Foreword: What was it like to lose a beloved family member in the conflict between Irish volunteers and the British Armed Forces during the recent "Troubles" in the Six Counties, that long-suffering portion of the Province of Ulster still under English domination? Patricia MacBride, the writer of this story Óglach (translation "Volunteer"), tells how the death of one of her brothers, when she was only eleven years old, affected her then, and since - J.W.
Was there a piper? I cannot remember if there was a piper and it troubles me that I have forgotten.
I see clearly in my mind's eye the day Frank was buried and I remember the piper - a woman. At 11 years of age, the words of the song slipped easily from my lips: "nor meekly serve my time;" and I can still feel the reproachful looks of the stewards which, even then, I understood meant that a funeral was no place for singing. It didn't matter what the song was.
It was my first funeral and I went alone. My brothers were there, but had their own roles to play and had no time for me to be in their way. It seemed the whole world was there, arms linked together for safety, security, solidarity. A wreath was thrust into my hands and I joined the procession of women and girls making our way through the narrow country lanes of Tamlaghtduff.
There was no homily, no condolences from the altar, no condemnation of the killers or even, perhaps surprisingly, of the evil and sinister men who led him astray. It was like a weekday Mass where the prayers were rattled through and the congregation kept its head down and mumbled along. As we left the church, I reached for the hand of my best friend, but the teacher accompanying her would not let her come to my side and stay with me through the burial.
I am so proud of my brothers - their dignity, their courage, their refusal to concede. The three saluting by the grave and the one beneath the clay. Sometimes I feel like a mother to them. I celebrate their achievements and comfort them in their times of need. I welcome the wives they have chosen and I love their children as I do my own. And I mourn for the first-born. I mourn for the loss of my father-son, who raised me from the age of three and whom I never had the chance to mother as I do the others.
Had the song come that day, it would have been "Farewell unto ye bonny, bonny Slieve Gallion Braes." Our lives have revolved around the mountain. It gave birth to my father, to his genuine and honest nature, his love of country, his sense of community, all of the values that he instilled in his children. It's a rocky landscape. The feel of its stones in his hands and the vision of what those stones together could become, gave him the trade that raised our family. The mountains's gentle slopes, appearing outside the window of the bingo bus as we travelled from Belfast, were the sight of our home-coming, a promise of a playground and a chance to run, free from the constraints of city streets and traffic and unsafe places to be and unsafe company to be in.
So we laid the Óglach to rest at the foot of Slieve Gallion. Óglach. Volunteer. Young warrior. For many years it troubled me, that word. All of our lives were shaped by the same events, yet all of our reactions to those events were different. We showed passive resistance, we went to jail, we became public advocates for our community and we chronicled and catalogued the events that shaped the lives of our family, friends and neighbours. But only one died.
I was afraid of the word because I feared that it showed a lack of conviction in me that I could do the same. If I could not apply it to myself, if I could not take the same steps, then I would be failing the legacy that had been left for me.
I hated it too, because it gave to everyone else who wanted to claim it, ownership of him: and I did not want to share that. This was a very personal and private loss, yet it became a public act of resistance and solidarity. A duty of care is imposed upon you for others who share that grief, but you must remain stoic, allowing your identity to become submerged into one of the family, a collective consciousness, a public persona.
And it takes me back to the question - was his choice a conscious one and did he believe that taking up arms was the only option for our community? Was the choice rather to do this or to do nothing? Was the choice to strike back for our own family and what we had seen, experienced, and lost?
One of my earliest emotions was pride. At least that is how I described the emotion to myself at the time. Now in maturity when I reflect upon that, it seems such an inadequate word to express what I truly felt, and I have searched and laboured over it in order to reconcile myself to it and to explain to others what it was for me. I found it in my own language. Dinnseanchas. A sense of ease, comfort and belonging, and the heartfelt love of that place and family which birthed, raised and nurtured us. When I discovered this, then it all made perfect sense.
There was no desire to seek revenge, there was no desire to shed blood, there was no evil, sinister influence that duped or cajoled. It was simply the true emotion of the sense of place within that perhaps only those who have it can relate to. It is something that cannot be learned, merely imparted. It is the emotion that drove him and that continues to drive me.
It is my true legacy. I belong, I am of the country and the country is of me. I can seek to leave and yet I will always return. In the turning of the turf, the planting of the trees, the walking in the woodlands and in the stories of their ancestors, I impart it in my children as it was imparted in me.
And whether the piper played or not is no matter for we buried the Óglach at the foot of Slieve Gallion and his soul, and mine, are at rest.
Copyright © Patricia MacBride, 2005
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