I stared at this name, the name of a man I had never known, yet familiar to me as a member of my family. I had heard it spoken again and again by my father in our house in Clifton Street in Belfast and by my uncle, Eoin MacNeill, when during school holidays I spent summers in his house in Dublin.
For my uncle and my father Bulmer Hobson was both a friend, and in some sense a saint. A Quaker, he, like my uncle, devoted much of his life to the cause of Irish independence, becoming in the early years of this century an exemplary patriot whose non-violent beliefs made our tribal animosities seem brutal and mean. That his body lay here in this small Connemara field, facing the ocean, under a simple marker was somehow emblematic of his life.
Proust says of our past: "It is a labour in vain to try to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect are useless. The past is hidden somewhere outside its own domain in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we never suspected. And it depends on chance whether or not we come upon it before we die."
I believe now that the "material object" was, for me, that gravestone in Connemara, a part of Ireland which I had never known in my youth. And as I stood staring at Bulmer Hobson's name my past as a child and adolescent in Belfast surged up, vivid and importunate, bringing back a life which ended for ever when I sailed to North Africa on a British troopship in the autumn of 1943.
There are those who choose to leave home vowing never to return and those who, forced to leave for economic reasons, remain in thrall to a dream of the land they left behind. And then there are those stateless wanderers who, finding the larger world into which they have stumbled vast, varied and exciting, become confused in their loyalties and lose their sense of home.
I am one of those wanderers. After the wartime years in North Africa and Italy, I worked in Poland for the UN, then emigrated to Canada, where I became a citizen, before moving on to New York and at last to California, where I have spent the greater part of my life.
And yet in all the years I have lived in North America I have never felt that it is my home. Annually, in pilgrimage, I go back to Paris and the French countryside and to London, the city which first welcomed me as a writer. And if I think of re-emigrating it is to France or England, not to the place where I was born.
For I know that I cannot go back. Over the years I have made return visits to my native Belfast. But Belfast, its configuration changed by the great air raids of the Blitz, its inner city covered with a carapace of flyovers, its new notoriety as a theatre of violence, armed patrols and hovering helicopters, seems another city, a distant relative to that Belfast which in a graveyard in Connemara filled my mind with a jumbled kaleidoscope of images fond, frightening, surprising and sad.
- My pet canary is singing in its cage above my father's head as he sits reading the Irish News, in the breakfast room of our house in Belfast.
- A shrill electric bell summons me to Latin class in the damp hateful corridors of St Malachy's College. I have forgotten the declension and hear the swish of a rattan cane as I hold out my hand for punishment.
- In Portstewart where we spent our summer holidays I have been all day on the sands, building an elaborate sand sculpture in hopes of winning the Cadbury contest first prize, a box of chocolates.
- Alexandra Park where, a seven-year-old, I walk beside my sister's pram holding the hand of my nurse, Nellie Ritchie, who at that time I secretly believe to be my real mother.
- I hear the terrified squeal of a pig dragged out into the yard for butchery on my uncle's farm in Donegal.
- I stand with my brothers and sisters singing a ludicrous Marian hymn in St Patrick's Church at evening devotions.
"Oh Virgin pure, oh spotless maid,
We sinners send our prayers to thee,
Remind thy Son that he has paid
The price of our iniquity."
- I hear martial music, as a regimental band of the British army marches out from the military barracks behind our house. I see the shining brass instruments, the drummers in tiger skin aprons, the regimental mascot, a large horned goat. Behind that imperial panoply long lines of poor recruits are marched through the streets of our native city to board ship for India, a journey from which many will never return.
- Inattentive and bored I kneel at Mass amid the stench of unwashed bodies in our parish church where 80 per cent of the female parishioners have no money to buy overcoats or hats and instead wear black woollen shawls which cover head and shoulders, marking them as "Shawlies", the poorest of the poor.
- We, properly dressed in our middle-class school uniforms sitting in a bus, move through the poor streets of Shankill and the Falls, where children without shoes play on the cobbled pavements.
- The front gates of the Mater Infirmorum Hospital where my father, a surgeon, is medical super-intendent. As he drives out of those gates, a man so poor and desperate that he will court minor bodily injury to be given a bed and food for a few days, steps in front of my father's car.
- An evening curfew is announced following Orange parades and the clashes which invariably follow them. The curfew, my father says, is less to prevent riots than to stop the looting of shops by both Catholic and Protestant poor.
- Older now, I sit in silent teenage rebellion as I hear my elders talk complacently of the "Irish Free States" and the differences between the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael parties who compete to govern it. Can't they see that this Catholic theocratic "grocer's republic" is narrow-minded; repressive and no real alternative to the miseries and injustices of Protestant Ulster?
- Unbeknownst to my parents, I stand on Royal Avenue hawking copies of a broadsheet called The Socialist Appeal, although I have refused to join the Trotskyite party which publishes it. Belfast and my childhood have made me suspicious of faiths, allegiances, certainties. It is time to leave home.
The kaleidoscope blurs. The images disappear. The past is buried until, in Connemara, the sight of Bulmer Hobson's grave brings back those faces, those scenes, those sounds and smells which now live only in my memory. And in that moment I know that when I die I would like to come home at last to be buried here in this quiet place among the grazing cows.
WHEN Brian Moore died last month he left behind a body of work that included 20 novels (such as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The Temptation of Eileen Hughes and The Doctor's Wife ) widely held to be of the first rank. But he also left no formal instruction regarding his burial. Then it emerged that in a memoir written for Ian Jack at Granta magazine he had gone so far as to declare, in a clear and assured final paragraph, that he did in fact desire to be returned home to Ireland.
That paragraph has an unusual history. I was working at Granta at that time, and in Ian Jack's absence suggested to Brian Moore that he add a few sentences along these lines, since without them his memoir perhaps ended inconclusively. He was happy to do so, and seemed pleased to say what he now was saying. He thanked us for the gentle encouragement and prod. None of us suspected what consequences it would have, but these lines have ensured that Moore will indeed be laid to rest in Ireland, as he wished, instead of North America, his home for 50 years. Editorial fidgets are rarely so far-reaching.Reuse content