March 05, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - Gerry McCullough

Gerry McCullough considers herself to be Irish, British and Northern Irish. She was born and brought up in Belfast and now lives in Conlig, just outside Bangor. She went to Belfast High School and then to Queen’s University where she took an honours degree in English Literature and Philosophy, followed by an MA in Eng Lit. She is married to singer-songwriter, writer, radio presenter and publisher Raymond McCullough, and has four children.

Gerry has been writing from childhood but has only in the last fifteen or so years had some success and finally seen her work published.

Gerry has written many books. Gerry’s latest book, Dreams, Visions, Nightmares, has just been released, 1 January 2016. This is a collection of eight of Gerry’s prize winning literary short stories, extended and edited, and it has already reached #1 in Short Stories on Amazon USA.

Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?" Gerry McCullough:
"To the best of my remembrance this would have been when I was about eleven or twelve, on holiday with my family in Dublin, when my father pointed out the General Post Office and explained how it had been held during the Easter Rising. Later on it cropped up in school history class, although not until I was in Fifth Form, and of course in English Literature when we were studying the poetry of Yeats, also at school. I remember my English teacher making some caustic remarks about the line, ‘A terrible beauty is born.’ She was a very clever woman but clearly prejudiced against the men who fought in the Rising. To me, it all seemed very romantic at that time – I was still quite young, after all. I’ve since come to hate all war."
BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?" GM:
"After the initial reaction of finding it all very romantic, I still find it an inspiring thing and admire the men who fought. I’ve always thought of myself as Irish, but British as well. When travelling in other countries it would never occur to me to describe myself as anything but Irish. However I’ve now lived through the troubles and have been disillusioned about all nationalist views. They seem to me to lead to hatred (on both sides, I hasten to add). I’d so much rather see people living in peace together. I’m not sure that we’re there yet, but nearly, I hope."
BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" GM:
"I love to read, and have read many books set before, during or after the First World War, mainly fiction but some biography, and I’m pretty sure I heard of various battles, including the Somme, in this way, while in my early teens, possibly first in Dorothy L Sayers’ detective stories about Lord Peter Wimsey. Later it came up in history at school, but since we were mainly taught the reasons for the war rather than its events I didn’t hear much about it. It’s only in more recent years that I’ve heard people, mostly on TV, talking about it."
BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain, mean anything to you?" GM:
"The horrors of the war and the mud and death in the trenches are what I think of most when I think about the Somme and the rest of the so-called ‘Great War’. In my book Johnny McClintock’s War a large section is devoted to this, although not to the Somme as such. I’ve written about the friends John lost and how he came from enthusiastic patriotism to a hatred of the fighting and all it stood for. One reviewer of the book said of it, ‘a book that should be required reading for all those that sit distant and safe from the wars they help create.’ So, no, although in theory I think highly of the men who fought, in reality the uselessness of the whole thing is what impacts me most."
BJS: "As a British/Irish/Northern Irish person, is the 1916 Rising important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" GM:
"The Rising itself is not especially important to me. The 1798 means more to me in many ways. My Irishness goes back to stories I was told as a child, for instance about Finn McCool who built the Giant’s Causeway and threw a clod of earth at his enemies, creating a gap in the Irish landscape which became Lough Neagh, and forming the Isle of Man where it fell into the Irish Sea; and to fairy tales about seal women and white owls’ feathers. I love the beauty of this island and its history and legends. I’m thankful that my childhood came at the time before the troubles polarized the two communities, when children of both religions were taught these old tales – in my case, anyway."
BJS: "As a British/Irish/Northern Irish person, is the Somme offensive important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" GM:
"No, not in the least. I’ve always thought of myself as British as well as Irish, just as the Welsh, Scots and English do, I suppose, and the Somme, when I eventually heard of it, had no impact on this. There are many things about being British that I’d be reluctant to lose, such as the Health Service, the right to buy contraceptives, etc. (Saying this, I believe the South has come on a lot in the area of providing welfare, since I was a child.) The political parties in the South, however, are a great drawback to me. Like the USA, one party is as bad as the other. Mind you, the North isn’t much better. Since we lost Northern Ireland Labour many years ago we don’t have a Socialist party here – at least, not one who puts up a candidate in the Bangor area; though I do realize that, with the arrival of New Labour, the socialist voter has a very limited choice in England too." 
BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?" GM:
"No. I’m not happy with commemorations of historical events which are likely to divide the community even further. I stopped celebrating the Twelfth a long time ago and have nothing but distaste for it. I can see the romantic attachment which people still have to these three events and no doubt to others, but I only wish we would all put our respective history behind us and move on in the present." 
BJS: "Are you happy with the series of commemorative events put on by the Irish State? And what do you think of Arlene Foster's take on the events of Easter 1916 (she has refused to attend any commemorations)?" GM:
"It’s natural that the South should wish to commemorate the war which brought them independence. It’s not for me to criticize this. And it seems a pity that one of our political representatives should offer a slap in the face to our nearest neighbours. However, as I’ve said above, if I were ruling Ireland, North and South, I wouldn’t arrange to commemorate this or anything else likely to be divisive, so I suppose I can see Arlene Foster’s point of view, while feeling it’s a pity, in her official position, that she should refuse to ‘bow in the House of Rimmon.’" 
BJS: "As a person from the island are you happy with where we are now at in terms of culture, cosmopolitanism and broad-mindedness?" GM:
"In many ways I am. We’ve come a long way in the past twenty years. There has been a real upsurge of the Arts, writing, painting, acting, etc., and people are beginning to come here on holiday, or to perform in gigs or plays, after the years of fear. But there’s no doubt that we have a long way to go. As for broad-mindedness, we need, I think, to be careful not to go too far with this. Dropping our beliefs out of a desire not to offend others is no solution. We need to hold on to our individuality but lose our aggressiveness – debate rather than get into a free fight. But there, it’s said that there are two things the Irish love – fighting and drinking. PG Wodehouse has a line about an Irishman who heard some people fighting in the street and sent his son down to ask if this was a private fight or could anyone join in; and I think there’s still a desire in most Irish people to get involved in whatever argument may be going on. We need to learn to hold the balance between that, and letting all our ideals slip away to nothing. Easier said than done."
BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" GM:
"I hope that we can learn more and more to put the past behind us and live in peace, without turning into Englishmen and women, and without losing our essential Irishness. I think there’s a real willingness to try, except for a very small minority. I prayed for peace all during the troubles. I’m praying now that, since we’ve found it, we won’t let go of it in a hurry."
BJS: "Please share any further thoughts these questions may have stimulated." GM:
"I’ve aimed in my writing, especially in my first book Belfast Girls, to encourage good relationships between the two sides. I just hope my blunt comments above about the Twelfth, 1916 and the Somme won’t turn any of my fans against my books!" 
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