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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined

British Council Northern Ireland


Fintan O'Toole

 My first memory of being in England is from the hot summer of 1969.1 know now that this was the summer that British troops were sent into Northern Ireland, but I don't remember that at all. We were with my father in London and the thing he was most excited about was that he was going to see the West Indies play cricket against England. I remember certain names - Garry Sobers, Clive Lloyd - but I never saw them myself. Neither did I see the Rolling Stones, though my father dutifully asked my older brother and myself (I was 11) if we wanted to go to the free concert they were giving in Hyde Park. We declined the offer because we thought the place would be full of drug-crazed hippies. The memory I do have is much more banal than that but at the time the incident was overwhelming.

My brother and I are sitting on a low wall outside a pub in which my father and his cousin are having a drink. We've been given bottles of lemonade and we're sucking through straws. We're thrilled with the lemonade but a little scared to be on our own on an English street. In my head, there are nameless fears about England, all of them traceable to the fact that it is known to be full of Protestants and therefore entirely without order or morality. Around the corner, in the blazing sun, comes a huge African man in flowing white robes and a tall leopard-skin hat, followed by a small retinue of attendants. We stare at him. He stops and beams benignly at us. He raises his arm and extends his hand from the sleeve of his robe. He pats me on the head and says 'Hello, boys. Are you enjoying your pop?'

Pop - the word belongs entirely to the English comics we read. We don't use it in Ireland - all fizzy drinks are lemonade and we get them so rarely that one word for them is quite enough. It comes to me in a panic that he thinks we are English. He's some kind of exotic foreigner - a king? a chief? - and in that moment, I decide that he's visiting London and has deigned, graciously, to say hello to some English kids. But we're not English, we're Irish, which is, of course, the opposite.

I open my mouth to try to explain this to him - not, I think, for our sake but for his: this is something he should know. But it's all too much - the pre-existing tinge of fear, the awe of his regal presence, the strangeness of his black skin, the confusion of this sudden and unprecedented experience. Nothing comes out except a short, high-pitched gabble. He pats my head softly again, turns away and sails majestically down the street.