Politics was not a conversation piece in the community in which I grew up, except perhaps, amongst family and very close friends, “who think like us.” And first you had to be sure that they really did think “like us.”
My parents had lived through the Civil War, had been affected by it, and never talked about it. In the parish in which they lived, two young men had “disappeared,” and they would have known the families. They would also have known the families of the two young men who, allegedly, knew where the bodies had been buried.
The memories were raw. The secrets were whispered. The tensions barely contained. In retrospect, it now seems to me that there was a weariness and a consensus, by an otherwise close community, that that which divided should be avoided. The politics of the time divided. “You kept your counsel to yourself”; my mother said to me much later, using, for her, unaccustomed language.
When I finally came of voting age, I became very interested in the erstwhile taboo subject. It was in pre-television times. National radio carried only limited political reportage and little discussion or debate. Newspapers had their own special affiliations - even their own agendas.
The most common method of electioneering was the public meeting, where politicians spoke from the back-end of lorries or improvised platforms. These meetings were feats of presentation for the speakers and feats of endurance and entertainment for the audiences. Comfort was not a prerequisite for either and there was long standing in cold winds and squally rain. I became an aficionado.
It was barnstorming at its best. Loud shouting over crackly loud-speaking-systems. Torchlight processions when VIP politicians came to town. Hecklers, sometimes funny, often drunk, traded insults. A garda, or two, always hovered in the vicinity to intervene when scuffles broke out. One party, then in the ascendant, usually brought meetings to a close by a rowdy rendition of “Tipperary Hills” or “Soldiers of the Legion of the Rearguard.”
I think it must have been the triumphalism of the latter that got up my very youthful nose, because after one such meeting, I went home and wrote a letter to the then Editor, Tommy O’Brien, of this newspaper. It was a prissy, humourless epistle about the lack of proper debate or argument in the public presentation of politics. Mercifully, that letter survives now only in my embarrassed memory, because it never got into print, but its fate taught me much about the politics of the time and the realities of what my mother meant about keeping one’s counsel.
The Editor invited me to his office, where I sat, at his desk, strewn with mounds of paper. “Very good letter,” he said. “It makes a very interesting point, and I’ll publish it, but do you really want me to do so?” Surprised at the question, I said: “Of course, I do - why else would I have written it?”
Tommy drew his chair closer to the desk, put his two hands on his old manual typewriter, looked me straight in the eyes and asked: “Do you want to hold on to your job?”
No explanation was necessary. The message was loud and clear and I got it. It was a bleak time in Ireland. There was much unemployment and mass emigration. Most of my fellow students in secondary school, my friends, had left to find work in the recovering post-War cities of Britain. I was fortunate to have employment, in a job I liked, in my own town.
There was then a widespread perception, with considerable validity, that “it wasn’t what you knew but who you knew,” and that political influence (putting a “word in for you”) was necessary, even to find a job in a factory. Cronyism, nepotism, brown envelopes, all the well-established pedigrees.
No reply was necessary. “There,” said Tommy, as he handed back my ‘Letters to the Editor.’ “At least, you got it off your chest.” And then we had a most pleasant conversation about our mutual love of the Comeragh lakes.
Fast forward (very fast) over many decades to our recent polling day. On my journey to and from the polling station, I met many of my contemporaries, all of a generation born of parents who had lived through traumatic times: Civil War, so-called Economic War, Emergency. We, ourselves, had known an Ireland of deprivation, poverty, unemployment, and narrow insularity. Many of us inherited a certain cageyness in declaring our political affiliations, no longer because of fear of losing our jobs, but because of an innate respect for other peoples’ feeling; the sort of mutual unspoken agreement of not rocking the boat of functioning communities. It was a legacy left to us from the uncertainty, the tentativeness of a generation which first experienced the freedom of self-governance, and which, instead of mutual co-operation, took the terrible route of expensive destruction of property and infrastructure and of the “disappearance” of young men.
But, on our recent polling day, there was, amongst my generation, no guardedness, no tight-lipped coyness, no speaking out of both sides of our mouths, about how we were about to vote or had voted. Many of the people I met, my contemporaries, made no secret of what was a secret ballot. “For the first time in my life, I’ve voted the other way,” many of them said, knowing that it was not necessary to identify “the other way.” There was a concern about “the state of the country.”
Gone was the duplicity; the keeping of our cards close to our chests. Instead, there was a touching simplicity about the way people spoke about the experience. Nothing much “they can do to us oldies now,” people said, but they wanted to make Ireland a good place for future generations.
Can it be that we have finally seen the last of the politics of the Civil War?