ISABELLA NEWTON


Jus Soli - (Latin) the right to citizenship from the nation one is born in.

“Why did you leave Dublin?” Alice asks. There is a set ritual when visiting her grandmother. Tea, biscuits, all taken in the garden. Discussions of churches or sovereignty are strictly prohibited. A magpie wallows in the distance whilst Alice sets the crockery down.

“Quick, salute it, or Mr Magpie won’t give you any luck.” Her grandmother won’t be distracted by the question and instead gives the bird a three-finger salute. “They’re God’s postmen, Alice, it’s rude to ignore them.”

“It would, just…you know, be good to know why. I was wondering. That’s all.” The question remains unanswered as her grandmother reaches for her tea. 

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“Kilmainham Gaol, the Book of Kells, and I want to meet my great aunt in Dublin, too.”  Alice is leaning against the wicker chair, trying to avoid the sweltering heat. It has been an oppressive summer this year, too hot to move, smoke a constant, and the ever-present paranoia of the bushfires finally becoming uncontrollable. Her family has long since retired to the pool, languidly lying across inflatables, enjoying the reprieve the water provides.

An Aunt turns her head to face her, champagne in hand, hair fanned out against the inflatable swan’s neck, “You do know that Aunt Roisin died six months ago, right?” 

Based on the animated activity across the backyard pool, the family apparently did not know. Alice gazed at her cousin, auburn plaits dripping as she cannonballs into the pool, oblivious to the news. Dublin, Alice thinks, amongst the cacophony of shouts and smell of smoke, feels like a faraway dream. 

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The towel drips with pool water, but Alice’s mother is determined to have dry hair. She stands beside Alice, who is trying to fix her hairclip. The Christmas lunch can be deemed a success, no one screamed or stormed out, and no hairline fractures between siblings were torn asunder.

“They are an odd family, you would think someone in Ireland would tell us she had died,” Alice says. 

Her mother shrugs. “That’s the Connors, they’ve always been like that. What happens in Ireland only concerns us if we ask.” 

“Do you think they’d still want to meet me?” Alice departs in eight days and she feels as though she is stuck on a rollercoaster about to take off. Her mother looks over to her and pushes a red curl off Alice’s eyes. “You look enough like them; they probably won’t realise you’re not even Irish.”

Nationalism - (English) the support of one’s own nations interests to the exclusion of others. In the Irish context for example, this manifests in the support of an independent Ireland or reunification with the North. 

“Are you from the right Ireland or the wrong Ireland?” 

Alice doesn’t know what to say. It is her first night at the new church, a chance she has taken on this group of strangers. The question is from her bible study leader. Dear God, she thinks.

“Matthew, I don’t think the Irish like their country referred to in that way.” The pastor has stepped in, much to Alice’s relief.

“Still, which part are you from?” Matthew stares, but Alice still doesn’t know how to respond.

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“The wrong or right Ireland?” Her father looks into his beer bottle, aghast. 

“Exactly!” Alice exclaims. “How do you answer that? Well, I could try: Half my family is from the North, but the part I’m closer to is from the South, and that’s how I have citizenship, but we aren’t Catholic…” she sighs, lost for words. The wrong or right Ireland.

“You know what you should have said.” He looks at her, the beer put down. “Those are fighting words, mate, and you should consider whether you are prepared to bear the consequences before you say them.” It is the closest her father has ever come to anything remotely nationalistic, and once more, Alice is at a loss for words after being chastised by him. 

Her family never dared to touch it; nationalism was far too
dangerous a weapon in Ireland.  It entailed too many identities that didn’t make sense, ‘isms’ and justifications. Were you part of the passivist tradition or the violent one? Did you abhor the use of violence in the Troubles yet think it was justified in the War of Independence? For the Anglo-Irish Treaty or against it? God, Alice was exhausted just thinking about it, let alone what constituted the wrong or right Ireland. 

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The sky is heavy with grey. The Liffey is but a muddy river, hardly worthy of all the poems on it, and it appears to Alice that Joyce was fair in his description of Dublin. A stagnant city. Not quite the fairyland of books and pukas her grandmother had described. Her cousins, who had immediately offered Alice cups of tea upon cups of tea, had agreed—she needed to get out of the city if she wanted to see Ireland properly. Alice pushed her scarf off her ears to take the phone call.

Her parents are content, that is a relief, she experienced a lot of guilt when leaving for a year-long trip to figure out who she was, when it was a question her parents had been content not to ask.  But all is well, her brother is doing fine in school, the dog misses her, and the fires have ceased.

“Dad, it was Ash Wednesday. Everyone had the cross on the forehead. At first, I thought some boys had just gotten into a fight, but literally everyone was marked with one. I’m not exaggerating.” Alice pushes past tourists, determined to reach Easons. 

“Well I told you they were Catholic over there.” Her dad is chuckling, she can hear it reverberating through the phone.

“But not everyone, Dad, you didn’t tell me everyone was Catholic.” She reaches Easons and inhales the familiar smell of books.

“Yeah, don’t you get it yet? To be Irish is to be Catholic.” Her dad pauses, “I always wondered if that was why your
grandmother was upset, not that I disagreed with her church’s doctrine, but more so that I’d rejected what it was to be Irish.” 

Alice holds one book absent-mindedly. She can add that question to the list of things she should have asked her grandmother; she always told Alice she looked Irish, but of course there was no mention of the religion stuff. Did her faith disqualify her?

Humanae Vitae - (Latin) a Papal declaration in 1968, that prohibited the use of contraception and upheld the sanctity of life doctrine.

It is the second time Alice cried in a public space that day. The first was at the General Post Office, before a photograph of a young Eamon de Valera surrounded by British soldiers, but she had not expected to cry here, at the Irish Emigration Museum. 

“We were treated like slaves, never paid. You would go to the laundry thinking it was a school. But it wasn’t. The nuns were terrible, they hated us.” She sits before a video, the woman’s face blown up on the screen, her gaze unmoving. 












It is different to have read about these places in books than to be confronted by a survivor of them. Ireland’s history had always been a source of pride for Alice, she is proud to say she was from the country where people had fought and died for the right to rule themselves. But it was far harder to say she was from the country where girls had been treated as blights upon their communities, to be locked away and worked and worked until they were forgotten. No, that history was a terrible burden to bear. 

The woman’s question haunts Alice for the rest of the week. “Who would do that to a child?”

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Was her grandmother happy? The girl in the photograph looks at her, white veil on, rosary beads clasped in hand. It makes sense that Alice’s only photograph of her grandmother as a child is from her First Holy Communion. She looks too serious, but they need something from her childhood to show at her wake.

“That was probably a year or so before her mother died.” Alice’s mother looks over her shoulder. “Poor Maureen. She had to leave school after that, help raise her brothers.” Her mother shakes her head. “You know why a woman would die of the cold at thirty-two?” Alice shakes her head, finding out about her family before her grandmother came to Australia has been a near impossible task over the years. “When you’ve had six children with no break in between. You’d be exhausted too.”

Alice looks through the photographs on the table. Finding out snippets of stories about her grandmother is not the same as having her here beside her, holding out cups of tea, but it is better than the complete absence of her. Behind the
photograph of her grandmother at her First Holy Communion, there is another one of her in Dublin. Again, at a church, her grandmother holding her niece, this time a different girl dressed in communion white.

“Ah, your grandmother had to leave Ireland after that. She couldn’t raise her sibling’s children, too.” Her mother nods grimly at that. “Better she come to Sydney and take the heat, having her own children rather than stay.”

There are so many confusing threads in her grandmother’s life that Alice cannot untangle the stories told as a comfort to a child from the truth. Her grandmother left to avoid being forced to raise her sibling’s children. Of course, the burden of the oldest girl in the family. A magpie warbles outside and Alice is taken back to the time she sat beside her grandmother in the garden, a cup of tea held in two small hands. 

“Why did you leave your home?” Alice looks up to her.  

Her grandmother is briefly distracted, watching as the magpie pecks at his biscuit offering. Her arm rests around Alice, and she squeezes her tight. Giggles escape Alice. “Why, there just weren’t enough men in Ireland for me.”

Looking at the photographs now, her grandmother sombrely dressed in grey against the Irish sky, Alice can understand why her grandmother would speak humour rather than the truth.  

Unionism - (English)the support of the union between Ireland and Britain, seen for example in organisations such as the Orange Order. 

“My granddad used to cheer when they announced a British soldier had been killed. He hated them.” A classmate, Niamh, whispers to her, as the lecturer goes through the slides detailing the use of British troops in Northern Ireland. 

Alice sits tense, her hands gripping the lecture desk. It had been a phone call home that had brought it to light, and brief resentment went through Alice. Her mother, despite knowing she was heading to Ireland, had waited for some unknown reason to tell her: Her grandfather, on her mother’s side, the more distant side of the family; not from Dublin but from Belfast, had served in the British army, and had been posted to Northern Ireland. His tank was later bombed by the IRA. Why Alice had to be twenty to know this, she does not know. It was much easier when either side of her family were delineated as the Green or Orange people, as her grandmother Maureen put it when she was a child. Orange or green, they sounded like nothing more than characters in a children’s book. 

Her lecturer flicks to the next slide. A group of British soldiers stand in front of a barricade in Derry, one clasping the Union Jack. She scans the rank frantically, only briefly relaxing when she confirms that her grandfather isn’t amongst them. The funny thing with stress is that it conjures absurd situations that could never occur: Her lecturer showing a photograph of her grandfather in uniform, her classmates realising that they are related, what would happen next, still unimagined. 

Taking a course on Northern Ireland’s history had been to learn, to try to somehow sew together what it meant to be Anglo-Irish. Her family in Australia had no answer, except that topics of religion and self-determination were not to occur. No one wanted to figure out how a Protestant had citizenship for the Republic yet not the North. It didn’t make sense; it was far too complicated. Alice was alone, aimlessly wandering in circles, accepted neither in the Republic or North, not sure whether she wanted to be part of either. 

“Here they are, the bloody Prods.” Alice groans, head in hands, as her lecturer flicks to a slide of the Orangemen, fervent Unionists who demonstrated their support to Britain by marching through Catholic neighbourhoods to commemorate a battle in 1690. Her lecturer has reassured her that it made sense, to a degree.

Her classmate, Niamh from Derry, tuts. The Orangemen always put her in a particularly vile mood. On the first day of class, Niamh had explained to Alice that most of her family had been in the IRA and she would like to see reunification in her lifetime. She is yet to catch on that Alice is actually a ‘Prod’. Alice had hence always called herself Australian first and foremost, careful not to mention any links to British soldiers in Belfast. Best that she doesn’t realise, Alice doesn’t expect Niamh will take it well at all. 

Jus Sanguinis - (Latin) citizenship that is a right by virtue of ancestry, literal meaning, right of blood.

The magpie sings to its partner as it hops from branch to branch on the gumtree. Compared to the Irish variant, they are joyfully in song, content in their nestbuilding. The birds had been so silent in Dublin, mimicking Alice’s temperament, no boisterous noise from them or her. 

Alice gives the magpies a salute with one hand, her other holding the tea cup, watching on as her cousin, only six, plays with her dolls. Her auburn hair sits in neatly braided plaits, held by hairclips with kitten faces. The girl fiddles with one, trying to pull it out. She succeeds and asks, “Will you stay here, Alice?” 

Alice sips her tea, trying to assemble a response. “Of course, this is home. But I did love visiting where Grandma was from. I’ll have to take you over one day.” Her cousin nods seriously, a bargain struck. It is good to be back home, Alice thinks, despite the scalding weather. In Sydney, no one is confused by the contradictions of the Anglo-Irish Protestant woman: Her identity, ill-stitched by fate and lineage. She does not need to silently weigh her words, consider their historic implications and who she is saying she is by using this noun or that. There is no burden here for her to carry; here, she can just be Alice, Maureen’s Granddaughter and greeter of birds. 

“Quick salute it, too.” Her cousin looks over, and Alice points to the magpie, who stares down at them, its eyes proud and expectant. “Didn’t Grandma tell you they are God’s Postman?” The little girl raises her palm in a wave and the magpie bows, before it is in flight once more. 




︎Isabella is a third year law and international studies student who is constantly trying to weave the topics of Irish history and literature into conversation. 2020 has brought many unexpected things but one blessing she is particularly grateful for is time to write.︎