that took place before that). April 11 was the five-year anniversary of my coming to Georgia – a date which always makes me think of England; even more so this year because five years feels like a ‘big’ number. On April 21, the Queen turned 90. Then, Saint George’s Day followed soon after.
But I must confess that I feel a little uncomfortable relishing in English national pride while I study Anglo-Irish history, especially because 2016 also marks the hundredth anniversary of a particularly dark time in that relationship: the Easter Rising.
I can’t really talk about the Easter Rising with any expertise. I know just enough to ramble; not enough to explain clearly. Instead, I’ll refer you to the Irish Times, who have put together an interactive guide. For now, all you need to know is that it was an armed uprising against British rule which began on April 24, 1916 and gripped Dublin for six days.
Sunday, April 24, 2016. I am sitting in my kitchen long after Lillian has gone to bed. Say Nothing is almost finished, with just two chapters left to write. I crack open a beer and sit down to tackle one of those chapters, but I wasn’t in love with it: as I had planned it, Moira and her boyfriend were going to have a huge fight over internment. Moira is vehemently opposed to internment, which allowed the British Army to imprison suspected IRA members without trial; her boyfriend supports it. I take a swig of my beer. I crack my knuckles. I begin to write. As I write, the plan for the chapter goes out of the window. I much prefer what I ended up with; especially because I have no idea where it came from.
I ended up with a scene in which Moira’s mother, for the first time, embraces her national pride. Mother and daughter, polarised by the conflict, come together again. The song that they sing is The Tri-Coloured Ribbon, which relates to the Easter Rising.
It wasn’t until the next day that I realised I had, without meaning to, written this scene on the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Easter Rising. Fitting, no?
These are two scenes from the same chapter: the opening and the closing scene. I have taken the rest of the chapter out, because it was spoiler-heavy.
16 August, 1971
Dad had been in for six days. We had not been allowed to see him or speak with him. He wasn’t the only one: men had been taken from the Creggan estate, from Mary’s street, one from Connor’s, and some from my own – including Colm. All arrested on suspicion of IRA involvement, not evidence. We knew that the men who had already returned were not with the IRA, which made it all the more frightening that they still had Dad and Colm.
When you don’t know if your father is even alive, a day waiting for news is agony. Six days is torture.
The riots that gripped the Bogside in those first few days after the men were lifted were the worst we had seen since the Apprentice Boys’ march in ‘69. Out on the streets with Colm, helping in my father’s absence, I saw the different sides to this war of ours; the different faces of the suffering. I saw young men hurling explosives; I saw boys even younger still rush out of their homes to join them. I saw families hurriedly packing their belongings into waiting cars, fleeing, while the army watched from up above on the rooftops with their guns ready. I saw the RUC silence dissenters with their truncheons, the same way they had silenced Mary; the same way they had tried to silence me. But I would not be silent. I would be reunited with my father, whether by an insurrection that they could not ignore or by getting myself locked up in there with him.
They took Colm, and I thought immediately of the IRA safe house. I thought of a unit without a head, both its commander and second-in-command languishing behind bars for God only knew how long. I could give balm to my conscience and say that, after thinking it through, I decided that going to the safe house to help would only mean revealing its location to any soldier that might follow me; but in truth, I was too afraid. One moment Colm was by my side and the next he was cuffed and held up against a wall as they bagged him and hurled him into a waiting van, and I didn’t want to disappear into one of those bags myself. I ran home. The outpouring of fury on the streets altered my course and sent me through the cemetery, and as I ran past Pappy’s grave, I hung my head in shame. A Heaney running from battle. All the resilience that was in me earlier was now gone, and I was just a frightened child; a seventeen-year-old girl who never asked to be brought into this war.
I had stopped feeling like a teenager the day an RUC truncheon left me battered and bloody. I thought that this war had forced me to grow up too soon and too fast.
That night, I learned that I may have been willing to hurl petrol bombs or point a rifle, but I was still very much a child.
My door creaked open, and I turned to see Mam, her face tear-stained, waiting.
“What? What is it, Mam?”
“Sit down, Moira.”
I didn’t need to be told. My legs gave out from underneath me and I collapsed onto the bed. “What?”
“There’s good news, and there’s bad news.” Her voice was shaky. “The good news is that he’s alive.”
“They’re putting him through hell, Moira.” She broke down, her body rippled by sobs. “Colm’s told me all about it. They’re starving them. They’re beating them and not letting them sleep. And he’s been in there a week. Most of the others got out after a few days.”
I swallowed the lump that was growing in my throat. “So… When is he getting out?”
“He’s not. Colm says they’re keeping him until he cracks. He thinks they know that he’s heading up the IRA but they can’t prove it, so they’re trying to force a confession out of him.”
I shook my head. “He’ll never confess. They’ll…” I stopped myself, but it was too late to swallow up the words I had already said.
Mam let out a wail. “They’ll starve him to death before he confesses.”
“We’ve got to see him. They have to let us. I mean, they can’t stop us.”
“No. No, we’re not going to go see him. We’re going to do something.”
I did a double take, unsure of what I had just heard. I took a closer look at her then. She was white-faced, but was it fear? Or was it determination? Those tears, were they for her husband, or for a part of herself that she was about to leave behind? She closed her eyes and tipped her head back, as if she were looking up to the sky. She prayed, the mouth moving but no sound coming from her lips. Opening her eyes again, she reached into the pocket of her apron and pulled out some scraps of ribbon – which she must have taken from her sewing box – in white, orange, and green.
“Do you remember the song, Moira?” she said.
I nodded, understanding.
“Stand and sing it with me, would you?”
I stood, and she arranged the ribbons in her shaking palm. Orange. White. Green.
We sang the ballad that all Irish women knew.
I had a true love if ever a girl had one
I had a true love a brave lad was he
The ribbons were folded into a loop and pinned to my chest.
One fine Easter Monday with his gallant comrades
He started away for to make Ireland free
I took the remaining pieces of ribbon and made them into the Irish tricolour – the orange for the Protestants, the followers of William of Orange; the green for us, the nationalists; the white representing peace between us; the flag as a whole the symbol of the 1916 rising. The words died in my throat as she took off her apron and I pinned the ribbons onto her dress, and she changed, immediately, from the wife of a republican to a republican herself. She sang on, unperturbed by my silence, finishing out the song alone.
For all around my hat I wear a tri-coloured ribbon, oh
All around my hat until death comes to me
And if anybody’s asking me why do I wear it
It’s all for my own true love I never more will see
The weight of the war and all that it had changed in my household was crushing. Once, my father and I had been polar opposites; now, it was my mother that could not read me. Yet here we were, mirror images of each other with our tri-coloured ribbons pinned over our hearts.
“Come on,” she said, finally, drawing strength from some reserve deep inside of her in the way that only she could. “We’ve got a rally to go to.”