Those things that bind us
One way and another it’s been a thought-provoking week. Even as we watch on our TV screens the horrors of the Ukraine war, my thoughts turn to my family and community. As my family is of Irish heritage, it is appropriate to publish my thoughts on this on St Patrick’s Day.
One of the triggers for my introspection was watching the film “Belfast” and another was a family funeral of a relative that died suddenly. The funeral in London was a few weeks ago.
Watching Kenneth Branagh’s wonderful film about the Troubles and about the strained relationships between the Catholic and Protestant communities reminded my husband about his childhood growing up in Northern Ireland. One of the first things he told me about all those years ago when I met him, was how he used to fight the Catholics (my tribe back then) on the way back from school, and how his family was a fiercely Protestant family in a Protestant part of Northern Ireland.
I explained to him at the time that my family was Catholic, in fact so Catholic that my father had trained to be a Catholic priest before he decided to leave, just before taking his final vows and then going to study drama (quite an alternative route).
I also pointed out that my father’s mother – my grandmother – was from Dublin and went to Catholic mass every day, early each morning. This same grandmother had a shrine in her bedroom with a little kneeling stool on which to kneel to say prayers or the rosary, in front of the red votive lights that illuminated the Sacred Heart picture on her wall; and that there were religious pictures all over her small flat in Stockwell. In fact, there were religious pictures on every available wall space.
I told him that I had been almost entirely educated in the Catholic education system, that many of my friends were Irish and that I had never given it a second thought. Why would I? Many of my parents’ friends from Manchester University, or from education, were also Irish. They had friends from many different places: one of the benefits of university society.
What can we learn from history?
When we had this conversation back in the mid-1970s, the IRA was actively bombing targets, including in England. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know enough about Irish history, certainly nothing like I know now.
It didn’t seem to be readily available in England, although I’d heard many stories from my grandmother when I stayed in her Stockwell flat (at the time when I was studying in London) and I listened to her stories about the past as I sat in front of her gas fire.
As a couple who met back then, we came from very different backgrounds: he was a bright grammar school boy from a caring but uneducated working class background: he was the first person in his family to go to university. Whereas both my parents had been through university and further education and were working in education. We were expected to continue our education beyond our A-levels.
There was a lot of opposition to our marriage and my grandmother was heartbroken that I didn’t marry in a Catholic church, so neither she nor my great aunts came to the wedding. I was close to my grandmother, so I was upset. I thought that what she was doing was very wrong, but she was born in a different generation and in a politically different era so, although I was heartbroken, I tried to understand.
To be honest, it was not at all certain that my parents would come to our wedding – but they did. We seemed to be beset with obstacles from the start to be honest. I’m not even referring to all of them here.
Amor Vincit Omnia
That we made it thus far is probably a testament to our shared values and the same politics. Of course, like anyone in a long marriage we’ve had many bumps in the road.
Since 2010 (and much more so since the referendum) what we believe has marked us out into groups according to our core values. If what people believed wasn’t so important, this divide wouldn’t be so huge, or currently appear so insurmountable – although I very much hope that changes.
Longing for the truly good ol’ days
Attending the family funeral I mentioned earlier, listening to the eulogies of a good man with decent honest values, capturing those times with the music played, the memories shared, made me long for what we used to be.
Prior to 2010, we were a more inclusive country; back then, being from another country was exotic and interesting: these people gave us different stories and different recipes to try. In those times a homeless person on a pavement was a very rare sight (homelessness has increased since 2010 fourfold), and in those times there was a social structure to support those people who were ill, unemployed or homeless.
The fruits of inequality
Inequality fuels anger and hopelessness and many people have been justifiably very angry at the callous way they have been treated. That so many people have an attitude that “I’m alright Jack” is not a healthy way for any of us to think, because what does it make that person who thinks like that? Also, what damage does it do to society?
None of us are okay until all are okay. This is a maxim I believe. This was the prevailing attitude in the 1970s and it is something worth being nostalgic about. So, the funeral of a good man from the same era, represented by some music from that era – and a film about the (what seemed to be at the time) insurmountable obstacles we faced those years ago when we met, reaffirmed the importance of shared values – and of hoping desperately, against all the odds, for better times: times when we as a society, care more about each and every one of us. It also reaffirmed the importance of believing in something.
Harmony and compassion
As a famous Philosopher called Aristotle, said many thousands of years ago: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
The “parts” work better when they work harmoniously in a compassionate society.