Analysis – State Failures: Still Just Across the Border

¶ An old joke: asking what’s the difference between apples and oranges, the answer being there’s no such thing as apple bastards. An acquaintance once told it to my family and was embarrassed when he found out my father’s a Protestant. 

My father thought it was hilarious. 

Grandpa used to drive a Saab. In my memory it’s British racing green. He didn’t keep it long. After a few months he sold it and bought a Citroën instead. Years later my father said Grandpa didn’t want people to see him driving the Saab and say, to themselves or others, Look at Thompson McNeill. Driving a Saab. Who does he think he is?  He didn’t consider himself that kind of person and didn’t want to give the impression he had ever aspired to, or was even comfortable with, an affectation like Saab ownership.  

It was a bit late for him to think this though, to feel that unease, because if the northern statelet in its first half-century produced successes, he was one, having begun family life with my grandma, Eva, in Portrush on Antrim’s north coast before moving to a tasteful detached redbrick in Jordanstown just outside Belfast. They returned to the coast in retirement. If you were to see Grandpa driving a Saab you’d probably think, Oh yeah, makes sense that Thompson McNeill drives a Saab. 

They were big, Grandpa and Grandma, a true patriarch and a true matriarch, co-heads of the family. When I was a teenager we went to a café in Belleek, just across the Donegal-Fermanagh border, a five-minute drive from the house I grew up in. That makes me a border person, the kind of person former Fine Gael minister for justice Alan Dukes said has violence in our blood, whether we be latent or literal Provos or B-Specials. 

Over a pastry Grandpa and Grandma talked about how the house they’d retired to in 1989, next to the Giant’s Causeway, was maybe too big for them and how they would consider a move to somewhere smaller. Grandpa suggested a house over the road from an undertaker so that when they died their remains wouldn’t have much of a journey. I laughed. 

Grandpa’s refusal to discuss death with a solemnity Grandma thought appropriate annoyed her. This annoyance encouraged Grandpa and he continued with his jokes. This further annoyed Grandma. Deciding she couldn’t respond on Grandpa’s terms she instead took the conversation elsewhere and engaged me. Apropos of nothing she said, “Eoghan, do you know that your grandfather marched with the Orange Order?” A cut well taken, this changed things. It stopped Grandpa’s jokes anyway. He hated it, had to drop character, felt he had to address it. He waved it off and said, no, it wasn’t like that, he was nine years old at the time, he’d marched with the Boys’ Brigade just so he could bang a drum. He denounced the order. I think he called them that shower.

The worst thing Grandma could think of to say about Grandpa, in that café just across the border, was that he’d marched with the Orange Order. It being brought up unbalanced Grandpa. This was what Thompson and Eva McNeill thought about the Orange Order. 

¶ The summer I finished my journalism master’s a classmate and I got our first big assignment: covering the Orange Order’s march in Rossnowlagh, Donegal for the Irish Independent. I’m kind of a local, coming from Ballyshannon, about ten kilometres from Rossnowlagh. When the order came to town, the weekend before the twelfth, locals stayed away. I’d never been. 

I spoke to some Orangemen. 

A young fella manning a stand was almost apologetic when I asked what kind of flags he stocked. Union Jacks and red hands of Ulster he said, along with those of some paramilitaries, with a bit of an eye roll, as if to say, Ah sure you know yourself. There were Israeli stars of David flying above another stall. I asked the girl behind why she was selling this flag. I’ve gone back to the piece the Independent published and see she told me, "It’s just some people in the Protestant religion relate to the Israelis in the Bible,” eliding quite a bit about the flag’s significance to unionists and loyalists and anyone else who may consider themselves settlers in Ulster’s occupied six counties. 

I remember speaking to a man in his forties from Enniskillen, Fermanagh, dressed smart casual and wearing wraparound sunglasses, who was more interested in talking about his British rather than Orange identity, telling me of his pride in the English and Scottish and Welsh and, as he said, Northern Irish soldiers who prosecuted the United States’ war on terror in Iraq, taking down Saddam Hussein in the name of our western values. (Whether his use of the plural possessive to talk about these values meant he thought they were shared by all of society or he and I, standing outside the Sandhouse Hotel, I’m not sure. I couldn’t share with him membership of the Orange Order anyway). 

I don’t love what I wrote, don’t hate it either. It’s grand. Almost ten years later the parts that embarrass me are those where I tried to be terribly wry, awfully piquant, wickedly droll in giving descriptions, with no commentary, of things I didn’t like. I described the Rangers and Linfield tattoos on one of the Orangemen’s forearms and gave his explanation that they represented his culture. He also said the Orange Order encounters total bigotry”  in the north. The Independent’s editor used this for the headline. Does the Orange Order face 'total bigotry' in the north? (No).

One Orangeman was marching in Rossnowlagh for the 23rd time. He was Down’s deputy county grandmaster, a title I, for some reason, decided to capitalise. “Most of us here today are from a rural background. We know what it is to live with our neighbour and depend on our neighbour if anything goes wrong. We don’t question each other and we’re tolerant of each other,” he said. 

If I were this guy – across the border taking part in a triumphalist march, indulging a kink for flying Union Jacks on southern ground, getting it up the fenians – it’s the kind of thing I’d say to explain myself too. What the fuck was he talking about though? I’m from a rural background. Would this deputy county grandmaster, who doesn’t question his rural neighbours, be tolerant enough of this fallen Catholic to let me join his wee club?

¶ This Patrick’s Day weekend I went to Glencolmcille in the Donegal Gaeltacht for a night on the beer. I was in a round with my mum, brother and a man from Holywood, Down who had a name most parts of the English-speaking world would consider religiously neutral, or not consider at all, but the north would consider Protestant. 

I don’t usually do this but with apologies I asked the entertainment, a young fella singing covers and playing an acoustic guitar, if I could sing a song or two. He was happy enough. I sang One Direction’s What Makes You Beautiful, a song I hadn’t attempted in some time and was disappointed to learn I didn’t have the range for anymore. Fuck it, I went to the bar. A Glen local approached me and asked if I could sing the national anthem. He said he didn’t care if there was guitar to go with it, he just wanted to hear Amhrán na bhFiann. I’d learnt it back in primary school, maybe second or third class, and it was one of those things that had stuck. I told him I could. 

I made my second round of apologies to the young fella with the guitar and asked if I could use his mic again. It was no problem. The bar stood and we sang the anthem together. 

On my way back to my seat, the man from Holywood’s drink in my hands, along with pints for my brother and me, another Glen local came up to me. “C’mere,” he said, drawing closer, “I don’t know if you know this, but see that guy down there,” not gesturing but looking in the direction of the man from Holywood. “That guy down there is… a Protestant.” Before I could respond he continued. “Now he’s a very nice guy but he is… a Protestant.”

“Oh right,” I said. The man paused for a moment’s eye contact. “Do you think you should be singing the national anthem around… a Protestant?” I told him I thought I could. “Really?” he asked, “Singing that around… a Protestant? Do you think he’d be happy?” “Ah I think it’s grand,” I said, “Sure my auld fella’s a Protestant. He hears it all the time and seems to manage.” “Oh!” the man said, throwing his hands up, telling me he didn’t realise and conceding that I “probably know better”.

He must’ve thought the man from Holywood, though a nice Protestant, to be the kind of Protestant who’d object to hearing Amhrán na bhFiann. Or maybe he thought all Protestants, the nice ones and the bad ones, the ones from the north and the ones from the south, would object to it. 

I sat down beside my brother, opposite the man from Holywood and my mum. I nodded towards the Glen local and expounded his analysis that the man from Holywood is… a Protestant, a very nice… Protestant, but still… a Protestant. I told them that I was to think about whether my singing of Amhrán na bhFiann was in good taste given we were in the company of… a Protestant. 

The man from Holywood thought it was hilarious. 

Eoghan McNeill is co-founder of The Ditch. 

Eoghan McNeill

Eoghan McNeill