I am very pleased to have author D. E. Meredith here today with a guest post to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. I read Meredith’s latest novel, The Devil’s Ribbon, back in December 2011 and thoroughly enjoyed it (read my review). Today the author shares her personal story here, and gives us a glimpse into what motivated her to write The Devil’s Ribbon.
Do You Know Your Father’s a Brit?
by D.E. Meredith ©
The word “Brit” was spat like a curse and my older cousin, The Fiery One with the angry eyes, had pinned me against a wall, inside an old barn. The barn was dark and in the gloom, my other cousin, the one who’d asked me to marry him, though I couldn’t make him out was saying, “Leave her. Just leave her…” but he was too scared of his older brother to intervene.
I was ten years old and I could smell damp hay, the metal stink of peat, bird droppings and sweat. There were chickens burring, scratching in the dirt. The Fiery One’s face was a mad silhouette , all slashes of light and dark across sharp Fermanagh features and he was so close, I couldn’t breathe never mind yell for help. I was speechless, dumbstruck and yet no fists were raised, no slaps reigned down, no hair pulling. Just sour breath with the facts,
“Your mammy married an English man.”
I shook my head, un-sure of what was going on. I’d only come to play in the barn with the black and white kittens. The world turned upside down and I shivered , not able to say no, it’s nothing to do with me, so let me go, let me out of here.
But there was only one voice in that echoing barn and it was low, with a thick Fermanagh accent.
“Do you know how they made us suffer? ”
My dad’s my Dad, I thought. He smells of polo mints, loves to fish and he married a girl called Kathleen. Kathleen like Caitlín Ní Uallachái but who I just call Mum. My gorgeous Mum who smells of lavender soap, hot baked bread but most of all, unerring love.
“Do you know about Drogheda?”
Gloom and foreboding and the word forever burned into the back of my the retina , stamped on the far reaches of my brain, as he repeated:
“Drog. He. Dah.”
A gaelic word, I didn’t yet understand but I soon would do, because his English words came fast and furious as I tried to follow:
“It’s July 12 and Cromwell’s guns are ransacking the town of Drogheda. There’s a river of blood, three thousand dead on the ground. Innocent women and children are running for their lives, screaming, hiding from the murderous British. And that was just the beginning. An English man’s hands are steeped in blood. Irish blood. Your Dad…”
My cousin left me reeling but I knew the terrible truth. That my dad was one of them. One of Cromwell’s men. My cousin opened the door, light flooded in and I was left reeling.
I needed to know about this Drogheda. But first of all I needed understand this anger. Where did it come from? And this is what I learnt. That my family were border people, living in the thick of it, in militant, gun running country. So, I started to ask questions and soon discovered that my Grand dad, a lover of nature, art and poetry was a moderate but that his younger brother, my Great Uncle Gynn, was a Fenian, a Freedom Fighter.
I only knew my Great Uncle Gynn as old man. We’d go to visit him where he lived, way up in a shack like place in the Black mountains and we used to take the Mickey out of him, because when he got drunk and sang rebel songs, he’d get all chocked up with big, fat tears in his eyes. Only later did I discover that as a young man, Uncle Gynn had hidden for over a month in as series of tunnels which ran under our family farm in Cavan, living on hand outs and afraid of his own shadow because this was 1816. The time of the Easter Rising when rebels were hung without trial, and that whilst some said Uncle Gynn was nothing more than, “An ejeet, a paranoid ejeet,” Uncle Gynn remained convinced he was being hunted down by the British soldiers, the merciless Black and Tans. That if he was caught, he’d be hung from a gibbet like others had been, for what he believed in – a Free and Liberated Ireland. He’d been down in Dublin at the time of riots, up to who knows what, pamphleteering, I suppose but he believed till his dying day that, “Tiocfaidh ár lá.” His day would come.
Who knows the truth of this story? Maybe it’s just a bit of blarney, but either way is it any wonder, that growing up, I opted to be “Irish,” rather than British? You see, half casts like me, can make a choice and that I was inextricably drawn to the rebels and romantics; the poets and the fire brands is hardly a surprise now, is it? So I grew more Irish by the minute, spending many a summer on my Grandad’s farm, adopting an Irish accent, just to be one of them.
And this being St Patrick’s Day, I’ve been looking in the mirror and asking myself some questions, such as who are you? What drives you? Because physically, I’m hardly Irish at all. Indeed, I look like my English Father. In the mirror, it’s his eyes staring back at me – Cromwell’s eyes.
And yet my it was my Irish mother who raised me, coaxed me, cleaved to me, whilst my English father was well….English. In other words, silent, repressed, cut off from the emotional hub of our family or simply, off somewhere fishing , whilst my Mum was a screamer and broom thrower – a flower pot narrowly missing my head, I recall on one occasion. But above all Kathleen Maguire was a Fermanagh Woman with skin which should never see the sun, eyes paler than water and at less than five foot one, diminutive but nevertheless, strong and tenacious because she’d known hardship in her most formative years. Growing up on a farm in the 40’s, she’d enjoyed no electricity, no running water, no bath, five sisters to a bed, but sure, you’ve heard this all before and anyway, she’s eighty now.
Her red gold hair’s as white as snow, but she still has the scarlet temper of the dispossessed. That angry, politicized fervour which I saw in my cousin’s eyes that day, and which runs deep in all Irish veins. Born with a sense of injustice, and a need to stamp it out, wherever you might find it. That’s the Irish way and this is the impulse which has informed everything I have ever done with my life. Be it working for the Red Cross, running campaigns, traveling to war zones to expose what I used to call “The Truth” in my youthful naivety, but this is who I am and this is still what drives me. And this is why I write. Because there’s a kind of emotional truth in writing even though its fabrication.
So when we celebrate St Patrick’s Day and we say “Slainte” to a people who love to drink, swear like devil, spin yarns and dance like wild things and who go mad for “the crack,” let’s not forget that the Irish were, until very recently (before the Peace Process, before the Euro Love In, before The Crash) , a nation that was hammered into submission, cleaved apart by hatred, pitted against the enemy, and each other, with a terrible bloody history, stretching back to July 12, 1690 and the terrible Battle of the Boyne, that river of Irish blood. In others words, Drogheda.
And this is what my novel, The Devil’s Ribbon is all about. It’s about Drogheda and the terrible consequences of the English/Irish blood stain.
D.E. Meredith read English at Cambridge, then ran the press office and the land mines campaign for the Red Cross, traveling extensively to Bosnia, Afghanistan and Rwanda during the conflicts. She worked as a consultant on media relations for Greenpeace and other worthy causes before embarking on “The Hatton and Roumande Mysteries” series for St Martin’s Press (the first is the series is Devoured which was released in October 2010). She lives in London. Learn more about Meredith and her work by visiting the author’s website.