Saturday, 17 March 2012

Enjoying St Patrick's: a cautionary tale

It being St Patrick’s day, I’m reminded of an occasion when I took two doctors from Belfast to visit some US hospitals. Our American hosts had issued us with name badges, and those for my guests were marked ‘Ireland’. Not ‘Northern Ireland’, just ‘Ireland’.

Isn’t that kind of historical ambiguity absolutely wonderful? At that time, there had been some seventy years of pain and bloodshed about whether there was a distinction between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island. Indeed, since the Good Friday Agreement was a long way in the future, we were still caught up in the depths of that misery, the murders, the bombings, the atrocities. So a blissful unawareness of the issues had a certain charm. As I
d found when a colleague of mine due to accompany me to Belfast came to ask about it.

‘Do I need to change money?’ she asked. ‘And will I need my passport?’

I tried to explain to her why the State in which we lived was called the ‘United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland’. But I probably confused her still more by telling her that we wouldn’t have needed passports even to travel to Dublin, although that city really is the capital of an ostensibly foreign country.

‘No passports to travel to the Republic of Ireland?’

‘Nope. It’s probably because we
ve been such enemies for so long. It’s bred a sense of trust in each other.’

As I tell these stories, it occurs to me that they aren
’t really a reflection on the people who prepared those name badges or who didn't understand the chaotic arrangements between countries of the British Isles. It isn’t the people who are stupid, it’s the arrangements.

The visit with the Belfast doctors to the US happened, fortuitously, to include St Patrick’s day. And even more fortuitously one of my guests turned up on the day wearing a green sweatshirt. 

A badge marked ‘Ireland’. Green clothing. On St Patrick’s day. In a nation where everyone, but everyone, claims Irish ancestry. Wherever we went, he would find complete strangers coming up to him, seizing his hand and wishing him a happy St Patrick’s day.

Now this particular doctor was no extremist, but he was very firmly a Protestant and a Unionist. He lived in North Antrim, which made Ian Paisley his Member of Parliament and, while he didn’t speak as loudly, thank God, he certainly had much the same accent.

He kept his cool all day. But every time he received those congratulations, he replied with exactly the same words, cooly pronounced in his Antrim voice.

‘We don’t celebrate it.’

The reactions were a delight to behold. A glance at the name badge, at the green sweater; a moment to take in the accent, undoubtedly from somewhere in the Emerald Isle; and then a few seconds to absorb the import of the words. With a shake of the head, the bemused speaker would wander back into the crowd, defeated and disappointed.

It was completely appropriate. We had once more contributed to the sense of total incomprehension which is, above all else, the hallmark of Anglo-Irish relations.

Happy St Patrick’s Day! If you celebrate it.

Best way to enjoy the day. And maximise the confusion

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