Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Janey Mack! Can you believe that?

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The Queen is in Ireland and my grandmother is turning in her grave. The historic hatred between Catholics and Protestants, the Irish and the British, seems almost arcane today, but it was a source of very real grief in my grandmother's day.

She was born Elizabeth Rogers, a Methodist, in 1901 near the village of Dunkineely in County Donegal, which is now the northernmost district of the Republic of Ireland. As the name Rogers would have suggested to some at the time, they were not real Irish, even though they had lived there for hundreds of years, but usurpers of Irish land and members of the oppressor class, planters, as they were called, from Scotland.

Her father moved to Liverpool and then to Winnipeg in 1911, where he worked for the recently established civic parks department. He became chief constable -- a long-abandoned title -- of St. James Park, which is now Vimy Ridge Park. His job was to look after all the park's needs. In 1935, he hauled his wife and the youngest daughter back to Dunkineely because he wanted to die on the old family estate, which had earlier been broken up under Irish land reform, or so it was told in family lore. He achieved his goal and went to meet his maker in 1946.

Everything was probably fine in grandma's life -- she worked at Eaton's during the 1919 strike -- until she met and married John Joseph O'Brien, a Catholic from a family of priests and nuns. His brothers were Matthew, Mark and Luke.

The story that was passed down, but never discussed, was that they were shunned by both families for marrying the enemy. Grandpa apparently never saw his family again.

As a result, or maybe for other reasons, the four children that emerged from the union, including my father, who had the strangely English name of Sidney, strange, that is, for an Irishman, were not exposed to organized religion.

My father went to various churches with his friends, including a Catholic church that is now the home of the West End Cultural Centre. It eventually became a German Lutheran church, where I went as a young boy because my mother was Lutheran.

The squabbles in the Old Country meant nothing to Dad, but he grew up around them in Winnipeg. He recalled one story when his grandmother ran out of her house and tossed a pail of water, or something, on another woman on the street, calling her "a black-hearted Irish Catholic," or something to that effect.

My grandparents were regular visitors for Sunday dinner, but they were usually tense affairs because there were so many secrets and so many subjects that weren't up for discussion. Once, following a particularly bloody episode in Belfast, my mother made the mistake of drawing attention to the problems in Ireland.

"Don't know anything about it," grandma snapped, her tone very angry.

I'm still not sure why she didn't want to discuss The Troubles, but maybe it was because the violence was embarrassing, or because of the troubles it created in her own life. She was not an easy person to understand, and she regarded most questions, even simple ones, as an intrusion on her privacy.

An old Irish priest, actually, my wife's uncle, told me once that many Irish born in the early 20th century and before tended to be secretive because of all the intrigue, double-crossing and violence. Paranoia ran very high when Home Rule was granted in 1922 and the Irish got their hands on secret files that identified informers, stoolies and the like, he said.

There was even a "grubby little Nazi movement," as someone called it, in the free state of Ireland during the 1930s and '40s. The Irish maintained diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany and offered their condolences to the German ambassador on the death of Adolf Hitler. The Irish didn't want Hitler to win, but they weren't upset when the British were made to sweat. They thought it might make them more aware of how badly they had treated the Irish.

My dad and his father, both serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, visited relatives in Ireland during the Second World War, but they had to wear civilian clothes in recognition of Ireland's neutrality. I doubt that it was a happy reunion.

When my grandmother died in 1995 at the age of 94, peace talks about the future of Northern Ireland were making progress, but I'm sure she was skeptical. In fact, even I remember thinking that peace would never be possible in a land of such hatred. I wonder the same thing about the Middle East.

If she were alive today, I know what my grandmother would say on the Queen's visit to the Irish republic and her expressions of regret for a violent past.

"Fancy that," or, if she was feeling nostalgic, "Janey Mack (an expression of surprise)! Can you believe that?"

dave.obrien@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 20, 2011 A14

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