“We are half English and half Irish. This is my Irish half. Dad says it’s the fighting side” Oscar announced proudly to the family sitting behind us on our crowded Ryanair flight to Belfast last week. As the carrier of the boring old English bloodline, I often wonder what it means for my sons to be little Celts. Will they grow up feeling Irish? What does it mean to “feel” Irish anyway? When we drive down the Falls Road from Billy’s childhood home into town, we pass a mural depicting a spider’s web leading to the famous black door of 10 Downing Street: a warning to those who collude with the oppressor. Will Oscar and Isaac carry Yeats’ “fanatic heart” beating somewhere deep inside them, or will they bear their history as lightly as their father and his have? After all, perhaps it really no longer matters that their Irish Catholic father married a very establishment English girl. Perhaps they will simply be little Fenlanders, and by the time they want to call themselves anything they will be more interested in learning Mandarin than exploring their admixture of small island blood.
And still, and still. I find myself wanting my sons to know where they have come from, and wanting them to care. When I was first diagnosed I began a book for Oscar and Isaac, a collection of stories about the family who came before them. Picking it up again, it feels too maudlin to work on: there is something rather beyond-the-grave about my authorial voice. In rude health (for now at least), I don’t feel the need to write down the Really Important Things that I fear no-one else will tell my children. But there is something in the story of family which calls me back and back again. I wonder if what I am drawn back to is simply the notion that my children must be part of something bigger than themselves. In the limited experience of an English girl from a 2 by 2 nuclear family, being Irish is synonymous with being part of a big, noisy, multi-generational clan. I realise that my poor in-laws (and indeed the Irish nation) find themselves fetishized here. But what I have married into is a glorious novelty for me. Finally I can live out my Walton’s fantasies (“Good night Oscar! Good night Isaac! Good night John Boy!). As I return from our half term in County Down where the boys played with four aunts, three uncles, grandparents, cousins (of various removes), I wonder if perhaps this was why my parents supplemented our little family with dogs?
For the boys, being Irish means being part of a pack. It means having a gang of kids to chase around with. It means funny accents, being swung from the feet by Uncle Colin and fed contraband goodies by their smiley Aunties. It means Dad’s stories about how his best mate Paul Magee was stung by jeggy nettles climbing into The Base in the bottom of the garden, or how he and his feral little mates were caught in the crossfire of rubber bullets during one hot marching season. It means holidays spotting seals in Strangford Lough and swimming in the clear, arctic waters off the Antrim coast as we dodge the horizontal rain showers. It means a diet of exotic carbohydrates like soda bread and massive, hard white baps stuffed with Worcestershire sauce crisps. For me, the whole thing is a glimpse into a delightful foreign world, a world which makes me feel up-tight, straight-laced, and very, very English. In the presence of so much noise, I am often quiet in a way which is rare for me, content to sit on the sidelines and observe the everyday miracle of genetics as 20 round-faced Boyles gather in the same room (quietly observing is also easier than admitting I have no idea what they are on about, even after ten years).
So, perhaps identity is personal not political. Perhaps a half-English, half-Irish boy born in 2009 won’t want to learn Gaelic as a teenage protest; instead he will just be excited to hang out with his Muintir in Belfast on holiday. But even so, it matters to me that the boys don’t forget the recent history they are so lucky to have missed. If Billy had been born in 1958 or 1968 instead of 1978 (basically, if he’d been of the same generation as either of his elder brothers), then his Belfast would have been a very different, much more terrifying place. One of his elder sisters remembers a weekend trip to the library with her dad being punctuated by British soldiers storming the building and shooting. And Billy’s Dad had to leave a decent job because his commute to work was too dangerous, too many road blocks which increasingly had a tricolour or a union jack raised above them for it to be worthwhile, even though work was hard to come by and he had 6 children to think of. Even a bright, independent spark like Billy would have found it hard to make it to an English university (let alone Cambridge) over Queens. He wouldn’t have met a civil servant who walked in through the famous black door every day. And if he had met her, would the love story have been less Richard Curtis and more Romeo and Juliet? But the fact that Billy’s life has panned out the way it has is, I guess, something to be celebrated at an existential level. That things can change so much in a generation should be a source of hope even when we look at Syria or Northern Nigeria or Somalia and think that war between countrymen is intractable and hopeless.
Anyway. Enough pontificating: our new puppy is nipping at my ankle and preparing to poo on the rug. I conclude that we are who we are, because of ourselves and because of those who have come before us, “a horde of ghosts – like a Chinese nest of boxes – oaks that were acorns that were oaks”. And I conclude that what matters more than the politics is that the boys feel as grateful as I do to be part of our wonderful Boyle Muintir.