Saturday, 12 July 2014
Today is the Twelfth. Most of you won't have any notion what I'm talking about. When I was a child in Northern Ireland the twelfth of July was a big day out. We'd go and watch the bands parade, the flute and accordions and even pipers in kilts. There were banners showing a man with long curly hair on a white horse. We'd eat strawberries from little wooden boxes and follow the bands and the men in their bowler hats and orange collarettes to a field where some men would make speeches we didn't listen to and we had a picnic.
It wasn't until I was a teenager that I realised that this big day out wasn't for everyone in Northern Ireland.
This morning on the news there was an item on the news about the Twelfth in Northern Ireland and the likelihood of sectarian violence later today because of disputed routes for the parades. The presenter on the BBC could hardly disguise his contempt for the marchers and how he considered it ridiculous to be making a fuss about walking along particular stretch of road. They had an 'expert' from Liverpool University who explained that the community is still largely divided into Catholics and Protestants with few integrated schools or what he described as 'mixed' marriages. Sad but true.
When I meet new people in England and they realise that I'm from Northern Ireland, they often ask me if I am Catholic. I'm always a little embarrassed to admit I'm from Heaney's The Other Side. No one from Northern Ireland ever does this. We don't need to: things like names or schools give it away. As Heaney said in 'Whatever You Say, Say Nothing', ‘the rule/ that Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod/ and Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape’.
This article by Jenny McCartney published in 'The Spectator' last year, 'Seamus Heaney's poems are for Protestants too', explains what I'm trying to say better than I can. And, as I can't seem to stop myself these days, another poem:
The Other Side
Thigh deep in sedge and marigolds
a neighbour laid his shadow
on the stream, vouching
'It's poor as Lazarus, that ground,'
and brushed away
among the shaken leafage.
I lay where his lea sloped
to meet our fallow,
nested in moss and rushes,
my ear swallowing
his fabulous, biblical dismissal,
that tongue of chosen people.
When he would stand like that
on the other side, white-haired,
swinging his blackthorn
at the marsh weeds,
he prophesised above our scraggy acres,
then turned away
towards his promised furrows
on the hill, a wake of pollen
drifting to our bank, next season's tares.
For days we would rehearse
each patriarchal dictum:
Lazarus, the Pharoah, Solomon
and David and Goliath rolled
magnificently, like loads of hay
too big for our small lanes,
or faltered on a rut -
"Your side of the house, I believe,
hardly rules by the book at all."
His brain was a whitewashed kitchen
hung with texts, swept tidy
as the body of the kirk.
Then sometimes when the rosary was dragging
mournfully on in the kitchen
we would hear his step around the gable
though not until after the litany
would the knock come to the door
and the casual whistle strike up
on the doorstep. "A right-looking night,"
he might say, "I was dandering by
and says I, I might as well call."
But now I stand behind him
in the dark yard, in the mourn of prayers.
He puts his hand in a pocket
or taps a little tune with the blackthorn
shyly, as if he were party to
lovemaking or a strangers weeping.
Should I slip away, I wonder,
or go up and touch his shoulder
and talk about the weather
or the price of grass-seed?