I grew up on a small farm in the midlands. My family were part of a very sparse community of different Protestant denominations. They were broadly nationalist but with a deep wariness of Irish republicanism. I remember an elderly aunt chasing Albert Reynolds away from our house (which she was only visiting) and telling him he’d get no votes here. Political preferences were never, ever discussed in the family, just occasional digs against a party or a politician, but they regarded the IRA as something akin to the Klan who would sooner or later be coming to get us. I know they felt very nervous during the Troubles, especially around the time of the H-Blocks, and the unspoken rule was just to keep the head down and not draw attention. They were dismayed at some of the referendum decisions on the ’80s too. My dad thought the local FG man was a fool but, by deduction, I presume he probably voted for him anyway. On my mam’s side there was the vague suggestion we might be related to Keir Hardie (we’re not, it turns out, but it was a lovely notion while it lasted).
A minibus would collect me to take me to primary school every morning, and opposite our gate was a telegraph pole which for years (I guess in the early ‘80s) had posters of Charlie and Garret sandwiched back-to-back. I spent a lot of time gazing up at this Janus-like creation and thinking that one face looked sinister and the other looked kindly – I’ll let you guess which was which – but they were the only options there and then (and largely still are). I went to a Protestant secondary school some distance away, and in the absence of any school-friends within the county I just spent all my teenage years reading about history and politics. By the age of 13 or 14 I could’ve told you the president, prime minister and ruling party of every country in the world. Whenever the opportunity arose to get a lift into a town I’d spend a few hours in the reference section of the public library taking notes and sketching out spider-diagrams of the political parties of Jamaica or Algeria. I was really drawn to the left-independence movements, to people like Lumumba, Ho and Che, and it was clear to me at a very young age that socialism was the only option for an egalitarian and ethical world. It did and still does boil down to the choice between selfishness or empathy. I was quite religious at the time due to my upbringing, and it was obvious to me that Jesus was a socialist too! I think my worldview was very black-and-white at the time: I hated Thatcher, Reagan, Paisley, the IRA, loyalists, Apartheid, Pinochet and aristocracy; I quite liked Gorbachev, Nicaragua, Cuba, Militant, the PLO and assorted People’s Republics in Africa and Asia. I had a fondness for Dick Spring, who seemed youthful and charismatic compared to the other two leaders, and for the WP, but especially for the likes of Jim Kemmy and Declan Bree who could be maverick socialists despite being from ‘the country’ like me. I remember getting plaudits from my history teacher for writing an essay on Peadar O’Donnell too, even though he hadn’t actually been the topic requested. None of my family or friends shared any of my beliefs, so it was probably my only outlet and it was nice to get that encouragement. My history teacher spoke approvingly of his visits to the USSR, so I suspect he had similar leanings.
I spent 1989 glued to Ceefax, following daily updates on Eastern Europe. I wasn’t sorry to see aging autocrats get their comeuppance, but naively hoped it was part of a renewal process that would see socialism endorsed by popular choice rather than imposed by military force. That probably carried on into 1990 when Irish Labour was welcoming back some of its dissident voices and linking with the WP in the presidential election. We had a mock ballot in school in which, pathetically, the boys and girls voted along gender lines, except for me and one other guy who broke ranks and secured victory for Mary Robinson! But after that it was profoundly disillusioning to watch former socialists abandon their principles and drift to the centre, whether it was in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, Britain or here. I didn’t go to college, where I probably would’ve found kindred political spirits. Instead I went to work in Dublin, where I found a nerdy knowledge of rock music or sci-fi was much more impressive to my new friends than being able to list prime ministers. And so it went for many, many years.