We were five minutes out of Belfast airport when Dad was finally straight with us:
“Giving you both a heads up. Before the first procession, it’s open casket.”
Finn shifted in the back seat.
“We have to see her body? Why?”
“Just how they do funerals in Ireland. Don’t worry, it’s all done up. Embalmers know what they’re doing.”
I had to chime in: “Finn, are you telling me you didn’t watch that one episode of Derry Girls on the plane?”
“Rory, why’d I ever wanna watch Derry Girls?” Headphones went back on Finn’s head. He’d complained about Dad giving me the front seat; “He’ll just fall asleep anyway.”
“Your mum’s not here and Rory’s older.”
There’d only been three tickets, and the speed of everything made her feel sick.
“Couldn’t they have waited more than three days to put her body in the ground?”
Out of Dad’s earshot, I’d promised to ‘watch out for him.’
To be there when he needs someone.
But planes and terminals aren’t the right place to talk things over. Flying was easier than reading his mind on seeing an Ireland without his mum in it.
I watched Dad as he watched the road.
Belfast was bricks and hedgerows, like a dozen-or-so memories. Celtic clouds rallied in the sky, ready to keep this isle emerald.
We turned onto a long road. On the right, an iron fence stood against the tarmac, guarding parks and estates — all opposite rows of uniform terrace houses. Churches broke rank with stylised message boards and conflicting takes on parapets.
“Are these all different Protestant denominations?”
“Uh-huh. Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Churches of Ireland, England. This used to be a very well-to-do Protestant area.”
Dad glanced in the rear-view and gestured back to my brother.
“Finn. Finn. Take those off. I actually lived not far from here in a student house while studying. See, just down past that street.”
We watched the suburb pass us by. I needed to ask something while my brother could hear: “Have you ever seen a dead body before?”
The headphones went on before the response.
“Yeah, I s’pose so, at other funerals. But the embalming makes it passable.”
“What’s it like, seeing someone’s body?”
“Like they’re sleeping.”
That was it. “Okay.”
Dad slowed the rental car to a halt. A truck was easing out a cobbled alleyway ahead of us. We passed the alley too. From the wall, a faceless giant aimed his rifle down-scope at me.
This was Northern Ireland after all.
The Irish Republican Army aren’t for polite Belfast conversation, but still decorate its backways. Murals came every block or so, paint crisp and full of old pride. Figures bore flags as much as guns. Colours went with loyalties: stark lines of the Union, the Red Hand of Ulster raised or the Green, White and Gold flying on a faultless Irish wind.
The real stuff stripped my lips raw for weeks. Maybe the IRA had the right idea about balaclavas.
They kept their painted watch over the pubs across the street: real Irish pubs, not the O’Brisbane bars, all of them stained-glass, lacquered bones, with plaques in memoriam.
Dad piped up when I asked after them. “I remember there should be a large one round here. There, on the right.”
It looked the size of a gallery landscape, set high into another alley, dated sympathies bright on jet-black.
“Saw that pub we just passed? One Saturday night, a group of Protestants walked in and unloaded their guns into the crowd.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“A couple IRA guys were known to frequent the place. Protestants wanted payback for something they’d blown up. Besides, this is a Catholic area – Catholic pub – so they sprayed the place indiscriminately.”
I looked back at Finn. His eyes narrowed at mine.
Dad doesn’t talk about Northern Ireland’s sectarian violence. He mustn’t have been in Belfast till the mid-80s, missing the worst.
Still, I had to ask.
“So did you ever experience any of the Troubles, like, firsthand? Other than that time with the old family car.”
(His dad’s minivan had been stolen on a camping trip; police got back to them when it was found in a bomb factory. Typical IRA.)
“Hmm. No, not really. Well, there was this one time a Protestant boy ‘round my age was shot a few streets over from where I was living.”
“In the house-share? What happened?”
Dad shrugged. “He got shot while he was out on a walk with his girlfriend. Turned out he was a young member of the UVF.”
The U was for Ulster, with a ‘Volunteer Force’ to march in tow.
“We heard a gunshot and after a while went to look. Found them and I tried to resuscitate. ‘Course, he was already dead, but someone needed to look like they were doing something to help before the ambulance arrived. It was a drive-by. The gunman was long gone.”
“But they caught him though, right?”
“Sure, they did — and he was Protestant too.”
“Why’d a Protestant shoot another Protestant?”
“Makes sense. But how can you be sure?”
“Because two weeks before, I had walked a girl home, and on my way back I was stopped by an unmarked police car. They got out, asked for my name and ID, where I was from, what I was doing walking down their street.”
“And you told them?”
“If they thought I was lying, I’d be in their car. Then maybe the station.”
“So you think they were targeting you?”
“Dunno. I’m just saying that somehow someone had the impression that down that road a Catholic boy was walking a Protestant girl home. And they didn’t like it.”
Somewhere in Belfast we’d crossed the county line, south from Antrim to Down. Postcard Ireland made it obvious. Rolling hills matched rolling skies as clouds congregated to the Mountains of Mourne in the distance. No more murals.
I tried again:
“When I asked before, you didn’t say you’d ever seen a dead body outside of funerals.”
Dad puckered his lower lip. “Didn’t come to mind. Happened a long time ago.”
We all take (some) pride in where we and our family are from. Parents/guardians are the first touchstones for our experience of culture, and how it reflects/shapes the social world around us. So how do you feel when you are separate to “where you’re from?” How do you feel confronted with the darker experiences of that world? How do you relate?
Rory’s a first-year Creative Writing student at QUT. Previously from the UK, Brisbane’s been home for almost 8 years. He’s found choosing to become a writer/editor soothes the guilt of not going outside that often, but hearing about YA in tutorials provided a pretty motivating way to get back on his feet.