- Smoke 'n' GunsA Preface to a Poem about Marginal Souths, and then the Poem
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[End Page 103]
You are Irish. You live in America's marginal South, where being Irish remains sufficiently unusual as to be found exotic. You get used to the conversation. It seems to happen once a day, every day.
"Where are y'all from?"
"Oh really! What part?"
It gets murky around about here. You want to be polite—everybody in the South always is—but you know as well that the only names of Ireland they recognize are Dublin and Killarney. The momentary hesitation registers, and to help you out they ask more specifically,
"The north or the south?"
"The south, I suppose." It doesn't sound right in your head. "The border actually. Almost exactly halfway between Dublin and Belfast."
The conversation tends to peter out about this point. When we moved to North Carolina in August 2005, the conversation happened so frequently that in late September my family gave me for my birthday a green T-shirt with "Halfway between Dublin and Belfast" printed on it in some hokey stagecoach font. I wore it on St. Patrick's Day as a private joke. I got asked so often what it meant that it stopped being funny.
I have been publishing poems and prose for almost twenty years. My biographical note has always informed the casual browser that I "was born in Newry in 1968, and grew up in Dundalk." Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of Ireland's political geography will recognize that there is a large fraught chasm running between those otherwise innocent sub-clauses. Putting it more baldly, I was born in the United Kingdom and grew up, thirteen miles away, in the Republic of Ireland. From the upstairs bathroom of the house in which I spent almost all of my childhood, the house in which my mam still lives, the hills of Armagh are clearly visible. They belong to a different administrative state, a separate culture, a whole other country. Somewhere between the horizon and where you stand there is a largely imaginative line that anyone who lives on the border must instinctively bear in mind. I came to North Carolina expecting all to be irredeemably foreign. I gradually realized that this feeling—of being slightly out of place in the South, and only just in the South—is a sensation I have lived with all my life.
My paternal grandfather was a self-made insurance broker from Newry. He had built his business in Dundalk and, in the Sixties boom, opened a second branch in his hometown. My father got the brief. We lived in a development up off the dual carriageway to Warrenpoint. When my next eldest brother was born in 1966 and christened at the same time that Reverend Paisley was coming to prominence, my Aunt May, a nun in Newry's Carmelite convent, prayed my mother would see sense. Within six months of my birth, two years after Ian's, the branch had folded [End Page 104] and we had migrated south again. In spite of the brevity of all that, whenever "God Save the Queen" blared out of the telly, our brothers jeered at us to stand and salute. Sometimes, out of sheer pigheadedness, we did. In my rebellious late teens, I called to get forms for a British passport but never filled them out. Two years ago, in the U.S. embassy in Dublin to get the visa to come here, the man on the desk told me I had to go away and get a whole new DS2019 form that would...