Growing up as an Irish exile

By Eamonn Finnegan

Rosie was a fine chestnut Irish draught horse with a wonderful temperament. My first cousins in Galway loved her. We rode her bareback when my mother Kate and her sister Auntie Margaret were too busy to complain about it. She had a strong earthy odour of sweat, horsehair, and muscle. The leather reins and harness were hard to grip when it rained so I made sure to wear tight black riding gloves. My cousins, especially Matthew were naturally gifted equestrians. Horses ran in my mother’s family I was repeatedly told.

One day Matthew took me to an ancient bridleway. I galloped hard and fast. Rosie’s hooves pounded and tufts of grass fluttered up around us. The sound of the wind in my ears was deafening. I remember the sense of freedom, speed, and exhilaration to this day. It was my greatest childhood memory and I stored it away for safe keeping.  By the time I pulled her up we were some distance from my cousin.

“Another horseman in the family,” Matthew said when Rosie and I returned to the farmhouse. My mother smiled broadly.

I stayed on deck, standing at the back of the ferry until the view of Ireland was lost under the horizon. The lights from the shore were the last I saw of my spiritual home as we sailed forwards into the darkness. Sometimes, I was alone in the practice of this ritual, sometimes my older brother James was with me. Even with his company it remained an intensely personal matter of heartbreak, frustration and ultimately submission.

I made a vow to myself. I’ll find a way to live in Ireland. I’ll gallop in Ireland again. I knew that somehow, in some way that I would keep that vow. I did not know how, and I did not know when, but I knew it would happen. I knew it.

I remember coming back from my grandmother’s funeral aged nineteen. I was hushed and miserable as I lost Ireland again. A sense of dislocation arose at the thought of the return to England. I knew that we lived there out of the necessity for economic survival and no more than that. I knew that we had no choice and I felt angry at my own and my country’s powerlessness.

The troubles raged on and the sounds of exploding bombs are part of my childhood recollections. I stood in the school yard one morning only to be stunned by the sound of a loud explosion nearby. Later I discovered that the IRA had killed someone connected to the British establishment. As a schoolchild I failed to fully comprehend the true horror of that reality, that death. Instead, I interpreted it as the legitimate, if despairing, action by the armed representatives of a profoundly wronged people.

Why had I been born in London to Irish parents? My parents didn’t want to live there. They went to make money to send back to our relatives.  I knew it had something to do with the UK government, historical wrongs, division and the mismanagement of Ireland. The question was how could I fix that?

I felt Irish and yet when I started school, I began to sound like all the other boys in my class. Half of them and most of the teachers at my privileged Catholic school were Irish or had Irish parents. A troubling philosophical issue, much discussed by my peers was what was the difference, if any, between us and English people? There was a difference. But how could one define it? Listening to the Pogues and the Chieftains only confirmed the complexity of the struggle for my identity. We were Irish, yet outsiders in both England and Ireland.

As I grew older, I became embedded in London life, but I could not forget Rosie and our gallop. She was happy as she cut up the turf and so was I. That experience had come to symbolise my sense of identity as a free person. I was an Irish boy, riding an Irish horse, in Ireland. It was who I was in my soul, and nothing could ever change that. Despite the years rolling by I just could not settle. Notwithstanding the ease with which I moved in privileged English circles somewhere deep inside I remained an Irish boy wanting to return to Ireland.

Years later I moved to Cork. I decided to complete my number one bucket list wish. I joined a stable locally. Initially my fellow equestrians were cool towards me. But then one sunny spring morning a group hack was organised. When we returned, I was included a little more.

“He rides well… for an Englishman,” appeared to be the consensus.

The following week I asked permission to take out the large black stallion. ‘Thunder’ could more accurately have been renamed ‘Tempest!’ We clicked straight away in our empathetic conspiracy. I trotted him down to Roberts Cove and walked him into the sea. He enjoyed the sea breeze.

There was soft sunlight glistening on the drying seaweed and the sound of seagulls on the warm air. Thunder threw his head around and flicked his mane over my riding gloves. I rode him up the steep side of the cove on the right-hand side so that the sea would be on the left when we reached the flat headland thirty metres above the beach. As soon as we were on horizontal land he started to pull.

I found it hard to hold him and then we took off. I could smell the sea, hear the wind and feel the sun as the powerful horse galloped for joy along the edge of the cliff. When we finally pulled up after several kilometres, I patted his neck and shouted for joy. The Irish boy had found a way to become a free Irish man galloping a horse for fun in his own country. Thunder was the only witness to this epiphany. My long exile was over.

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