It may come as a surprise to you all to know that me and Jesus have a lot in common, I kid you not. You probably already know that on the day Jesus was born, there was a new star in the sky to announce his arrival. Well, it also happens that on the day I was born, there was also a new star in the sky. It was called Telstar, and was the first telecommunications satellite, launched to improve telecommunications between the US and Europe. So if you want to Google that, you’ll know exactly when I was born, and what age I am, no prizes for finding it though, sorry, and I’m too much of a lady to reveal my age publicly.
Sorry, did you say something?
‘Nut'in, just clearin’ me throat’
Ok then, moving swiftly along…….as you probably already noticed I am ‘Devine’ by name, I like to think I’m ‘divine’ by nature too, at least that’s what I tell people, and if I tell them often enough they might start to believe it.
‘Do you have something to say?’
‘Jist a bit ova tikly throat’
Well, perhaps you should go and get a drink of water or something……preferably, somewhere that isn’t here?
Anyway…..you may also have noticed my initials are AD, which stands for, yes you guessed it, Anno Domini, which of course means, ‘In the year of our Lord’.
I also read a while back, that historians had pin-pointed Jesus’ birth to the month of July, which is also the month I was born in.
‘Aye well ad hiv tae agree that July’s a gud month’
I wasn’t born in a manger but I did once know a dog with mange, if that counts? A bit of a stretch I know but you can only take them where you find them.
My early years were spent in Mount Sion, a street in a town in Northern Ireland and, as an Irish Catholic, I too grew up in a country under foreign occupation, just like Jesus under the Romans. So instead of ‘Romani Ite Domum’, we had ‘Limeys Go Home’ which later became 'Brits Out'.
‘Yer showin’ yer age now love’
‘REALLY, I just can’t be doing with all this interruption, are the pubs not open tonight?’
‘They probly are but am skint’
Well, that’s just TOO bad then isn’t it?’
I’m SO sorry about this, he’s a disgruntled Ulster Scots speaker, he’s been hanging around for the last few weeks, I don’t know what he’s looking for, I’m hoping he’ll get fed up soon and go back from wherever he came …anyway, shall we carry on?
OKAY…On the miracle front, I haven’t quite managed to feed five thousand with a few loaves and fishes but I could feed a small army on half a stone of spuds and a pound of mince. But one other memory stands out for me where, like Jesus, I first ran into trouble with the religious authorities. I recently entered it in a memoir competition although it is more autobiography, but it came nowhere so here it is for your reading pleasure or not!
Communists in the Convent!
I don’t know where my interest in politics began, I think it was partly by osmosis. Growing up in Northern Ireland against a background of increasing political unrest made it inevitable that something would rub off. I remember the political figures of the day making their way into our skipping songs;
‘Vote, vote, vote for Bernadette Devlin, here comes Paisley at the door’….at which point someone would jump into the skipping rope and we would sing the song to the end.
…. ‘for she is the one who will have the best of fun and we won’t see Paisley any more’.
These names were interchangeable because to us they were just names and didn’t have any particular associations for us. Although it wasn’t long before we knew Bernadette was on our side, and Paisley was on the other. I remember her coming to our street, she was canvassing for election and my mother and several of the women in the neighbourhood all went out to shake her hand. This surprised me as I had never considered my mother as being political in any way.
I also remember learning the words to the Strawb’s ‘Part of the union’.
‘You won’t get me I’m part of the Union, til the day I die, til the day I die!’ I can still sing it now. This was probably one of the first signs that I was definitely headed left.
Then in primary 7, I found myself on the receiving end of a campaign of bullying and if there is a defining moment that stands out in memory where something fundamental changed within me then this was it.
I had had a disagreement with a girl in my class, what it was about I don’t remember but she was someone I never particularly liked, she was spoiled and vain, and looked down her nose at everyone. From there it had escalated as she and her ‘gang’ had taken to following me home every day in a twisted game of follow my leader, where every movement and gesture was copied and mocked. There seemed to be no end in sight, as I endured another lunchtime of mockery and the gang seemed to be increasing in numbers, and that was when I decided enough was enough!
Parents seldom involved themselves in their children’s quarrels back then so there was no point in trying to get anyone at home to listen. There were too many of them to take on single-handedly and so, after thinking and re-thinking my options, I decided that after lunch I was going to take the only one available and talk to the teacher, and hopefully get it sorted out for once and for all. I waited until everyone was seated back in the classroom and then I walked up to the teachers desk and simply said:
‘Miss I have a problem and I need you to help me sort it out’.
She was taken aback because I wasn’t known as the type to put myself forward and was usually quite reserved but she gave me a fair hearing, listened to the other side as, of course, they denied all but then, inevitably, broke down in tears. Apologies were made and accepted and so it was sorted and we passed our final months at primary school in peace.
I was particularly pleased at how I had handled the situation and it had given me a renewed confidence which was exactly what I needed as I was due to start in the local Convent Grammar that September. My older sister had begun the year before and had regaled me with tales of real experiments in Chemistry and real cooking in Domestic Science. I couldn’t wait to get started and felt that the world was finally opening up and that bigger and better things lay ahead.
As far as memory serves, it was a quiet summer and nothing extraordinary happened and I was glad when September finally rolled around and marched proudly off to school with a bag full of books and a heart full of ambition.
From being the oldest class in primary school, it was a bit of a come down to find you were back at the bottom of the ladder but this was the big school and the disappointment was soon forgotten when I was given my first time-table. Not only was everything more interesting and grown-up but there, first thing on Monday morning, was a subject I hadn’t even considered, Drama! This was turning out even better than expected.
I had always loved performing. I had sang on stage at concerts in our local Parish hall, I played the violin and did Irish dancing as well, so stepping out on to a stage was second nature to me. This was the next step in my development, real acting on a real stage, Hollywood here I come!
Sister Pius was the teacher. I was a bit disappointed by that as I didn’t imagine it was a subject a nun would know much about. She was small, not much bigger than me, slightly built with a fringe of dark hair visible at the front of her veil, she was very neat in appearance and held herself stiffly which made her seem a bit uptight for something like Drama. However, when we had our first lesson all my fears were dispelled, she seemed to know her stuff as she talked about voice and poise. To help us with this, we were set an essay for our second lesson, it was titled, ‘Something I believe in’, and we were to read it aloud in front of the class the following week.
I was thunder struck as I realized I had a head full of ideas and beliefs which I had never articulated. Not only were they there, but I all of a sudden I had an urgent desire to express them, I wanted the world to sit up and listen, I had important things to say! Opportunities like this didn’t happen every day and I determined I was going to make the most of it, Pandora’s box had opened.
A few of my classmates were nervous about having to stand up in front of everyone and talk but that didn’t bother me in the least, this was right up my street as I decided this was my destiny and imagined a future making great speeches to large audiences who cheered and clapped at every utterance.
The only thing I had to figure out now was which great idea or belief I was going to write about. I definitely believed that David Bowie was the greatest singer in the world but I wasn’t sure if that would be an impressive enough subject, I wanted to dazzle everyone with my great thinking and wonderful ideas so, after some consideration, I settled on my subject, Communism, now there was something I could believe in.
I had become interested in Communism for a few reasons, one being that every time Russia was mentioned my mother would go into a rant about the Communists wanting to take over the world and turn us all into ‘Godless heathens’. This really appealed to me as we were marched out to Mass for every Holy Day in the calendar, not to mention May and October Devotions.
We had also been subjected to a daily round of family Rosary a few years before, after the Pope issued some edict on the matter, and my mother being the most Catholic Catholic in town, insisted in following orders. The thing about the Family Rosary was that it was to be at six every evening so, after being dragged in for it a couple of times, we soon realized that if we disappeared about ten minutes beforehand, then it was easily avoided. At five forty-five every evening, there was a veritable exodus from the street as not only me and my siblings disappeared but half the neighbourhood as well.
The Rosary was soon abandoned amid despairing admonitions from my mother that ‘she didn’t know what kind of crowd she was rearing!’ There were a lot of good Catholic mothers back then whose devotion to their faith would contribute to a rising tide of atheism.
The other reason for my embracing all things Communist was that under their system everyone was equal, at least that was the theory. I was the middle child in my family, quiet by nature, I was often overlooked and I was still smarting over the promise of a special present for passing the eleven plus which never materialized. So, after all that, quite frankly, the Red Army couldn’t get here quick enough!
As I started my essay, I realized I didn’t really know enough about Communism, apart from the idea that everyone is supposed to be equal so I had to do some research. I checked out the school library and got loads of information from one of the encyclopaedias. All the big names were there; Marx, Lenin, Castro.
Totalitarianism was mentioned which I didn’t really feel comfortable about as it sounded a bit like the Catholic Church but, after some consideration, I thought I’ll stick it in anyway and resolved to look into all the authoritarian stuff later.
And so I crafted it over the week, standing, reading it aloud to my younger sisters. This was great stuff, everyone would be dead impressed!
Monday morning I was up and off to school early, the big day was finally here. Sitting in class, essay in hand I was suddenly struck by fear; what if someone else wrote about my subject and they got to read first? It would look as if I had copied them. Why hadn’t I thought of this sooner? I counted, there were about 9 in front of me…and the first one was about to go up.
‘Something I believe in’
I held my breath,
And let it out relieved.
‘Parents!’ I thought to myself, ‘is she serious?’
Of course we all applauded when she finished. The next one stood up.
‘Something I believe in’
Again I held my breath,
‘The Catholic Church’.
‘The Catholic Church!! You have got to be kidding me, God, these people have no imagination at all’ I thought.
I started to relax as one after another, they stood up to read, a total of three subjects; God, the Catholic Church and parents, sometimes a specific parent like their daddy or their mammy. I couldn’t believe it! I had worried unnecessarily, there was no competition in this crowd at all, this was going to make me look even better!
Finally it was my turn, I stood up, took my place in front of the class, gave my papers a quick shake, a little dramatic gesture to draw their attention and read:
‘Something I believe in’…I took a deep breathe and said…‘Communism’
I looked up to gauge the response…all eyes were on me...and so I began.
As I finished, feeling very pleased with myself, I scanned the crowd. I had definitely made an impression, there were murmurings in the crowd and quite a few looks of surprise. As I waited for my round of applause Sister Pius started to stand up, ‘I’m not going to get a round of applause, I’m going to get a standing ovation, from the teacher herself!’ I thought…..
In hindsight, of course, I think the only reason I got to the end of the essay was that the nun was in such a state of shock she was unable to speak or move until that moment.
As she walked towards me, I could see from the expression on her face that something wasn’t quite right. Her face had gone very pale and hers lips were pursed tightly together.
‘THIS CLASS IS OVER AIDEEN DEVINE OUTSIDE NOW!’ she demanded emphasizing every syllable. For such a small, slight woman she suddenly had a very strong angry voice.
As I was marched out of the room, I racked my brains trying to think what had gone wrong?
‘AID DEEN DEE VINE, where did you get this?’ she demanded. I didn’t really know what to say and looked at her dumbly.
‘I know your mother and your Aunt MaryB’ she said. My aunt was a teacher and best friends with Sister Ursula and my mother had done some substitute teaching in her time so the Nuns all knew them which, of course, didn’t help at all.
‘WHO is telling you these things? WHO is putting these ideas into your head?’ she demanded again, almost screaming. What was I supposed to say, I didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about? I thought about my mother and wondered if Sister Pius thought as she did. Did she too believe the Communists were plotting to take over the world and part of their dastardly plan was to accost Catholic school girls and brain wash them with their ideas, and they had somehow infiltrated our small town? Before I could answer she snatched the paper out of my hand.
‘COMMUNISTS!’ she said, shaking it at me and starting to turn red. ‘COMMUNISTS!’ she repeated, a little louder this time as if she needed to hear it again because she couldn’t quite believe it the first time. Building to a crescendo she shrieked, ‘THEY DON’T EVEN BELIEVE IN GOD!’
To me that was a minor detail, in my thinking there was no real conflict between God and communism, I mean it says in the bible that we were all created equal in the eyes of God, to me that’s just what Communism was all about. In my naivety/stupidity (take your pick), I finally answered,
‘No-one sister, I thought of this myself ’ and was about to start to explain the thinking behind it when she started to gasp for air and her eyes looked as if they were going to pop out of their sockets. ‘God, she’s going to have a heart attack’ I thought and wondered if I should wait until she collapsed, or run and get help now. I hedged my bets, worried that I would be held responsible for the death of a nun and decided to wait. After some moments she managed to suck in a deep breath and recover some of her composure, much to my relief!
‘YOU thought of this!’ she screamed, a little less hysterically. ‘HOW COULD YOU?!!’ The volume started to rise again. ‘You’re not even allowed to THINK these things, never mind SAY them or BELIEVE in them!’ she screeched.
I didn’t know what to say to that, I felt confused. ‘Not allowed to think!’ The phrase ran around in my head, this just didn’t make any sense. ‘Not allowed to think’ I thought again, because I couldn’t quite believe that was what she had really said. ‘Surely you can think anything?’ I thought. ‘How can thinking be wrong?’ I was about to query this when the bell rang for next period which interrupted the moment. There was nothing more to be said, at least not by me.
‘Go to your next class!’ she ordered and turned to go. She stopped, and looked at me again, ‘I’ll be keeping my eye on you!’ she warned, and stomped off towards the Staff room….
So, apart from the Nuns, my mother, and some of the teachers, the response was on the whole quite positive. Several of my classmates were impressed and wanted to know more and while it would give me the greatest pleasure to report that the Convent Grammar became a hotbed of subversive political activity, unfortunately, I can’t. The only thing I can report is that Drama was taken off our timetable much to my eternal disappointment.
Unfortunately, this was a foretaste of what lay ahead for all my educational ambitions. Chemistry had a grand total of two experiments, dipping litmus paper in various solutions and making blue crystals. They changed the rules for Domestic Science that year too; there would be no cooking in first year, it would be theory only and by the time we got to second year, I had long since lost interest and gave it up. I was never destined for domestic servitude.
Although these were disappointments, there was one silver lining in this cloud. My old protagonist and leader of the bullies never got to read out her essay and was very vocal in letting everyone know how annoyed she was about it, but we were all on new ground here and since most of her gang hadn’t got into the Grammar School, there was nothing she could do about it.
Salvation also lay in English with Mr. Gallagher who had regular class debates where, although everyone got their turn, somehow, I always managed to have a place on one side or the other, even if we never got to debate the motion ‘This house believes in Communism’.
My dramatic ambitions thwarted, it would be many years before I would get up in front of an audience again but I recently joined a drama group and am very happily back treading the boards. It may not be Hollywood but at least I’m getting to do something I love.
Over the years my interest in politics never waned either, although it has gone through a few reincarnations. I’ve joined several different political parties at different times but at some point my thinking always diverges from the party line and conscience, among other things, compels me to leave.
I’ve been called an anarchist on several occasions, that being one of the nicer things that has been said and I’ve often been told I ‘think too much’. People think they’re insulting me when they say these things and I usually answer ‘Well someone has to, because no one else seems to be!’
The Red Army never got as far as my home town and with the fall of the Berlin Wall it’s been an increasingly lonely position being the only Communist in town. I think me and Fidel are the only two left, although his health is a worry these days and, whatever you think of his politics, you have to admire his staying power in facing down the bullies of Western capitalism (see I still know the lingo). Soon I’ll be the only one left, (I don’t recognize China, ironically, for political AND religious reasons), not that it bothers me, I was never one for following the crowd, being chased by them was more my style!
I still describe myself politically, as a Communist and what I have come to realize is, my Communism is my own and identifies more with that twelve-year-old believer in equality for all than Lenin or Marx. I’m still waiting for the Red Army to arrive but, metaphorically not literally and, who knows, with the present economic climate and discontent, my days of making great speeches to large crowds may lie ahead and the revolution might just start here!