Family History and the Queen

My grandmother was the only person I knew growing up who didn’t love the English or their Queen. She usually made this clear by slightly snide remarks, an oddity because she was generally very nice to people.

I didn’t understand this until many years later, when my father told me that while my grandmother was a teenager in the second decade of the 20th century, her grandfather lived with her family at the hotel they ran in Christoval, Texas. He was going blind by then, so she used to read to him from books he was fond of as well as from the newspapers.

So I imagine that in the spring of 1916, she read to him about the Easter Uprising in Ireland against the British.

I should mention that her grandfather, Florence McCarthy, was born in County Cork, Ireland, and immigrated to the United States as a young man in the 1850s. I don’t know why he came, except that he had a brother in New York, but while it might have been for economic reasons, it might also have been political ones.

In any case, based on my grandmother’s attitude about the English, I venture to say his politics were on the Irish side of the Uprising.

My grandmother, in fact, always saw herself as Irish even though she never visited the place. I don’t think she left the U.S. except for a trip or two to Mexico. But she was always more Irish in her own mind than she was Texan.

My great-great grandfather was an educated man. I think he got his schooling in the United States, though I am not sure. He taught Latin and Greek before going to work for the railroads in an administrative job.

I never knew him, of course. He died when my father was still a small child. But he cast quite a long shadow.

My own education, being post World War II, was mildly Anglophilic. I recall learning world history from a teacher obsessed with Henry VIII (though also with Napoleon). Certainly literature classes focused a great deal on Shakespeare as well as other writers from the British Isles (many of whom were, of course, Irish).

But while I remain attached to Shakespeare and have read many English writers whom I love, not to mention have British friends, something about my grandmother’s attitude must have crept in, because while I have no antagonism to England, I am not obsessed by the place.

While I realize that Elizabeth II was queen for a very long time and that her death is big news, I am not sure why there is worldwide mourning going on.

First of all, she was 96 and had been in declining health. Secondly, she was the wealthy but basically powerless, ruler of a country of 67 million people. (I mean, technically she was the ruler of the British Commonwealth and a lot of people saw her as the Queen, but she really had no power over those people. The relationship was just ceremonial.)

Nothing about her was ultimately important except symbolically, and that symbol was in substantial decline. That wasn’t her fault; the decline was in place before her time.

Now I’m not arguing that symbols aren’t important. But not all the ones that once mattered matter now.

Britain ruled a large chunk of the world for many years – thus the large commonwealth – and that history was often very ugly. Other countries in Europe did similar things, but the British colonized so many places.

Ireland, of course, was one of the first places they colonized, thus my grandmother’s attitude filtered from her grandfather. That history was quite ugly. There are good reasons for all the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland and the violent attacks of the IRA in England.

I don’t approve of violence — it’s rarely useful — but I can understand why various peoples who were abused under colonialism might choose it.

I must confess that I’m holding out hope that the disaster that is Brexit will drive Northern Ireland to reunite with Ireland. I don’t identify with Ireland the way my grandmother did, but it feels like the appropriate end to centuries of colonial rule.

From all the coverage, I get that many people idolized the Queen. I’m not sure they feel such love for her heirs.

Perhaps this would be a good time to abolish the monarchy. Do it to honor the Queen.

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