The Dying of Old Dreams

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My Irish grandfather came to Canada from Northern Ireland so he would “no longer have to carry a pistol in his pocket.”

He had joined the Orange Order in Ireland. He told me that he was the youngest member who had been inducted into the order. In Ireland, the Order was a political and military power. When I was a young boy living in Gimli, Manitoba people knew about the Orangemen but, nowadays,in North America, the name doesn’t mean anything to most people.

The Orange Order was founded in 1795. Its purpose was to protect and support the Protestant faith and, also, to protect Protestant privilege.

When I was growing up, once a year on Orangeman’s day, my mother and brother, my grandmother and I, would stand on Main Street in Winnipeg to watch my grandfather march by. Parades are always exciting for children. To me, it wasn’t any different from watching the Santa Clause parade at Christmas. There were the fifes and drums, the kilts, the colorful banners and, for a moment, my grandfather marching past wearing his sash.

At the head of the parade there was a man in a red coat, wearing a white wig and riding a white horse. Everyone applauded as King Billy rode past. After the parade was over, we went to a local park for a family picnic. There always was a stage from which some men made speeches but none of us ever sat close enough to hear what was said. We were more interested in potato salad, chicken, green salad, apple pie, and lemonade. The men’s drinks often had a bit of whiskey added to the lemonade.

I never thought to ask who King Billy was or why he led the parade. Or why, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, we were applauding a man on a white horse. Once the day was over, my grandfather put away his sash until it was used the following year.

In Northern Ireland and Scotland, King Billy was revered by the protestant population because in 1688, he invaded England, got rid of the Catholic king James II and became the king of England, Scotland and Ireland.

My grandfather often praised the Battle of the Boyne but, again, no one explained what it was or its historical importance. Or why two armies were fighting.

The Catholics were fighting for Irish sovereignty, toleration for their faith and the right to own land. When Cromwell (two of my ancestors were officers in his invading army) conquered Ireland, he took the land away from the Catholic upper classes and redistributed among his followers, including those two ancestors. He also took away a Catholic’s right to hold public office, practice Catholicism or be elected to Parliament.

From this distant perspective, Cromwell’s behaviour seems excessive and just about guaranteed rebellion. If someone came along and said I’m taking your house, you can’t be Lutheran anymore, and you can’t hold any political office, I expect that I’d be rebellious. However, much more was afoot. There were Catholic ambitions in France. There were previous conflicts in which people had been slaughtered. Everything comes with a history.

Nobody told me any of this. All I ever heard from my grandmother was that there was a book in Ireland with a hand written account of our family, that said that one of the two brothers who came with Cromwell thought so little of the land he was given that he traded it for a fighting cock (rooster) and went back to Scotland. The brother who stayed is the Irish-Scot who founded my mother’s family.

But no one ever mentioned Cromwell and, I, for my part, living in Gimli, Manitoba in the 1940s and 50’s despised history because all we seemed to do was memorize the dates and names of England’s kings and queens. The town was predominately Icelandic surrounded by Ukrainians with a few Germans and Poles. We lived a hardscrabble life. The area was the poorest in Canada except for Newfoundland. When we heard any history at home or on the street, it was Icelandic and Ukrainian and those stories were nearly always about the tragedies and triumphs of our fairly recent immigration. Nobody cared about or knew about the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Nobody cared about the Orangemen. It wasn’t our circus and they weren’t our monkeys. Well, it was our family’s circus a bit and we were monkeys in this circus, but we were barely on stage.

The only Irish elements in my life were my grandparents’ thick accents, the occasional Irish lottery tickets (which were illegal), the annual parade and my grandfather, if he’d had a few drinks, declaring “Down with the Pope.” But there, too, no one bothered to explain who the pope was. There was no TV in those days. Radio news didn’t provide any clues as to who he might be. In any case, I was much more interested in rushing home from school at noon hour to hear the beginning of The Happy Gang and to have soup and a sandwich before I rushed back to school to kick around a soccer ball.

As well, I had good friends in Gimli who were Catholic. We went to school together, we played together, we shared holiday meals like Christmas and New Year’s and we went to each other’s birthdays. If someone had said that Catholics should have houses taken away from them or that they had no right to go to church or be on the town council, I would have thought that person was a monster.

Over the years, the Orange parades, once long, became short, the young men became old men and, gradually, there were fewer and fewer of them. King Billy’s soldiers were conquered by age and by the fact that Ireland’s conflicts weren’t Manitoba’s conflicts. The present gradually pushed aside the past. Public schooling can take a lot of the credit for that. Play on a hockey team, curling team, soccer team, baseball team, sit beside someone all day in the classroom, get crushes on the opposite sex, go to dances together, it all helped make the present matter and the past largely irrelevant for my generation.

There have been attempts to hang onto vestiges of the past. Romantic nostalgia. In Gimli, we’ve had decades and decades of the Islendingadagurinn that became the Icelandic Celebration that became the Icelandic Festival and which will probably morf into the Gimli cultural festival or the pickerel festival and be more concerned about bringing business into town than preserving an Icelandic heritage. It’s harder and harder to get volunteers. A lot of people are like me, a mongrel: half Irish, three eighths Icelandic, one eighth English.

The same is  happening to the descendents of the Ukrainians, Poles and Germans.

The Northern Irish were assimilated quickly, became part of the mainstream. When my grandfather came to Winnipeg, his accent got him a job at Eaton’s. Those days are long gone. Eaton’s, once a powerhouse, is long gone. Companies are often multi-national with employees posted around the world.

Time betrayed my grandfather as it betrays us all. Gout kept him from marching and then there were no marches, no fifes and drums, no King Billy on a white horse.

It’s not just the Irish, of course. The people of Icelandic descent in what is called New Iceland who are FBis (full blooded Icelanders) grow fewer and fewer. Our children marry people from every tribe and race. The world has grown smaller with immigration and travel. We live in a society divided by classes determined by money but not so much by ethnicity or history. The conflict in the Middle East with people murdering each other over differing views of how the world was created or what clothes women should wear seems like something from Medieval Times but it wasn’t so long ago that my ancestors were murdering and being murdered by their neighbours.

It’s interesting and amusing to know that somewhere in the distant past, one of my Irish relatives is supposed to have led King Billy across the Boyne River, that relatives fought with Cromwell but it is irrelevant to my daily life. I’m more concerned nowadays with global warming, with conflict in the Ukraine, with conflict in the Middle East, with the price of oil, with drug dealling, with the stock market, with the degradation of the environment, with poverty in our society.

This is the circus in which I perform every day.

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