“You’ve heard the Cranberries, right?” Mark asked me through a mouthful of overpriced sushi as we sat in a window and looked out on grey-suited civil servants scurrying to and from the parliament building along a rainy Dawson street.
I could hardly not have. My inner feminist loves female lead singers with attitude, and Dolores O’Riordan had bucketfulls. Zombie was the song that my generation grew up to. It was the song that captured the way a room would fall quiet when words like “ceasefire” “IRA” and “UVF” played over the radios in the kitchens of our childhood, all the things that the adults around us said were “terrible.” “Terrible,” people said quietly, shaking their heads, “terrible.” We never really talked about the devastating mini-war that raged on the same island where we innocently played hopscotch and paid far too much attention to the yearly Eurovision song contest, preferring the euphenism “The Troubles.” I guess that “Troubles” sounded like they could be resolved. And euphenisms make things feel far away.
“I always thought that the English version of Irish history was a bit…nice,” Mark commented as I paused the mini-history lesson I was giving him to take a sip of coke and contemplate giving wasabi just one more chance. This pulled me up short. I had never imagined that there would be an English version and I was fascinated to hear all about it. Not that there was much to hear about. The English army came to an island with good land but no civilisation. For the good of the land they came here, settled, built roads and generally did kind and useful things to help the few unruly tribes there become a civilised and sophisticated people. It seems that without Britain our history books would be a contender for the shortest book in the world, but we barely got a paragraph in theirs.
I started to choke, my eyes streaming. I felt colour rush to my cheeks. This would be funny if I were with my friends but any minor embarrassment around Mark was mortifying. I lunged for my water and missed, smashing the glass on the floor. The bouncy American student bounced over and cleaned it up. Mark smiled and handed me his glass. Our hands touched and I felt – something. Like I wanted to touch his hand again. I scraped the rest of the angry green mustard to the side of my plate – as far from the rest of my food as possible – and decided to ask for another pair of chopsticks just to be on the safe side.
I thought Zombie was about violent prejudice. The kind of pure hatred that gets passed down from one generation to another and is never questioned, just accepted, zombie-like. I knew it was about the situation in the north, and in hindsight – because it is only when I look back, as an adult, that I can start to understand the times of my childhood – it was a brave subject in the 1990’s. It was a challenge “What’s in your head?” Sometimes I wonder if the line “But you see/it’s not me/it’s not my family/in your head/in your head they are dying” was one of the bravest things put in a song in Ireland. Many people felt, but were afraid to say, that the IRA were little better than violent criminals, who had never really cared for Ireland – their heads instead filled with violence. Tanks and guns and bombs and guns. Zombies.
Now I know I had been a zombie too. I never questioned the history that Ireland had instilled in me since I was a child. Never wondered if maybe, it wasn’t all bad under British Rule – if maybe they had helped us a little here and there even if they hurt us more.
“You remember too much, do you know that? The Irish I mean.”
I thought about the Easter Monday in 1916 when a group of martyrs, barely even armed, had staged a doomed uprising in Dublin. “Sometimes I wonder if the reason we refuse to let the past go is that the whole country feels guilty about how apathetic it was at the time.”
I realised then, embarrassed, that I had been rambling on. Mark was wearing a look of intense interest but I remembered that he was very polite, and that he had a degree in drama. I couldn’t remember when he told me that, but I knew it. He sipped his coke can, noticed it was empty, and set it down. The bubbly American waitress came and replaced it without being asked, smiling in a none-too-subtle way at Mark. I felt a twinge of something like depressed jealousy, but I wasn’t sure if it was aimed at the waitress, for being so pretty and charming and for the fairly mild crime of liking something I liked and could never have, or if it was aimed at Mark, whose looks and inherent charm people were happy to bend over backwards for in a city where I had always been made to feel invisible and unimportant.