Susan Millar DuMars
In the summer of 2016, I was in a Belfast restaurant sitting opposite writer, political commentator and ex-Republican prisoner Danny Morrison. My husband, the poet Kevin Higgins, had met Danny at an arts event in Liverpool two years before. They’d hit it off, and we’d invited Danny to share an extract from his novel, West Belfast, at our monthly Over the Edge readings series in Galway in March, 2016. I found Danny pleasant company, so when Danny invited Kevin to read his poems at the Feila an Pobail in Belfast, I agreed to tag along.
Now the festival was underway, Kevin’s events done and dusted, and we were out to dinner with Danny, Paul Laverty (screenwriter of The Wind that Shakes the Barley), and half a dozen others involved in the festival. The restaurant was busy. We were all tucking in to fresh seafood and multiple glasses of good wine. It was shaping up to be an excellent night.
Then Danny started telling stories about his days as a Republican prisoner at Long Kesh. Some of the tales were funny, some suspenseful. All dark. Danny is a very good storyteller. It was hard not to be drawn in. Especially as I was sitting directly across from him, well lit on red wine.
And here is where it gets tricky.
My mother is a Belfast Protestant. She and her five brothers and sisters grew up on Mackey Street in the city. They were poor. They slept under coats, three to a bed. They left school to go to work while in their teens – fourteen, in the case of my mom. My grandfather and all three of my uncles were in Loyalist marching bands. One of my uncles by marriage was in the B-Specials. None of this meant much to me growing up. My mom came to the US as a housekeeper/nanny and I was raised in Philadelphia. When I was a teen, I cared a lot about the B-52s (who had hits with Love Shack and Rock Lobster) and not at all about the B-Specials.
But even though I didn’t know much about The Troubles, I did know growing up that, by American standards, I was the wrong kind of Irish. Most Americans think all Irish people are Catholic and live in thatched cottages. They’re somehow able to understand that there is a conflict in Northern Ireland without ever conceptualising between whom the conflict is. When I was sixteen, I wore orange on St Patrick’s Day just to see if anyone noticed. One person did. And she was Scottish.
Now, to my knowledge, with the exception of that one uncle, no one in my family has been intimately involved with the Unionist cause. However, all of them consider themselves to be British. That’s a fact as certain as the colour of my eyes. I may not understand it, but I must respect it if I respect them. And I do. My mom and her siblings were born during a world war into actual Dickensian squalor. They survived. All but one left Belfast. They made lives for themselves. I respect that.
I can only remember Northern Ireland politics being discussed in our house once. This was in 1981, during the Hunger Strikes. I’ve since written a poem about this. My mom’s friend Betty, who traded Northern Ireland for Minnesota, thought the Strikers were criminals, not heroes. This was at odds with the narrative endorsed by Irish Americans. I felt caught in the middle, unable to choose a side. We were on Food Stamps at the time, with big pale blocks of government cheese in our fridge. The notion of anyone choosing to be hungry actually frightened me, made my stomach tighten and turn. And that was as far as my fifteen year old self got in analysing the death of Bobby Sands.
When I was in my thirties, I moved to Ireland. My life in the US had hit a dead end and while on holiday, I’d fallen in love with Galway. Its size, scenery and artiness suited me. I wasn’t too worried about not fitting in. I’d been a poor fit in America, so feeling out of place was normal to me. And I soon found that Galwegians weren’t keen to discuss The Troubles anyway; when they were mentioned, eyes rolled toward Heaven and someone quickly changed the subject.
I do remember once, soon after I got here, being out in a pub with a group and becoming uncomfortable as one man, who knew my family history, delivered a furious anti-Unionist speech at our table. I wound up crying in a bathroom stall, partly because I felt bullied and partly because I was too ignorant to argue back. I did go through a phase of reading all I could on Northern Ireland, but it only left me sad and confused.
The truth is I don’t care whether Northern Ireland is Irish or British. I want its people to be happy and safe; I know I don’t get to choose how that happens. I feel angry at people like the shouting man in the Galway pub for choosing posturing and the past over support for a collective future. I got angry again last year when Kevin and I invited Unionist politician and ex-prisoner Billy Hutchinson to read from his memoir at Over the Edge, and received online harassment and abuse. When Danny read, nothing; when Billy read, we had to bring in additional security. This offends me deeply. People can like Billy or not (I do). But if allowing a person to tell their story is a threatening idea to you, you are the problem.
As a writer, teacher and readings organiser, all of what I do begins with the idea that each voice is valuable. Cancel Culture is anathema to me. Yet I remember well how twitchy I was at first when Danny Morrison sat across a table from me, sharing stories about his time as a Republican prisoner. I wasn’t sure what he wanted from me, nor what I wanted from myself. I literally didn’t know where to look.
But as the sky darkened and my glass was refilled, I had a realisation. I didn’t need to approve of these stories. Nor disapprove. What Danny was describing was the past, his past, and at this late date he didn’t need me to be either his recruit or his adversary. Only his witness. To know, to understand what things were like for him then. A deep sense of peace enveloped me as I understood that all I was being asked to do was listen.
I could do that.
Susan Millar DuMars has published five poetry collections and one book of short stories; she is at work on the second, with support from the Irish Arts Council. She and her husband, poet Kevin Higgins, have organised the Over the Edge readings in Galway since 2003.
Susan and Kevin will be reading alongside poet and ex-Hunger Striker Laurence McKeown at the Imagine! Festival in Belfast at 7:30 on Monday, March 21st at the Crescent Arts Centre. Find out more and purchase tickets here.