Then and Now
I had barely woken up from my sleep when she said it. I realised she was talking about me.
“Strip her! Strip her!” I heard to a raising crescendo as I took off my clothes. My uncles stood facing me. Some of them made for the door, but I don’t know who because I could not look up. To look up meant challenging my mother’s authority.
“Strip her!” she said once more. Then, when she could find nothing, she hit me with a stick. She was looking for a pen and paper secreted on my person, and when she could find nothing, she took to the stick.
One. Two. Three. I counted up to six strokes before I fell into the common behaviour of giving up my husband-to-be andall his works and pomps and being a good girl etcetera, etcetera. At the time, although Ireland had a law that said that at eighteen one could vote in elections, there was another law, probably for the help of so-called heiresses, that said that an adult could not get married without the consent of their parents. This is how I was caught.
All the time I was thinking this, I had decided that they might have the right, but ultimately, I would be valiant and I would have the right. So I said I would be a good girl, do as they told, but secretly in my heart, I kept thinking of Shakespearean sonnet No. 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov'd,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.
So, I did what I was told. I finished my degree. I did an extra certificate in higher education. All that they wanted of me. Then I left the country in a dudgeon. I swore I would never set foot in Ireland again. I hated it with a passion.
I got married in Holland. I spent two years there and five in Turkey where I had two children. I still hated my homeland. Still, after I had got a bursary from the Irish Arts Council eight years later, I returned. It helped that I had lived in an almost medieval country where on Fridays, after the daily prayers, there were lines of people waiting to have their loved ones written to, or else, their dilekçe or petitions, sent to the right address. I remember looking at the calligraphy and being amazed that in this twentieth century, such things existed.
I came back to a new country in 1980. The fact that we were in the EU had already been effective. We no longer looked at Britain as the colonial superpower. The students went to Holland, Germany, and France on exchange schemes and the Erasmus programme was on its way. We felt part of a European entity which was there to see. Everything from economics to cultural relations was on the up. Suddenly, we were a nation among nations. This was a wonderful revelation and a great joy to those of us who had lived abroad.
Then, the Berlin Wall fell. This was a wonderful excitement for us who had for years read the occasionally brilliant books from the Eastern bloc. Now we could go there and see it for ourselves. Again, united Europe was afloat and doing well.
I still think that joining the EU was the best of all things for Ireland. It made us equal to the great nations of Europe and yet at home with ourselves. I still believe this, whether in humanitarian, or economic ways. The EU has become a way of life. We can no longer have the sort of carry-on that happened in my unhappy teenage and early adult years.
The overwhelming and suffocating power of the Catholic Church has also disappeared with the breakdown of barriers and the arrival of more varied cultures and religions. And with it, the abuse of power by small-minded, tin-pot dictators has diminished considerably, all thanks to the adoption of more powerful and comprehensive EU human rights laws.
Thanks to the EU, I now have more freedom and the right to decide my own fate, unlike Ireland of the mid-twentieth century.