In CW last week we learned about memoirs from our great artist in residence Margot Perin. We talked about the fictionalization of memoirs and how it is OK to play with them a little, but to go too far because you’ll wind up like James Frey, who wrote a memoir that was accepted into the Oprah Winfrey Book Club only to be rebuked because of the fact that he had lied about everything. We also discussed our own life stories and how to properly write about them.
This is a piece I wrote for one of her prompts, “Write about something that has happened to you.”
On our last day of our trip to Northern Ireland, we went to Belfast, an ugly, outdated, bland, shit of a city. There’s nothing much to do there other than go to the Queen Victoria Mall, a large, glass complex shaped somewhat like a dome. It sits in the city’s center, which is a cobblestoned square with an abstract metal fountain in the middle. The surrounding streets are packed in with hokey Irish-themed gift shops that sell plastic beer mugs, scally caps, and vapid retro posters that read, “Irish Handcuffs: holding a drink in each hand” or, “Whiskey: keeping the Irish from ruling the world since 1793” or, “I’m not Irish but I can sure drink like one” or countless other simple-humored memes for simple-minded people.
That is perhaps why we left early. Only after spending about in hour in the city we drove back towards the water, back into the thick Irish countryside. And on our way back, my father had an interesting idea.
“How about we visit the house I used to live in when I was your age,” he said.
“Sure,” my sister and I responded, not too eager, not too uneager. And that was that. We continued on Motorway 16 and swerved around and around the familiar Irish roundabouts before puling into Parkhall—a small housing community. And as we puttered up to the stone entrance, listening to the low, grumbling voice of Luke Kelly, I knew
something was wrong. And by the way my father was staring at the gate, I knew he thought so too. The three rows of tiny houses were completely covered in Ulster Volunteer Force flags. (Ulster Volunteer Force (U.V.F.) is a protestant, loyalist, and anti-Catholic paramilitary organization.)
The community was shaped like a long letter “S” and looked like what you might imagine a rural, patriotic, Northern Irish working-class housing community would look like. For a Catholic to even be in there would be like suicide, like a black guy walking into a KKK trailer camp in rural Missouri. And although we weren’t Catholic ourselves, we came from a very republican (the belief in an Irish Republic) and nationalist family. My father slugged the rental car around for a couple minutes, following the red, white, and blue painted curbs. The people there were the seeds of this earth. Bleak sons-of-bitches walking around slowly, carrying watering cans to and fro. And as we sat in front of 82 Donegore Drive, we stared hard at the little door, the brown front yard, the stucco-walls, and the Union Jacks that hung wildly out the windows.
I asked my father if he’d like to get out and show us around, but he replied with a sturdy “no” and a harsh pull of the handbrake, wheeling us back into traffic. On our way
out our eyes were glued to the murals that were painted on the sides of the community Protestant church, which depicted the U.V.F. in full paramilitary garb: black ski masks, camouflage jump suits, and large, black guns. I don’t know what it is like to see your old house so violently colored with anti-Catholic propaganda. I can’t imagine returning to such a personal landmark only to see it’s been totally made over in an effort to scare away people like yourself.
* * * * * * *
A couple months later I asked him if he thought that he and his family could have settled down there in the state that it was in today. I didn’t really think much of this question, and wasn’t really expecting an important or even truthful answer. My dad is reserved and very quiet about his life. In fact the only reason I know his sister was adopted is because of my mom. The only reason I know that he used to go in to Protestant bars and sing republican tunes with his buddies and get the living shit beaten out of him until his boots were red with blood is because my mom told me. So I didn’t think he was going to tell me anything I would remember. I expected him to say, “Yeah it would have been fine,” or “I don’t know.” But in fact he said, “No, probably not.”
* * * * * * *
And that sums up how I felt about Parkhall. No, it probably is not livable for a Catholic or a republican. And yes, it is crazy. But no, it isn’t uniquely more violent then the next loyalist housing community. And no, it isn’t a relatively big deal.