When I was young I used to dream about gunmen coming to our house.
I would hear them downstairs confronting my mother. I would want to go to her but I would be afraid. I would wake up with my heart pounding.
I was traumatized by Irish history. I remember not wanting to turn the page in my history book. Every planned insurrection would start out hopeful enough, but turn the page and there was a traitor or leaked information – the British would put down the Rebellion in the most horrific manner. (I always connected Cromwell’s sack of Drogheda with the murder of the Holy Innocents that we learned about in Catechism class.)
Then there were the stories my father told about the Black and Tans who shot at him for sport as he ran across one of the top fields.
He was 11. They were a brutal, lawless force of British Army auxiliaries -– some 7,000 -- the first of whom landed in March 1920.
One story he told me was of the O’Brien [brothers]. I have a visual image of the telling of this story -- of my father slowing the car down as he drove on the road past the grove of trees on the edge of our farm. “That’s where they hung them,” he said. The words that come back to me now are “tortured” and “bayonets.”
Later I would learn that the two young O’Brien boys were actually first cousins, not brothers, and that one of them was engaged to a cousin of my father’s. It was in her house that they were arrested. The house is still there, still lived in by the Cleary family, just a field away from our house. There is a monument to the two young men at Knigh Cross, just up the road from our house.
The root of my nightmare is in that story. I’ve had it on and off for years. I had a version of it last night. I woke up with heart pounding and thought about what might have brought it on.
I’ve been considering a trip to Gallipoli with a group from Northern Ireland headed by Dr. Ian Adamson, who founded the Battle of the Somme Foundation.
The Black and Tans and the “hated” British were the more powerful story of my childhood. There was another, less talked about one.
My grandfather, my mother’s father, was in the British Army – the Royal Army Medical Corps. Family lore has it that he climbed onto the roof of Army headquarters and took down the British flag before the surrender at Gallipoli. My first cousin has this bullet-riddled relic.
I have some of my grandfather’s photo albums. He was a good amateur photographer -– beautiful photos of Kashmir, Afghanistan and Gallipoli. I also have an illustration made by the official war artist Muirhead Bone titled “Waiting for the Wounded.”
In it my grandfather sits with two other doctors in a tent at the Battle of the Somme (he received the OBE for refusing to leave the field while there were still wounded to attend to). He was highly decorated, twice a prisoner of war, almost died from Malaria. (He did die before he reached 50 and is buried in Jamaica).
My grandfather and his heroics were rarely talked about in the family – Jamaica (where he is buried) and India (where he served two tours of duty) were far-away places while the tree that held the memory of the O’Briens’ hangings was right on our farm.
The trip to Gallipoli, if I take it, would be an effort to redress some of the lack of attention he was given. But this wasn’t the reason for my dream. It began in City Hall the evening before.
New York City Speaker Christine Quinn honored Sen. Ted Kennedy posthumously. Caroline was there to accept the award in her uncle’s name. She spoke of Teddy’s love of the Irish and the politics he learned at the knee of his grandfather Honey Fitz. She spoke well, as did the other members of the community who were being honored.
It’s hard to look at any member of the Kennedy family and not think about the guns that took the lives of those two brothers, John and Robert. But it was one of the other speakers – Clare Reilly - who stirred my old nightmare. She was from Relatives for Justice (RFJ), in Northern Ireland.
RFJ is made up of families who want to make sure that their loved ones killed and injured during the Troubles are remembered.
Clare spoke of a young man – just 16 -- who was visiting his grandmother. It was Christmastime. He was helping his grandmother put up the Christmas tree when Loyalists broke into the house and shot him dead.
She spoke of a man who was visiting his wife in hospital – she was seven months pregnant. On the way home he was shot and killed
There were other stories too.
As a kind of living memorial the families of these victims of the Troubles have begun a quilting project -- The Remembering Quilt -- based on the AIDS quilt that traveled America. Two RFJ quilts are hanging in City Hall for St. Patrick’s week.
The grandmother of the boy who was shot never again put up a Christmas tree, but she incorporated a Christmas tree into the remembrance patch for her spot on the quilt. A daughter who never saw her father or had him to give her away at her wedding made a patch out of her wedding dress. One mother, who had a favorite photograph of her son wearing a leather tie, worked the leather from that tie into the edge of her patch.
There is so much pain in Ireland. In the south, it’s buried under scar tissue, but in the North there are wounds that have yet to heal.
Perhaps the making of these quilts, each patch a sort of band aid, and the sewing a kind of knitting together of the gaping wound, will allow some healing to begin.
In my dream last night, I was older and I made it down the stairs (something I never managed in my childhood dream).
I took my father’s shotgun from where it stood in the corner in the hall just outside the kitchen door. (As a child I used to run past this same gun. My father was always careful not to leave it loaded but someone had told me that the devil loaded it up every seven years and I always was afraid that it would go off. ) In my dream, I cracked open the barrel to see that it was loaded -- with one large white bullet. It was enough, I told myself, I would be able to make the intruders leave and lock the door behind them.
I hope it’s the last time I dream this dream. I hope that making it down the stairs and confronting the terror is some kind of “moving on.” I hope the white bullet had some kind of significance.
I hope the historic vote on Tuesday March 9 by the Northern Ireland Assembly to transfer policing and criminal justice powers to Belfast, is another powerful step towards the dream of a lasting peace being realized.
I hope, as said Sec. of State Hillary Clinton said of Tuesday’s vote, that Northern Ireland will become “a country where neighbors can live free from fear and all people have the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential.
“This is a dream nurtured for so long in the hearts of people across Northern Ireland. It is also a dream that lives far beyond its borders, in all countries and communities where ethnic and religious conflicts persist.”
Note: The full measure of the Black and Tans is summed up in this missive from one of the commanding officers:
"If a police barracks is burned or if the barracks already occupied is not suitable, then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants thrown into the gutter. Let them die there – the more the merrier.
Should the order ("Hands Up") not be immediately obeyed, shoot and shoot with effect. If the persons approaching (a patrol) carry their hands in their pockets, or are in any way suspicious-looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some time. The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man." – Lt. Col. Smyth, June 1920