This is a guest post by Estelle Birdy.
There may be some people out there who don’t actually know that I’m from Co. Louth. Just so you know, I am. Last Sunday I travelled with my four kids and the dog, to Blackrock, Co Louth. These days, when you’re travelling on the M1 from Dublin, a good bit North of Drogheda, (a dreadful place in South Louth), you come over a rise and you get the most amazing view of beautiful countryside, the sea and the Cooley Mountains. Every time I drive over that rise, I have a bodily reaction. I really feel something. I’ve examined this feeling and it’s something more than the normal reaction you might have to beautiful scenery. It’s a big, big feeling.
We all arrived at the house. It’s a 1970’s Bungalow Bliss style house, like most of the houses on the Old Golf Links Road. Bought in 1975, with a Louth County Council mortgage by my parents, returning home after many years in London. My mother’s from Tipperary, a council house in the arse end of nowhere. Her Dad was killed in his early 40’s in a mining accident. He was a Trade Unionist and a believer in education being the key to getting people out of poverty. Unusually for poor people of the time, all seven of the children went to secondary school. Of the seven siblings, five had to emigrate. Of those five, only my mother came back to settle. Two others came back but much later in life.
My Dad grew up in Carrickmacross. His Dad was a cattle dealer and made enough money to have a nice house and by the 50’s, a car. My Dad’s family even went on holidays. To Blackrock, Co Louth, funnily enough. Of the nine children in his family, three had to emigrate and a fourth chose to. All three who had to emigrate, eventually migrated back.
On Sunday then, I went for a walk. I rambled down the Rock, (as it is known in those parts). It’s really a very pleasant place. The houses are nice. It’s got a relatively new council estate built at end of our road. Those houses are really nice too. The council estate was built because, at the height of the boom, the adult children of people who had grown up in Blackrock, didn’t have a hope in hell of affording a house in Blackrock. Some good citizens got a petition going, to stop the building of the estate as it would devalue “our houses” and attract “the wrong elements” into the area.
They arrived to our house with their petition and their beseeching, we-understand-each-other faces, one evening. To my mother’s doorstep. She told them to “Get the fuck away from my door” and chased them out the gate. I thought of this as I passed the estate where one of my oldest friends now lives with her kids.
I walked down the leafy loveliness of the Rock Road. I was away in dreamland when I heard a voice calling, “Well if it isn’t Estelle Birdy”. It was Paula, the older sister of another of my friends, and her husband. We stopped and had a chat about our kids and how our aging parents are doing and just stuff.
I walked on down towards the beach road. I stopped at the top of the slope just looked at the beautiful view across the bay. The tide was out but there was shimmering silvery water out at the river. I walked past the house where the judge used to live. I don’t know if the family still lives there. He was no ordinary judge. He was a judge in the North. At a time when judges from the North and their families got blown up and shot. This judge was a Catholic and he took refuge South of the border in Blackrock. His daughter, at college in the North, had to use a false name. We thought that was hilarious when we were at school. We used to joke that she called herself, “Eileen Shoot All The Brit Bastards”, just to be safe. You find that kind of thing funny when you’re fifteen. Actually, I still find it funny.
The family had 24 hour Garda protection. They had a sentry box outside the front of the house. The house backs onto the beach and has a little track down to the strand. They had a big bay window at the back, to make the best of the views. As I was passing, I thought of the day when, myself and my cousins were tracking around torturing each other with dares. We used to dare each other to get into people’s gardens and take a flower or run around right up at their windows or something that could get you in trouble if you were caught.
This day, one of my cousins, (who shall remain nameless), was dared to go in and steal a daffodil from this particular house. We didn’t even know it was the judge’s house at the time. Up we rocked, all 6 of us, into the garden. The man himself was reading the Sunday newspapers sitting in the window. The nameless cousin, ran in and took about 50 daffodils. We all marched around the garden. Then we all left. My mother went feckin’ mad when we got back with all those flowers. I often wondered, in the intervening years, what the Garda protection was for and why they only thought the front of the house needed protection.
Then I walked back down the road towards the village. And who should I meet only a man who is black. There are lots of people of different colours living in Blackrock now. When I was growing up, it would have been a real talking point if a black man turned up. You had to go to Dublin to see a black man and only then if Phil Lynott was in town. I had been in London until I was nearly five, so I expected people to be all different colours. I remember going to Dublin and feeling weird that in this city everyone looked the same. I said to the man, “At least it’s not raining”, looking up at the grey sky. He beamed at me and said, “Yes, everything’s A O.K.” and did that O.K. hand gesture.
I don’t know why but meeting him made me even happier.
The church in Blackrock is up at the top of a big hill and the front door faces towards the bay and the mountains. I turned up and started climbing the hill. I found a 1 cent coin on the way. Lucky. In the porch of the church. There were two men, a really old one and one about my age. We said hello to each other.
I said to them, “Is there a mass on inside or something?” The older man said, “You’re obviously a local. We’re not from here you know. We’re from Armagh.”
I said, “Oh my God! Armagh? Foreigners like?”
The younger one laughed but the older man said, “We’re strangers here. We’ve never been here before. We’re coming for a wedding next Friday. We came today to check out where the church is.”
Five days in advance of the wedding, they were checking where the church was. Just in case they’d be late or get lost.
Then he looked out through the door of the church and asked me what that was out there, “Is it a lake?” I said, “No that’s the sea”. I explained to him that the tide was out now but on its way back in. I pointed out the river and told them how it fills up as the tide comes in but is a shallow trickle when it’s out. How it’s an illusion though, as the tide comes back in. The sea looks to be miles away and you could have crossed the river in its shallow state and be playing miles away from shore. But the river is filling up, from the other sides of the estuary. You try to cross back but the river is deep now, with whirlpools and undertows you never expected. I told them how 3 kids had drowned like this, while their parents were on the beach on a hot weekend. They crossed the river where it’s really close to the shore. When they tried to get back, just a couple of hundred metres, they drowned in the river. The first two were brothers and it happened when I was in sixth class. They found their bodies on the Monday. I remember the weird quiet in the school, a few steps up from the beach, when the word went round that they were being taken up from the shore. No one knew them personally. They weren’t local. I think they came from Knockbridge or somewhere. As I was telling the story, the feelings of that day came back so strongly. It was so shocking. They were kids, just like us and they had drowned on our beach. The other boy, who coincidentally, had the same surname as those boys but was no relation, drowned some years later. It was some years after again, before a sign was put up along the promenade, warning of the dangers of crossing the river. I told the men this. The younger man said, “Isn’t that always the way?”
We stood looking at the sea together for a while. The old man said, “I’ve never seen anything like that before. It must be good to be a local here. You’re lucky to be a local.”
I hadn’t considered this. I said, “I’m not really a local. Well, I suppose. I grew up here. I haven’t lived here for a long time”. I didn’t really know what to say. Then I said, “Yeah, you’re right. I am a local.”
We parted company. I wished them a good time at the wedding and they headed off. I went into the church. The lights were dimmed. There were a few candles burning on those offertory candle thingys on the altar. I was completely alone in the church. I sat down in a pew near the top on the right hand side. I felt weird. Like there was something gathering around me. It smelt exactly the same as it always smelt. Sensations and memories and random thoughts started flooding me.
I was sitting in the exact spot where I had sat for my First Communion. Beside Sandra, who had the exact same shoes as I had. I stopped going to mass quite young, at 11 or so, because I didn’t want to and my parents didn’t make me. But I had spent a lot of time in this Church after that. There were easy pickings for myself and my cousins. People dropped a lot of change on the floor. Change that bought lots of sweets. We used to race each other, on our bellies, up and down the church pulling ourselves across the cushiony kneeling things. Memories of funerals and weddings and tone deaf singing ringing in my ears. Being dragged out of the confession box by the sacristan when we got trapped inside because some ceremony started and we couldn’t escape.
My Dad arguing with Cardinal O’Fiaich at the altar during my confirmation because he had called me the wrong name. Exasperated, Tommy O’Fiaich, turned to me and said, “Look, will you just tell me your confirmation name and never mind him”.
Thoughts of the boys in the river and the desperate search for them on that hot Sunday. The fishermen rushing to their boats. Locals scouring the whole length of the shoreline, desperately hoping they’d walked to a safety. Why had they come into my head and why I had I told the Armagh people about them? Thoughts of Sandra, of the same Communion shoes fame, who still lives, now with her own family, next to the school. How she told me about how important it was for her that there were other non-white kids in her childrens’ school because her children are mixed race.
The memories and the thoughts were like ghosts whispering around me. I started to cry. I couldn’t stop crying alone in the semi-darkness. It wasn’t maudlin in a, “my childhood was idyllic and constantly happy” kind of way. It was everything. As if every emotion and thought was crying to get out. And it was the feeling of belonging. In this place. At this time. Even, in this church. The old Armagh man could read it straight away. Maybe in my face or the way I walked up the hill? I belong to this place and it belongs to me. But I wasn’t even born here. I don’t live there anymore but I own this part of the world and it owns me and no one can ever take that away from me.
Then, thoughts of those who have a place where they belong. A place that feels like this, for them. People who have to leave that home. Not because they want to travel the world but because they’re going to starve or be tortured and killed. Because their home has become a place of fear and death. Thoughts of the man from Afghanistan who set off with a large group to walk to the U.K. They lost a lot of the group along the way. Mostly the women and children. He’s stuck in a make shift hut in Calais. Calais used to be owned by England. Afghanistan used to be part of the British Empire. If he’d been born in a different time, he would have been a British citizen all along. Albeit a lesser one.
Thoughts of the story my friend Orla, (also from Blackrock), had told me the day before about how she couldn’t stop sobbing at the stories she had read about the people being picked up in the Mediterranean by the Irish navy. People end up in the water and they hold onto their children for hours at a time. Gripping them tightly in desperation. Keeping their heads above water. After holding maybe multiple children in their arms, they, (if they’re lucky), get pulled out by these Irish people. And they find their children dead in their arms. They’ve probably been dead for ages. They just needed to hold on. To hold their heads out of the water. But it wasn’t enough. Like Rowan Gillespie’s famine sculpture along the quays in Dublin, with the man with his dead child draped over his shoulders. It’s based on a real story of a man who walked for many miles carrying his child, not realising that his child was long dead on his back.
Thoughts of photos from the 60’s, of the most beautiful gardens in Afghanistan. Afghan people fought long and hard to stay in their homeland. It is a beautiful place. They don’t want to leave it until they have to leave it. Sudanese or Syrian people don’t think the U.K. is a really great place to go and live. It’s grey and cold, and so too, sometimes, are the people. They’d mostly like to stay in the places they know and love.
But if I want to go anywhere in the world, I expect to be able to go there. I have no idea why anyone should stop me. If I wanted to go to visit Afghanistan or Sudan or Syria, I’d take it as a personal affront, to be told I couldn’t. I go to the U.K. whenever I like. I could have a British passport if I wanted, simply because I was born there. I have an Irish passport simply because my parents were born here. I thought of the arbitrary nature of all of this and the pretence that there is some inalienable right to be somewhere on this planet and to keep others out. There isn’t. It’s not a natural law or anything. It’s just made up. These are the rules of the game. And it is just a game; with an ever changing set of rules, made up, not by nature, but by people. The current rules of the game dictate that my ‘belonging place’ is Blackrock, Co. Louth but that I can change that place to just about anywhere in the world and I am unlikely to be even called a migrant. Those are the rules. At the moment.
Were my parents migrants when they left to move to England? Or when they came back? I think of my Dad starting to tear up at my kitchen table last year, talking about those famous signs, “No Blacks. No Irish. No Dogs”. I have my answer. They were migrants when they went to England. They were just going home when they moved to Ireland. What of the 1970’s me though? Was I a migrant when I first came to Ireland? Probably not because my parents were born in Ireland. Yet, I could still have that British passport if I wanted. That would make me British wouldn’t it? I had a completely London accent, at the time. Does that make a difference? Keeping up? You’d better. The rules can change very quickly. For instance, one of the current rules is, “Call anyone travelling, on an overcrowded boat from Africa or Asia to Europe, ‘a migrant’. Not a ‘person’. Not even a ‘migrant person’. Just a ‘migrant’. There are verbs to use when referring to these ‘migrants’. ‘Swarming’ and ‘scurrying’ are acceptable.
Words are containers of meaning. The people who make up the rules, know this. Keeping up with the rules is difficult. Make sure you’re ahead of the game. Otherwise you could end up lost on the other side of the river. With the waters rising over your head.
I took my 1 cent and paid for a candle and lit it. I hope the church doesn’t mind. That was all I had on me. I thought of all of the people in the sea. That’s all it was though. A thought. It doesn’t take anyone out of the water. I wished or prayed, or whatever you want to call it, for everything to be better.