Short story by Vanja Gajic
It is Thursday again, which means that I have to get to school by 7 am for finals prep. One would think that in light of Easter festivities, we would be spared the torture, Jesus having undergone it for us and all that, but alas, here I am, once again trying to find my tie at the break of dawn. At least I can sleep in tomorrow though, and we don’t fast on Good Friday in our house. Vera from next door still has to wait till Sunday to get her chocolate eggs because her granny is bent on going to heaven and says she is not about to let some greedy kindred eat her ticket to Jerusalem away. Thank God for Nan Sinead. I think she’d sooner go on the cross herself than deny us treats. I suppose she’s more of a cultural Catholic – until the word “Protestant” enters the conversation, that is. It doesn’t take much to provoke her either, just the mention of the British, England, the Queen (“Queen Elizabeth, you mean? You know there are lots of queens around, I don’t see how she has any more to do with us than the rest of them.”), Meghan Markle (“Americans are supposed to be on our side!”), tea (“Won’t be long until the Protestants claim ownership over that, too.”), or even swimming (“We fought for this island, we might as well stay on it!”). I think she might actually disown me if I ever said I was from Londonderry instead of Derry. She is a child of the crossfire, after all, and she’s not about to let us ceasefire babies forget that. I’m not saying she nags about it all the time, but it’d be nice not to get a “If you lived thirty years ago, you’d never bicker like this because you’d be too busy hoping she lives to see another day, and you live to see her again” every time I complain about one of my friends even in the slightest of ways. I do really love my nan, but sometimes the old woman’s fussing and rambling about the Troubles gets the best of me. She thinks I cannot possibly imagine the ordeal, and she’s probably right, but I don’t know why she would want me to. Didn’t they fight so we wouldn’t have to?
I manage to get to school a few minutes early and overhear Tommy say his republican cousin told him the IRA wouldn’t miss an opportunity to mark the 21st anniversary of Irish failure. The 20th would have been too obvious, apparently. Tommy’s alright, a nice lad, though he’s quite full of it at times, and the way he talks about this IRA stuff like it was some sort of public sacrifice makes me want to shake him by the shoulders until all the nonsense comes out through his ears. I suppose I should cut him some slack; he turned out all right considering half of his family are Provisionals. Whenever we go for a walk through town and see Mr O’Connell, Tommy’s grandad, Nan turns in the opposite direction and heads the other way, no matter where we were set to go. She never speaks about it, but my dad says Mr O’Connell was one of the men who were there when Nan’s brother was shot. Before that they were pals, and O’Connell would even come around to my nan’s house on occasion.
Some people are absent from school today. Most of them live in the city centre, and their parents are probably panicking about the expected riots. Even Sara, whose folks usually lean on the rational side of thinking, is absent. It’s a real bummer, though; she’s my desk mate and I could really use someone to chat with during all the boring Easter Rising stuff. Honestly, I don’t know how many times they think we need to hear about the bombs and the rebels and the evil Englishmen. Every year we have the Easter Week reserved for lectures about the Irish struggle, and the teachers talk about it with such zeal and urgency that one would think people are still killing each other on the streets. We’re just short of having to tick a box agreeing not to throw bombs and signing our name under it. “I promise not to put bombs in bins. I swear to hate the English in a peaceful manner and to celebrate their potential misfortune without causing it directly.” I am exaggerating, but it really is quite absurd. As if making a poster about the victims of the Rising would discourage anyone who’s mental enough to kill people over some lines on a map.
But despite all the arguments against pestering the youth with the same stale old stories, we are once again stuck listening to Mr O’Brien banter about 1916 as if he himself had shared whiskey with the Irish rebels. It’s almost comical when he occasionally remembers that bombings and shootings are generally not applauded in this day and age and tries to rectify his statements with a PC disclaimer. The acrobatics his brain performs show on his face perfectly as he tries to subtly transition from talking about how bravely Irishmen fought and how we “showed those Protestants what we’re made of” to promoting pacifism and renouncing terrorism.
Miss Murphy, on the other hand, tries to make the commemoration lesson pleasant for us by showing us a film about the fight for independence. As she’s obsessed with Liam Neeson, apparently, the film happens to be Michael Collins every single year. Liam Neeson is old enough to be my dad. He might even be too old to be my dad. Suffice it to say the class does not participate in her blissful sighs each time he appears on-screen.
These are the standard procedures, but because of this year’s Civil War centenary everyone’s going all out – we had extra classes about the Soloheadbeg ambush and the Dáil. Naturally, this provided a perfect opportunity to put us into groups and force us to discuss the events, or rather sit in tiresome silence for twenty minutes. It feels like the sun comes out when it is three o’clock and we are finally free to go home. It doesn’t, of course – as the priest told us when we were children, the rain during Easter Week is what washes the blood off Jesus.
Illustration by Ema Starkl.
After school I spend most of the afternoon in my bedroom doing some reading for the essay that’s due after the holidays. Later in the evening I go downstairs for a cup of cocoa before bed. When I pass by the living room to get to the kitchen, I see my parents and Nan watching the news, though it’s surely past the time when the evening programme usually airs. It’s a bit odd that Ma is sitting with Da and Nan, as she usually reads in the evening. She says it’s the only bit of peace and quiet she gets. From the kitchen I hear the reporter mention today’s riots in Derry. Something big must have happened if they decided to air the story this late. But the media always jumps on riots. It can be five people walking around wrapped in Irish flags, and the story is reported as if it were the beginning of an uprising.
I put a cup of milk in the microwave and go back to the living room to sit with the family for a minute. All three of them are staring at the screen in shock as a photo of a young woman appears in front of some footage of a burning police car. The news anchor says she was shot in the head, presumably by Irish radicals who had been aiming at British police. The woman was Lyra McKee, a journalist from Belfast. As they say her name, I remember I’ve heard it before. The news ends with condolences to her family and Da turns off the TV.
We sit in silence for a few moments, and then the microwave beeps. The sound pulls us out of our state of numb bewilderment. Da is the one to break the silence.
“Up the IRA, eh?”
“Jesus Christ, you think it’s the right time for such jokes? I can’t believe you would say that!”
“Alright, Mary, calm down, I didn’t mean anything by it!”
“She’s absolutely right, Thomas–”
“Ah Ma, not you too now–”
“It’s beyond me how you could connect those hooligans to the Irish cause!”
“Coming from you! Like you weren’t all cheering for ‘those hooligans’ some forty years ago!”
“Watch your tongue, now! Comparing that to this! And like I’ve ever been one to promote violence…”
The sound of Nan’s voice fades as I back out of the living room and go upstairs to my bedroom. I need some silence to sort my thoughts. As I sit on my bed it occurs to me why I know of Lyra McKee. She wrote a letter to her younger self when she was twenty-four years old. We read it in school in December in Mrs O’Neil’s history class. She said it was off topic, but important. It dealt with self-acceptance and hope for a better future. She told us Lyra’s other work dealt with pretty grim stuff, like suicide and the Troubles, and that it was too early for us to trouble ourselves with such things. I’m not sure if I was following the teacher’s advice or just being lazy, but I never read it. Her letter was nice, though. I bet she was nice, too. Clever and fun and the type of person who says whatever they want to, with no reservations, but it’s all still sensible somehow. They said she had died because of a misfired shot. As if any shot is not.
Up until now I didn’t make much of the disputes between the Catholics and the Protestants. Everyone knows that the English have it in for us, that their r’s sound like they’re opening their mouths at the doctor’s and that they are generally to be disliked. Lots of people rant about England and how the North is part of the Republic, but I can’t imagine them hurting anyone. Even my family makes constant jabs at the Protestants and the British. When my brother Stephen was leaving for England to study, Ma was filled to the brim with pride, but we all saw Nan was not happy about it. She would not say anything to her dear grandson of course, but after he left, there were times when she would throw in a remark about “our best people going to England” and that “folks should think about their homeland before going off to labour for the Crown.” But she curses the nationalists just as much as the Protestants. Once, she took me to see the Bloody Sunday monument and she told me that we would get what’s right with time, though nothing can be truly right if there is bloodshed over it. Borders don’t matter once you’re dead. She told me that when she was a child she heard stories about how Tans had tortured the Irish. How she never knew her grandad because he had been shot in the Easter Rising. How everyone was on their toes all the time when she was young and the Troubles were in full swing. How people killed and were killed for Ireland. The final badge of honour in the fight for freedom.
Old lady yakking, I thought. I got so annoyed with her for fidgeting about the past instead of thinking of the present. I never really took her seriously, either, thinking she just hadn’t managed to get with the times. Looks like I might have been more oblivious to the present than Nan. I’m not sure, though. What happened today was because a few people wanted to play revolution, but I doubt the rest of the nation would be prepared to take up arms again. I don’t think anyone wants to or sees the point of it. It was hard enough to create this relative state of peace, why threaten it to no avail?
But people probably don’t adopt a war zone mentality until they find themselves close enough to the fire. I don’t know how close that is, though. The Troubles may be over officially, but they are not altogether behind us – no matter how much we want to believe the opposite.
Originally published in Issue XIX in December 2019.