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2006-04-11 The invisible lines that put miles between neighbours

I never knew my mothers family  we were partitioned by an invisible line. My maternal grandparents in Bangor died before I was born.

 

My mothers sister  Ethel  loved coming to Sligo in summertime, often accompanied by her friend Peggy. When Ethels health failed, that all stopped. But Mum had three other sisters and two brothers  I never met any of them. I blame that invisible line. Coincidentally, my fathers only sister married a Bangor man, and moved from Sligo to Bangor. We had double the reason to visit, or be visited, but that line stopped me getting to know my relations.

 

On occasions, we ventured as far as Enniskillen for shopping. Sligos Woolworths had closed : I missed it. We were always stopped on the bridge between Blacklion and Belcoo. Were these twin-towns really in different countries? Soldiers with strong English accents insisted on searching our boot. On the way back we declared Veda bread, Caramac, Opal Fruits, Spangles and other groceries unavailable south of the line. We never declared the bargain petrol. As we passed through Letterbreen to Enniskillen, the roads improved, the gardens appeared better-kept, English flags flew, and strange red-brick modern churches had billboards promising forgiveness and eternal life. Very infrequently we might venture further, sometimes to pick up Auntie Ethel part-way, but I was always unsettled by towns like Augher, Clogher and Aughnacloy. Some of the pavement edges were painted in red, white and blue stripes  did someone really set off with three separate paint-pots to perform such a tedious futile task? I wondered if children played as we did down south, as I watched many of them on TV marching in parades playing flutes and drums  their music left me cold.

 

As I got older, I learned about the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, and heard about King Billy at the Boyne. But I always found it strange that England owned the top right hand corner of our little island. The Government of Ireland Act (1920) drew a 335 mile-long line partitioning off six of Ulsters nine counties. Still, Unionist politicians talked about Ulster as if they owned the whole lot. These were people who considered themselves British by ties of blood, politics, history, allegiance and religion. Loughs Melvin and Macnean were partitioned  I wonder if the British and Irish trout spoke to each other, and if they ever dared to swim across that line.

 

For years I watched a bellowing defiant evangelical, almost comical, cleric on our TV screens, who was very unlike our southern priests and clergy, and for some reason wasnt given an actors voice. His hatred didnt seem Christian. Today his feeble rantings appear sadly pathetic.The campaign of terror worsened, we heard of bombs, punishment beatings, kneecappings and killings. My uncles printing works in Lisburn bore the brunt of several attacks. Then things started happening south of the line, at Dublin, Warrenpoint and Mullaghmore!

Everything changed. The Good Friday agreement recognised the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland, whether Irish or British. Were people realising, again, that fighting is futile? Now the southern roads seem better than the northern ones, our petrols cheaper, we are less paranoid about our southern registrations, and the ugly watchtowers are disappearing. A few years ago I was involved in several highly successful cross-border opera projects with Scottish Opera, using a chorus made up of people from both sides. Fifty-four years ago, when my Northern mother married my Southern father, that cross-border project proved also to be a huge success.

Today, we still change our money, the phone network rather bafflingly changes en route to Newry, Dublins Aircoach and Ulsterbus constantly run to and from Dublin, but still we dont have the courage to sing Fields of Athenry at the Ulster Hall or the Waterfront. It is far from fixed. But as the network of minor meandering smuggling roads disappears, and the motorways become bigger and better, surely that invisible line will soon cease to rear its ugly head.

My mothers family are all gone now. I recently visited the McClure grave in Bangor for the first time, and began to get to know my Mums home town, all too late. I whispered Hello to John and Annie, my elusive grandparents. I couldnt help but feel a little anger at history, and that damned line, for keeping us apart.