Great confessional piece from Anthony McIntyre, on the nature of childhood and the mysterious origins of sectarianism. He talks of his 10 year old daughter now living in the south, who on interrogating the census form, no longer knows what a Protestant is:
When she was around five and living in West Belfast, she came in one day to announce to me her latest discovery – Protestants were bad. I asked her to explain the thinking behind that ponderous judgement and she simply told me that Protestants shoot you. The identity of ‘you’ was not made clear but already in her young mind an ‘us and them’ divide was being forged. The Protestants were ‘them’ and the ones being shot were ‘us.’ They of course were bad for shooting us, whoever made up the ‘us’ camp. I didn’t go as far as to explain to her that her father was no innocent when it came to shooting Protestants. Work for another day.
Being only her father and not her god I had no desire for her to be made in my image. So, a few days later we set out on a journey to the home of a unionist friend. He and I sat and chewed the fat while his mother in law entertained the child for three hours. On our way home I explained to my daughter that the woman she had such a good time with was a Protestant and that she had not shot us. The moral of the story: Protestants were not bad and they do not shoot us.
There was no understanding on her part of any of the politics around her. But already she was being moulded by the discourses she encountered in her daily life. She never disclosed where she picked it up, probably having forgotten.
I became alive to the fact that in the act of forgetting, my daughter had unlearned the bad and learned the good about people. It left me wondering what Milan Kundera would have thought of the idea that memory over forgetting isn’t always a victory.
For some reason, it put me in mind of the first lines of Louis MacNeice’s great poem, When we were children:
When we were children words were coloured
(Harlot and murder were dark purple)
And language was a prism, the light
A conjured inlay on the grass,
Whose rays to-day are concentrated
And language grown a burning-glass.