The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
My tears at the Queen Elizabeth's speech at Dublin Castle
Posted on Thursday, June 02, 2011 at 10:37 AM
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I wept because of the damage that history did to my brain, because of the way it damaged the heads and perceptions of the good people, both Protestant and Catholic, among whom I spent my childhood in Ulster, because of the tortured and bloodstained impacts it had on all the people of this island, north and south, because of all the horrifics of all the Troubles between the two Bloody Sundays, because of all the tears and fears and heartbreaks.
And I remembered small things. My shopkeeper father Sandy was known for the high quality of the tea he sold in our country shop. When this old Queen was young and her coronation was being celebrated, the tea company in Dungannon sent out a gift hamper to their customers.
The main gift in the hamper was a splendid tea caddy bearing the smiling image of the young new Queen and her tall prince. There was no way that caddy would ever be used in our Nationalist house.
Sandy and my mother Mary had a brief chat, and as a result the caddy was wrapped in brown paper and I was told to bring it up as a gift to Bob Armstrong's Protestant house next door, maybe 20 yards away.
I went and gave the package to Meta Rooney who was Bob's housekeeper. They opened the paper and were delighted with the caddy. It was better still that Sandy had filled it with his best quality tea.
Meta Rooney instantly gave the caddy pride of place on the neat mantelpiece over their open fire. It held that place proudly for all the years of my childhood and far beyond.
I would see it once a month when we went up as boys for Bob to give us our haircuts on a chair before the fire, under the smiling Queen. Always, when he was finished, Meta Rooney would comb our hair with a damp comb.
"Now,” she would say, standing back and observing closely. "Now you are grand and Protestant looking!"
I wept for them all as the old Queen laid her green wreath in Dublin, for Sandy and Mary and Bob and Meta and all the other good people from both communities who contrived, in an infinitely nuanced way, for almost all the time, to live their lives in a civilized fashion, neighborly and kind, on the very edge of the gaping chasm of sectarianism which that history forced upon them.
Bob and Sandy were good friends, but there was no way that Bob could do all his weekly shopping in the Catholic shop next door, for example. Just a few token items like cigarettes and sundries. And often he would come down very late when the shop would not be busy.
The main shopping had to be done in the Protestant shop and post office a mile away. That is the way it was. That is the way it had to be.
But when Sandy went to Dublin for gold injections to try and halt his eventually crippling arthritis it was Bob who quietly brought him there.
And when there were Troubles -- as there always were to some degree -- then they would never be mentioned between the families except, if lives were lost, a lateral remark like, "A dreadful bad day so it is God help us," and leave it at that.
It was the way it was. And except for the urban hotspots like the Shankill and the Falls in Belfast, and rural Republican and Loyalist outposts like Crossmaglen and Ballinamallard in our county, that was always the way it was.
Bob Armstrong was a B Special policeman and an Orangeman. We minded his farm for him on the Orange Twelfth of July each year. It was the way it was.
Despite the success of the peace process thus far, maybe it is still the way it is for many. It is only a few weeks ago since young Catholic policeman Ronan Kerr was killed by dissident Republicans. It is not quite over yet.
I wept for them all as the old Queen bowed her head to Pearse and Connolly and their comrades in that unforgettable minute in Dublin. And for myself; for the residual blind bigotry that is so hard to shun even now.
I do try. I'm getting there. So are all the peoples of these islands. We'll all get there eventually.
On a lighter level, I've always had a soft spot, not just for Queen Elizabeth, but also for her late mother, also Elizabeth, who lived to top a century, loved horses and racing and a drink or two. Always a regal twinkle in her eye as well.
Her daughter is a formidable lady at 85 years. In her speeches of regret for the past and hope for the future she displayed both presence and intelligence.
She was not just reading from a prepared script. She meant what she said. She was impressive.
So, too, was our own Belfast-born President Mary McAleese. She knows all the nuances I've been speaking about.
There was never a coronation tea caddy on her home mantelpiece in Belfast either. But, dramatically, since she became president, she has been building bridges between the divided communities of her home province for years.
She has been quite brilliant on that front, and we can be very proud of her. History will write her name in large letters.
So I wept salt tears. I am not ashamed to admit it either.
AND a P.S. --You are mighty people. Before Easter, having seen swallows first over the house of my neighbor and friend Jimmy White, I asked, in a throwaway line, for a few readers to drop an Easter card to Jimmy, a wheelchair user, who was going through a suffering time because of a trapped nerve in his neck causing agonizing headaches.
You are mighty people, full of compassion and caring. Jimmy got scores of cards from all over the U.S. and beyond wishing him well. Many of the cards were accompanied by warm letters, Mass cards, a tide of sympathy.
He was blown away, the headaches are gone, he is heading rapidly towards a full recovery, and he is infinitely grateful. He asked me to tell ye that.
I'm blown away myself. You out there are mighty people indeed. Thanks from Jimmy and thanks from me.