VE Day anniversary celebrations this week recalled a moment some twenty years ago when I realized I would always be a stranger in the land in which I lived.
A good friend recounted a memory from 1945 from his childhood days in Co Wexford. His mother had woken him and said to him, ‘the war is over’.
‘Did Wexford win?’ he replied.
I remember smiling at the time, and then thinking almost immediately that the anecdote meant I would forever be an outsider.
Being born fifteen years after the end of the war, I grew up surrounded by memories and stories of the events of 1939-45. It would have been unthinkable, even from an early age, not to have known the story. The war was part of the folk memory of my people – it was about who we were and what we could do. Winston Churchill’s comment about this being the ‘finest hour’, when the British were at their most battered and defeated was a tribute deeply felt by his people.
What figures large in the folk memory of one group of people, may not be nearly so important for another group. When I lived in Northern Ireland, events much more recent were of greater importance than things from history books – the litany of atrocities created a folk memory that was still painfully raw, and remains so for people living in areas held in thrall by the paramilitaries.
The death of Pope John Paul II prompted memories here in Dublin of his visit to Ireland in 1979, an event that seemed to engage the entire population and which seems a huge part of the folk memory here.
The VE Day anniversary passed mostly unnoticed in the south Dublin community in which I live; there were a few television and radio news items about political leaders gathering in Moscow, but, for the most part, it hardly appeared on the radar screen. The memories passed on to me as a child will be meaningless for my own children.
In an age of globalization and massive migration around the world, perhaps trying hold on to a set of memories is an unnecessary indulgence, yet memories and identities have gone together for thousands of years. The people of Israel during their decades of exile in Babylon in the 7th Century BC refused to sing their traditional songs, ‘how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ they asked in Psalm 137. They hung up their lyres and refused to play and called judgment on themselves if they failed to remember the past.
This past week, as the remembering, so important to my native community, passed by here unnoticed, I think I felt like one of those ancient Israelites.