She showed me a piece of paper and, with tears in her eyes, revealed that she was Irish, too; that she was lost in London, too. I remembered her from the boat.
Waking to hopeful, historic news, a line in The Irish Times stood out. “Education is the enemy of those who would work to keep Irish men and women slaves to a dark past.” What a darkness it has been.
I was 10 years-old before an Irish woman was eligible to sit on a jury. I was leaving my teens before the purchase of contraceptives was legalised. Up until 1990, a man raping his wife was considered to be above the law. It was 1995 before the Irish State accepted that divorce was a possibility for people trapped in miserable marriages. My homeland has a history of incarcerating and brutalising women who became pregnant out of wedlock, in institutions called Magdalene Laundries, where they were forced to cleanse and atone for their “sins”. The last one closed in 1996. This darkness is recent history. When I was growing up, the obsession with sinful sex was palpable while, ironically, few altar boys were safe. Marriage equality was introduced with a resounding vote only in 2015.
I love Ireland, but the Catholic Church has a lot to answer for, an institution that presided over and turned a blind eye to the burial of “illegitimate” babies in septic tanks when they were too weak to be sold to the highest bidders in the United States. James Joyce famously described Ireland in the most damning terms. “Do you know what Ireland is? asked Stephen with cold violence. Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.” Waking up to hope, I read the headlines, and sighed at the passing of a sad history, thankful for the dawn of compassion, the product of education. And I thought of her.
My first trip outside of Ireland was in 1984. I had just left school and travelled alone by train and ferry to London. It was a memorable education. The sea crossing from Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead was a stormy, vomity nightmare. The night train from the port in Wales to London, infamously known as The Irish Mail, was a filthy vehicle, a reminder that we dirty Irish were not welcome at a time when innocent people were being ritually murdered in English bars by the IRA.
At Euston Station, I stood, trying to figure out how I would get to my destination. The train station in Galway had only two tracks. I was suddenly tackled by a police officer who dragged me from the main concourse to safety as tribal, bloody war broke out in front of me. Everton fans were being greeted by Arsenal fans in a mindless battle that was typical of the time. She approached like a ghost, suddenly there. I recalled having seen her on the boat, as green as I on the heaving seas, but somehow even more alone in her distress, it seemed. Ghostlike, shy, producing a carefully folded piece of paper, she asked if I could help with directions to an address near the “telephone tower”. Of course, I was a useless resource and remember her today only because she mumbled, “I’ll have to do that again tomorrow,” nodding towards the platform.
It was a strange, new world where football supporters converged to savagely batter each other and a young Irish woman with tears in her eyes took an overnight trip to London. That night, in the local pub in Chelmsford, I told Old Terry about this crazy girl’s insane journey, oblivious to her story. He shook his head sadly, using his hands to suggest a growing belly, and ordered another round. Remembering her today (we would be a similar age), the words of Seamus Heaney come to mind:
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
Lord, Miriam. “Yes, Yes, Yes. A resounding, emphatic Yes.” The Irish Times. May 26, 2018.
Heaney, Seamus. The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.