My grandfather was an open, honest man. Like many men and women in the countryside of Connemara, he wore his emotions on his face without reservation. When he was happy, his eyes crinkled, when he was angry, his sideburns would quiver. There were only a few certainties in the childhood I spent growing up on the farm that he and my grandmother owned, but one of them was that I would always know what Granddad was thinking. And that when he spoke in his gruff, staccato manner, he would say exactly what ran through his mind, no more and no less. With one notable exception.
Whenever someone brought up the subject of his brother, my grandfather’s eyes would glaze off, like chips of ice. His face would turn to stone, his hands would idle over whatever they were doing. He would stand like that until the subject of conversation changed. Sometimes he wouldn’t move for long minutes afterwards. Finally his eyes would clear, his smiles would come easily again. The sun would rise and set, the tides would change, and I could almost forget that the icy spell ever occurred. But I never had the courage to ask him what had happened to my great uncle. Every time I talked myself into trying, I would remember the ice in his eyes and lose myself in my chores, cursing myself for been seven kinds of a coward.
It was long years until my grandmother set a pint of beer in front of me, stoked the fire and began talking. My great uncle had been young and newly married in 1981. His business was taking off, he and his wife were looking to start a family, they had just bought a new car, something that was still a novelty in certain parts of Ireland where we keep lorries working for thirty years. He seemed to have his whole life ahead of him. And then he made a terrible, terrible mistake.
He sold a horse to a Protestant. And Catholic militants from the Irish Republican Army found him and his wife, dragged them out of their car, and shot them to death. First her, so that they could hear him plead for her life. And then my great-uncle. They stole the car as well.
By the time I heard this story, I was thirteen and had been painfully aware of the Christian militant presence in my homeland for years. I never knew my great-uncle or my great aunt, but my family was a close knit unit, and I could see as clear as a cloud over the sea the pain my grandfather felt at his brother’s senseless murder. And I took that pain into myself and opened my eyes even wider so that I could see what was happening in my home. And over time experience and education fermented that pain into anger, and from that anger came a will to speak out.
The Troubles were a terrible time for Ireland. Academia will list the Troubles as the series of shootings, guerilla warfare, demonstrations, segregations, and terrorist attacks that plagued both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland from the late 60’s till 1998. However, the Troubles didn’t happen out of the blue. They were the result of centuries of invasion, oppression and warfare. They are as complex and sorrowful as the history of Ireland itself, and difficult to fully explain in any form of brevity. Some will claim that they’re a result of history, of centuries of bad blood. Others will cite it as a geopolitical movement, opposition between the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and British military forces. Still others will coldly denounce it as gang warfare between groups of malcontents and misfits who cared more for headlines than other people’s lives.
All of this is true. But at the heart of the issue, like a tattered standard waving over a bloody field, is one constant. Religion. Specifically, Christianity.
Not even my remote corner of Western Ireland was unaffected by the groups of militant Christians who waged war against each other. My village of Clifden, in County Galway, had been burned down by the Black and Tans (Protestant militants) decades before I was born. Clifden was a sleepy village, often called the “Capital of Connemara.” We spoke Irish, raised ponies for racing, played the tunes on Saturday nights. I went to Mass on Sunday for my grandfather, said prayers to the sea god Manannan and some of the other gods at night for my grandmother.
The village of Clifden, directly between the mountains of magical leprechauns, and the forest of fiery redheads.
As I grew older, I began to hear more and more about the Troubles raging around us. In Mass, the priest prayed for the deaths of the Protestant oppressors of our Catholic brothers and sisters. On the television, I would see Protestants in the north burning the Tricolour and screaming for the deaths of Catholics. I began to learn more about what was happening in Ireland. Men and women killed for walking out of the wrong church. For marrying someone of the wrong religion. For suspected Loyalist sympathies, for associating with the wrong denomination, for simply being in the way of the true targets, and for no other reason that the Christians wanted some more press. Thousands of bloody, pointless deaths.
And then came Omagh. Nothing was the same after Omagh. But more on that later.
Can it be any small wonder that today I am an atheist? I have quite a bit to write about and a whole mess of blog posts planned. Who knows, I may actually get someone to read it eventually.
But let me clear up one thing right now. I am not an atheist because I am angry at God. Or because I love my sin too much. Or because I hate America, hate family values, and am determined to destroy everything that is good and right in the world. For everyone’s benefits, I’ll spell it out right here. I am an atheist because I saw the blood that militant Christians splattered across the streets of my home and swore that I would fight in any way I could so that what happened in the country of my birth would never happen in the nation of my adoption.
That nation is America, where I moved when I was a fifteen year old man. Just in time to start American high school. I ended up going to a conservative Lutheran high school at my mother’s insistence. By then I was already a non-believer, which just added to my collective oddity ( the fact that I called an eraser a ‘rubber’ in class one day didn’t help matters either). It soon became quickly apparent that the Christians in America were little different than the ones who terrorised my homeland. They had the same prejudices, the same hatreds for the same people, the same determination to see their religion triumphant at the cost of the rest of us.
As a result, this blog will mostly concern my own opinions and observations concerning American and European Chistendom. So before I get the cries of “What about Islam!? Why are they getting a free pass? Why don’t you comment on them?” let me say that I could and probably will criticise Islam at some points. However, I did not grow up among Muslim terrorists, I grew up around Christian ones, and I don’t live in a Muslim country, I live in a dominantly Christian country with a strong Christianist influence. It only makes sense for me to write what I know.
I am told that makes me a militant atheist. Mainly because I comment on many different blogs, and now I’m starting one of my own. Which really doesn’t make sense. Rachel Held Evans writes a blog and no one calls her a militant Christian. I’ve seen militant Christians. Rest assured they were not armed with copious amounts of coffee and a succession of fashionable cardigans.
I despise coffee, and my cardigans would give my poor mother heart failure if she ever saw them. Which I guess makes me the least militant atheist you will ever meet.
So ends Epistle the First.