Most people regard me as a typical Englishman, but, in reality I am, like many people born in the British Isles, a mixture of English, Scottish and Irish. It just happens that I grew up in Sussex in Southern England, with my father, Andy, who was a proud Scot and my mother, Irene, who is an equally proud English woman. I never knew my grandfathers, George, an Englishman and Archibald, a Scot from the Hebrides. The only grandmother I knew was my mother’s mother, Alice. She too was a proud English woman who told me many stories about her and my ancestors .
That, of course, wasn’t the whole story – I had another grandmother, Isabella, but she died in 1932, many years before I was born. This blog is about her and her role in my life.
My father, Andrew Bell (1896 – 1977), didn’t talk about the past very much. I was a child of his second marriage and was born after he had retired from his career as an army officer, serving mostly in India when it was still a part of the British Empire.
He had joined the army as a young Scotsman at the start of the First World War and was wounded in action at the Dardanelles. He was posted to India in 1919 where he married and had his first family. He never lived in Scotland again. His father, Archibald, had died in 1899, when he was a child, and his mother, Isabella, remarried. They only met again twice, but my father talked of her when he was in rare moments of emotion and he always carried her photograph in the small prayerbook that he’d taken with him into war. If he hadn’t, I would never have known what my paternal grandmother looked like.
Isabella Cherry was born in County Tyrone in 1869 and grew up on the family farm that she left as a young woman to make a new life in Glasgow, Scotland where she met my grandfather, a young man who had left his family farm on Islay in the Hebrides, to make his life too in Glasgow – which is where my father was born. She and my grandfather had a difficult life, I suspect, and my father, too, had seen bad things fighting through two world wars.
I, on the other hand, had the kind of war-free childhood that was a gift to me and millions of other ‘babv-boomers’ lucky enough to grow up in Western Europe. I loved to hear tales of the Hebrides, of Scotland and of Ireland from my father, mostly over a few drinks in my early adulthood, when he had mellowed into his anecdotal retirement. I felt at that time that I owed it to him, that I didn’t see myself as entirely English. He was a man who had travelled the world throughout his life, and, my brothers and I had inherited, he told us, a certain ‘Irish spirit’ – maybe it was the restlessness and a love of adventure that had sent him across the globe. I don’t know if that is true, but he encouraged me to look to the larger world.
As a rebellious young man I thought of myself as not just a child of England, Scotland and Ireland, but, in Thomas Paine’s great phrase, a ‘citizen of the world’. In my idealism, I saw the future as a slow journey towards equality and the abolition of state boundaries. Beethoven’s great Ode to Freedom made me cry and I was proud that it was adopted as the European anthem. Yes, we were all going to be citizens of the world.
Then, yes, sorry to remind you all, we had the BREXIT referendum in the now precariously disunited United Kingdom, and the country voted narrowly to leave the European Union. Theresa May became prime minister and the country descended into chaos. If this wasn’t depressing enough, she managed to push me even further into despondency when she scoffed at Thomas Paine and told a delighted Conservative Party conference that a citizen of the world was ‘a citizen of nowhere.’ It pushed me into action and in September 2018, I decided to look back to Isabella Cherry, my Irish grandmother, claim my Irish inheritance, and apply for joint Irish citizenship.
The certificate arrived last week and, sorry Mrs May, I am now a citizen of Britain, Ireland and Europe – still, I like to think, a citizen of the world and definitely not a citizen of nowhere. I am glad not to be deprived of my European citizenship if the dreaded BREXIT actually goes through. I am looking forward to my next visit to Ireland, celebrating a sense of belonging not just to my ancestry, but to my shared humanity, and hoping that I will not be seen as an interloper….I certainly don’t feel like one, and I know that my father, and hopefully my grandmother, would be proud of this decision.