Celtic Illumination, Part 61, swearing at the Queen of England
The following week Pat took me and my new haircut, all three of them, to the bus depot in Newry. She came over to the bus stop and waited with me. As I left, sitting on the bus, watching her cry her eyes out, along with all the other passengers on the bus who smiled embarrassingly for intruding into our sadness, I realised that I was only one of millions of Irish people who had left their beloved country.
I got to Belfast and went to the appropriate building. I was to go through an attestation ceremony. I hadn’t a clue what they were talking about but joined in anyway, as they say in Ireland, for the craic. I found it very strange that I was standing in a room in Belfast with a group of people swearing allegiance to the Queen of England when normally I would have been in Warrenpoint, or Newry, or Belfast swearing at the Queen of England.
They gave me money, a handful of paper money, and said we were to catch the overnight boat to England. I knew that I was expected to convert all the money into beer and drink it before getting to England. They didn’t tell me to do that, but I knew it would be one of those initiation test things that the armed forces were famous for. Myself and a couple of others attempted this heroic feat but failed. All we did manage was to turn up for basic training with massive hangovers and of course when you have a massive hangover the last thing you want, or need for that matter, is some buck eejit screaming at you.
This buck eejit introduced himself as our Corporal. He explained that he wasn’t God but the Sergeant was. The Corporal told us that for the next six weeks he was going to be our mother and our father. As I looked at him I felt that he looked very similar to Cyril, the shop steward in the asbestos factory in London. I wondered to myself if the Corporal could read and it was at that moment he caught my eye and I fear had an inkling as to what I thinking.
“What’s your name airman?” he growled at me. I told him. “Right, Paddy,” he said and I corrected him. It was a bit of a shock to learn that your name had been changed. Didn’t matter what rank or trade you were, if you were Irish and in the armed forces your name was Paddy. I have to say that it did take a bit of getting used to, having a new name that is. There were quite a number of occasions where I had to show the extent of the Kung Fu skills I had learned in Belfast but in the end I couldn’t stop it. Welsh guys were called Taff or Taffie, Scots guys were Jock or Hamish and the Irish were Paddy, every single one of us, even the girls.
I didn’t take to my new name so well in the beginning, I suppose I should have settled into it as I had so many names before, but this was different. It felt as if every person came and told you an Irish joke. “Did you hear about the Irishman who…..” I never caught the joke; all I could hear was someone telling me that Irish people were stupid.
People with qualifications were exempt the basic literacy and numeracy test the other trades had to study. The forces called it calculations and communications. The Corporal called the group of us destined for Locking, clever little bastards and I noticed that all the chaps in my room had O and A levels. Before I was aware of this I’m afraid that one young fellow came to me and asked if I would help him with his long multiplication and division. I thought it was just another Englishman making a joke about stupid Irish people. It didn’t matter how many times I apologised I could never forgive myself for hitting him so hard. His name was Tom and to show that he held no ill feeling towards me he offered to teach me snooker. I was as useless at snooker as I was at soccerball.
I was being taught how to walk, well; they called it marching and I couldn’t believe the importance they placed on it. The only game or sport where I thought I had a chance was hockey. It looked like hurling to me and I was good at that. Wrong again. I captured the ball, dribbled toward the goal and then switched to hurling mode as I took my shot. They should have told me that the ball wasn’t allowed to go above shoulder height and anyway, the goal keeper shouldn’t have put his head in the way. I was encouraged not to play hockey any more.
There was an almost conveyor belt approach to having our uniforms fitted and with legs like mine I felt that the tailoring should have been a little more precise, after all, it is what I was used to. I would like to say that the six weeks flew by, they didn’t. They did all sorts of unnecessary stuff to us. Why a prospective electronic engineer should have to be proficient at crawling along flooded tunnels in the dark, I have no idea. Why proving that I could eat a biscuit in a room filled with CS gas was considered important I have no idea. I mean, back home in Belfast the family would be at the dining table eating tea with clouds of CS gas floating about, curfew or not.
Then there was the guns, which of course they weren’t, they were weapons, polishing shoes was called bull, and it was. Only now can I look back and see that the double top secret cabal who were preparing me to be the world’s leading Master Candle Maker were stripping me of my cultural identity. Not just my appearance, or how I dressed, but how I spoke and was spoken to. Little did I know that in order to be the best King of Ireland and the most respected High Chief of the Clan O Neill that I was now going to be stripped bare.
They knew I was a master of Kung Fu and hand to hand combat, which is why they were now beginning to teach me the basics in weaponry. They knew the importance of rank or title and what better way of making someone really understand this, than taking away not just their reputation but their name. Throughout the whole ordeal I knew that any anytime I wanted I could step forward and ask to go home. I was still under eighteen years of age and up until my eighteenth birthday could simply walk away. But now, having been identified, in such a hostile way, as an Irishman, ignited something within me, something I only know today was pride. I had accepted the challenge, I had taken the shilling and I was going to stay the course.