The Irish Question Take the Irish Question, for an instance, not the Irish question, from where I stand I find nothing amusing in that. No! Just an amusing Irish question. I don’t remember my friend Bunny’s rate of assimilation, certainly I didn’t really find my own feet for about a week and then he and I started visiting dance halls and I became privy to the Irish Question.
The system worked like this. The dance halls had groups of tables and chairs round the walls for couples and parties, the rest of us, loosely termed ‘the talent’, all huddled near the entrance and during the intervals between sets of dances, tried to find a suitable partner, by peering through the throng. The conversation, which took place, after the selection was never sparkling and generally bordered on the banal, except when I was asked the Irish Question. This had a dramatic effect on the relationship until I managed to derive a formula for the answer.
We would be gliding round the hall to the strains of ‘A string of pearls’, or some other Glen Miller hit, when my partner would look up into my face and ask most sweetly, ‘What religion are you?’ You can imagine the look of surprise which spread across the face of a well brought-up boy from the Smoke, (London), when stopped in his tracks by a question the Yanks would refer to as coming from ‘left field’. I was aghast the first time, surprised on a few subsequent occasions and nonchalant for the rest of my stay in Ireland – by then I had found the solution. There was a saying in the Navy which went something like – ‘if it was good enough for Nelson it’s good enough for you’, this was sometimes followed by the words ‘my lad’ and sometimes something a little more earthy, depending on what had sponsored the raising of Nelson and his preferences in the first place. I was of an independent nature and often found the idiosyncrasies of the Naval regime irksome and sometimes even ludicrous. There was no scope, for example, for agnostic or atheistic choice when religion was the subject in question, everyone had to belong to a religious sect, no matter how outre. Later, when I was more guileful I put this facet of Naval life to good effect. Initially I sometimes wondered if it was because Nelson couldn’t spell atheist. At every change of posting and every church parade one was asked what religion one was, it was even written in one’s paybook, which was a constant form of identification; so, having been told I was ‘C of E’, whether I liked it or not, and then having to repeat this falsehood for ever more, it came to my lips like a reflex action, and that was my mistake.
Each time I answered the Irish Question with the phrase ‘C of E’, at once a change came over the relationship and the face of the girl. It wasn’t exactly a tick, merely the expression some people evince when they have bitten into a particularly sour lemon. For the poor Catholic girl the dance could not end quickly enough – it could of course have been my aftershave, but in 1942 only the officers even knew such things existed. Bunny had the same experiences but a young woman of indeterminate religion explained the phenomenon to him and he passed on the intelligence, it was quasi political, what else in Belfast? I then devised a solution. When asked, I replied that I was a Buddhist and had a prayer mat up my shirt if they would like to see it. Each interpreted this from whatever experience they had of sailors, and life became more amenable after that. It took a stupid answer to solve a ridiculous question.
Coincidences Everyone has unexplained coincidences, so why write about them? These I believe were extraordinary. Remember! I was English born and educated, knew roughly where Ireland was but little more, and was never likely to go there, even on holiday. Few people apart from my Aunt ever did. Reg, the lecturer in our Mess came from Liverpool and taught there. He and I became close friends while I was on the ship but I never heard of him again. Later I came to Ireland, met Soph, married, and at the end of the war settled down. Two strange coincidence were brought to my attention. Sophie had an Irish cousin who, as a young woman left Ireland and moved to live in Liverpool. She went to Liverpool University where she met Reg and was friendly with him for some time.
Sophie taught modern languages and one day she said, “I’ve invited a colleague round for a drink and she’s bringing her husband. I opened the door and introduce myself. The husband said, “I know you, you shared a room with me when we were on course in the Isle of Man. Those I believe are strange coincidences.