Auntie Vera (right) and friends at a golf tournament in the late 1960s.

Auntie Vera (right) and friends at a golf tournament in the late 1960s.

My aunt and uncle’s idea of a holiday was to “motor” (they never merely “drove”) somewhere and watch a golf tournament.

While their friends went “on the continent”, they packed their shooting sticks, their golf shoes and their tins of Fox’s Glacier Mints.

Sometimes, they went as far as Royal Lytham and St Anne’s in the north of England, but mostly they stuck to the island of Ireland.

It was on one of these golf-watching holidays – at Royal County Down – that they fell into conversation with a couple from the North.

They met up again by chance the next day, and it seemed only natural to lunch together in the clubhouse between rounds of the tournament.

Companionable walks around a golf links encourage a certain level of intimacy, and the two couples swapped addresses at the end of the tournament, and began to send polite and self-deprecatory postcards to each other.

Unlce Harry practises his golf swing in the garden.

Unlce Harry practises his golf swing in the garden.

My uncle spoke of their new friends were a certain respect. The husband was not just a doctor, but a “medical man”, or a “surgeon”. His wife was “charming”.

The good doctor from the North and my uncle had a lot in common: they both liked rugby, golf and cricket. They could spend hours talking about Jack Kyle, the legendary Irish rugby player of the era.

I always sensed that there was an element of condescension in their relationship: the wealthy Protestant surgeon and the lowly Southern civil servant.

My uncle often talked about his friends from the North; I suspect he liked to show that he was free from the bigotry that was common at the time.

And the surgeon probably liked to mention that he had made some Irish Catholic friends for similar reasons.

Soon, one of the postcards contained an invitation to stay up North and attend an international rugby match at Ravenhill. The invitation was eagerly accepted.

Me (left) giving Uncle Harry the once-over.

Me (left) giving Uncle Harry the once-over.

On his return, my uncle spoke admiringly of the doctor’s “fine house and grounds” and the friendliness of the Protestant middle class people to whom they had been introduced.

He admired the solidity of his friends’ life, the steady progression from university to hospital post, from rugby club to golf club, the bridge parties and the Sunday roast.

On the morning after the rugby match, my uncle went to the local Catholic church to Mass. He got talking to a local man outside the church, and something the man said stayed with my uncle for a long time afterwards.

Speaking of his Protestant neighbours, the man said that “they would cut off the air from us if they could”. Somehow, Sunday lunch back at the surgeon’s house didn’t seem so innocent and carefree after that.

I suspect that my uncle and his host never discussed the “national question”. It is telling that the sports both men loved were ones that continued on an all-Ireland basis after the partitioning of the island, and they probably made the enlightened decision to talk about the things they had in common, rather than the ones that divided them.

Auntie Vera (left) and friend on Harry and Vera's honeymoon.

Auntie Vera (left) and friend on Harry and Vera’s honeymoon.

My uncle was Irish, of course, but he was sort of dusted with a patina of Englishness. He listened to BBC Radio 4, and followed the cricket Test matches and whistled Gilbert and Sullivan when he was in good form.

Yet he loved the Irish language too, and was quietly proud of the achievements of the Irish civil service in the early years of the State. His Irishness was nuanced and complex, but it was Irishness nonetheless.

The surgeon was Irish too, but he was also British. And he was Northern Irish. And, at a push, if he were supporting the Lions rugby team, he could claim to be British and  Irish.

The two couples stayed in touch for many years afterwards, and there were reciprocal visits North and South. Both parties were too well mannered to let the crudities of the Troubles poison their friendship.

Over time, the postcards stopped and the Mass cards and the black-edged condolence cards began. All four who met that day on the course at Royal County Down are dead now.

Their story came back to me recently because it speaks to the issue of Irish identity. And it’s complicated, as Rory McIlroy will tell you.