Broken Flags of Ireland

By Arthur, Chris | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Broken Flags of Ireland


Arthur, Chris, Contemporary Review


IT'S easy to think that if I'd not left Ireland, much that strikes me now as curious about the place would never have done so. There's an alluringly simple picture of coming back after years away and seeing things with a fresh eye. Such an image draws some of its spurious credibility from the way in which travel enables us to see as interesting what's merely commonplace to those who live where we are passing through. What's mundane to them strikes visitors with the force of novelty. Objects, expressions, customs appear differently according to how frequently we witness them. If the traveller can lay claim to a freshness of vision, surely anyone returning after long absence might be thought to possess something similar, perhaps even to have acquired a portion of that 'giftie' for which Robert Burns famously petitioned 'some Pow'r'--'to see oursels as others see us'. Such returning would give those involved a sharper, more independent vision. Freed by absence from the daily rote of custom, it would enable them to penetrate the camouflage of the ordinary and see things uncluttered by indigenous assumptions.

This image of keen sight attending the returned inhabitant, allowing them to notice what remains invisible to natives who have never lived away from home, has the appeal of privileging with superior discernment anyone who is framed by it. Perhaps there's a grain of truth in this kind of view but, for the most part, the reality doesn't correspond to the tempting lines of such a caricature. Even if my leaving of Ireland had been unpunctuated by periodic return, even if it had involved habitation on the other side of the globe instead of just the other shore of the Irish Sea, there's still the matter of that Ireland of the mind which we take with us. Truly leaving a place involves more than going beyond its geographical boundaries. Ireland constitutes a sufficiently tenacious provenance that it does not surrender easily, and certainly not to something that allows it to retain so much of its original substance as the uprooting of physical migration. Claiming fresh insight as the automatic upshot of time away is therefore highly suspect. To do so is to forget how indelibly the soil of our origins has been ground into perception's lenses. To imagine that any of them are clear is to forget what they are made of.

Rather than it being a case of noticing something because of the re-visioning that absence from a place supposedly allows those who return, the way I now view 'broken flags' has more to do with the time travel of forgetting and remembering. Things taken for granted as entirely ordinary at the moment of their occurrence, can seem strange when they're recalled after languishing for years in the unlit caverns of the apparently forgotten. The dynamics of remembering and forgetting are hard to fathom. Memory sometimes seems like an eccentric miser riffling through his hoard, bringing now one thing, now another, back into the light of present awareness with no discernible rationale governing the selection. Such temporal absence and return--the inner exile wrought by time and memory--bestows just as fresh a perspective on things as any bodily migration and subsequent coming home.

'Broken flags' is one of the oddments that memory has recently resurrected, reinstalling in present consciousness a fragment from my childhood. Once, I'd not have noticed this expression at all. It was just a phrase in common use, part of the lingo of home, belonging snugly within the ambit of our accustomed diction. As such, it attracted no notice, it was just there, as unremarkable a part of speech as 'sheugh' or 'drooth'--words (for a muddy ditch and a drunkard) that I soon learned strike most English speakers with the discordance of oddity. Now, 'broken flags' acts in a similar way. Brought into present awareness after so many years of being forgotten, this sliver of the past has acquired an unexpected foreignness. It now falls as awkwardly upon my ear as 'sheugh' and 'drooth' do upon those unfamiliar with the rough intimacies of northern Irish dialect. …

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