The old priest greeted me, not by my name, but by my home town. “Manchester!” he would call whenever he met me.
The “pewer awld fellah”, as Diarmud called him, was in the early stages of dementia and probably couldn’t remember my name. I didn’t mind a nickname instead; I was proud of where I was from. What worried me was the song he always sang as he walked past.
“The Manchester Martyrs; it’s an old rebel song. A policeman was killed by accident in Manchester and some men were hanged,” said Diarmud in reply to my question. When I look back, I wonder if I detected a hint of admiration in Diarmud’s voice – a sense that this was a point of interest in me – to be associated with an iconic event in Irish history. But in Dublin, in 1980, a sensitive English boy would not be so comfortable with the association. I, for one, was uncertain of the motivation behind singing such a song to me.
Back in England, the Irish were largely defined by two things: the jokes of comedians, and the IRA. The “comedy kings”, thankfully, were being overthrown by a more inclusive sense of humour. They were an embarrassment. You couldn’t feel proud of England without feeling part of a schoolyard mentality: self-important kids in a self-affirming gang, making fun of the others. “There are stupid people everywhere,” Diarmud said one day in a rare moment of annoyance, “but while Irish stupidity is usually accompanied by good will, English stupidity is served up with bluster, or smugness, or a combination of the two.” I don’t know how the subject had come up. It was just a conversation between two friends that had somehow strayed into argument, but it was a reminder that beneath all the friendliness – all the “Cead Mile Failte” – there was a serious undercurrent.
For me, that was about as serious as it actually got. Occasionally, people in a bad mood would shout “Get the Brits out”, or something like, but I never felt as threatened as I had, say, at an English football match, or in a city centre pub. Diarmud was my friend, and had the good grace not to blame me for the “sins of the fathers”, but he was never afraid to educate me (“edgy-kayet”) as he put it. “Those holes are bullet holes put there by the British Army in 1916.” “That’s Michael Collins’ grave (he rouses mixed emotions in these parts).” “That’s Croke Park where thirteen innocent civilians were murdered by the Black and Tans.” These were real events only forty years before I was born, of which I had been kept ignorant. I had been brought up and taught not to accept murder. I didn’t then, and still do not now, but it seemed that it was not invented by the IRA, as some English newspapers would have had you believe.
When my six months in Dublin was up, and I said goodbye to my friends, especially Diarmud, it hurt.
On my return to Manchester, the first “official” thing I had to do was fill in a census form. It had a surprisingly confusing effect on me: “Where were you living at midnight on …?” At midnight on that day, I, along with all my possessions, had been on a ferry in the middle of the Irish Sea. This seemingly simple question sparked a crisis of identity. I had gone to Ireland feeling a part of me was Irish – my Grandfather had been born in Ireland. In Dublin I was a Brit. Yet England didn’t feel like home anymore. I don’t know why. My family were there. I had friends there. I had left feeling part of two countries, but returned feeling part of neither.
Perhaps it was not a coincidence that a few months later, a few miles down the road in Moss Side, there were riots.
Time moved on. Life was lived. Career; mortgage; family; the Irish “question” was forgotten. It was killed off altogether years later at a family gathering while looking through a box of old photographs and documents. Apparently, Grandfather had been born during a visit to Ireland. His father “had a Manchester accent”, and no-one knew for sure, but it was thought he had been born in Manchester. It was also a shock to discover Great-Grandmother was from Flanders – I was probably more Belgian than I was Irish! By this time I didn’t really care; I had responsibilities to occupy my mind. But fragments of the conversation were left lodged in my memory: “… an incident …”; “… never talked about …”; “… a policeman was killed …” It was only gossip. No-one knew anything, and I had no idea how to find out more.
Over the years a sense of Englishness did emerge. It manifested itself mainly during international football tournaments. I first noticed it during the World Cup of 2002, as indignation toward the children when they were “deciding who to support”. Brazil was considered, possibly France or Italy, but not England. My explanation of why you could choose your league team but not your national team was met with scepticism. Week after week they would follow their heroes playing for Chelsea, or Liverpool, or whoever. Why should they abandon them just because they were playing for someone else? To them, France and Chelsea, Brazil and Liverpool, were just football teams. I couldn’t argue with them. To have done so would have been to have stepped back into the previous century, when nationalism was used as a stimulus for butchery and murder on an industrial scale.
My past however, had not finished with me. Like a splinter that embeds itself in the flesh, but eventually works its way back to the skin, the “incident” returned. While browsing the internet I came across a reference to the “Manchester Martyrs”. I followed the link and ended up at a page that listed all the men arrested over the death of the policeman. About half way down was a name that was quite familiar. It was 1867 and must have been two or three generations before my Grandfather, but the surname was there; the Christian name – one that has been handed down in our family from first born to first born – that was there; and the address was in our part of Manchester. It all fitted. The man – Patrick Kelly – had been born in Athenry, Galway. We were part of the diaspora that occurred as a result of the Great Irish Famine.
My ancestor wasn’t one of the “martyrs”. He was released for lack of evidence. I can understand why this was kept quiet: for an immigrant family trying to build a life in Victorian England it would have been a source of deep shame. But these days we’re not so concerned, and Ireland and England are moving on from their mutual past. The unmentionable can be mentioned once again.
Do I feel different? Of course I don’t. It is friends and family that are important to me now, not boundaries. But I do feel like a piece of a jigsaw has been found – some might say a corner piece. And I think Diarmud would have been impressed. “Jaysus,” I can hear him say. “Yuh couldn’t make dat up, cudger?”