I first entered the Wee North when I had just turned one. The Troubles were raging with no sign of abating. The Hunger Strikes were in progress and nationalist feeling was running very high. Even SDLP supporters who eschewed violence were mostly furious at the British Government. Their fury was of course misdirected. They should have aimed their bile at the terrorists, loyalist and republican, who had brought the North of Ireland to this bloody impasse. But as nationalists would have it, Ireland had been bifurcated by the fiat of Great Britain and this would not do. A million Unionists must be forced to join an impoverished virtual theocracy that had an official language that Unionists could not speak – and that was that.
We drove across the border from Donegal. This was part of valedictory Grand Tour of Ireland. We visited Derry. Of the Maiden City I have not the faintest recollection at that stage in the game. We may have paid a fleeting visit to Fermanagh’s county town, being Enniskillen.
Latterly we drove to other places,among them Belfast.
I did not return to Northern Ireland until such time as I had turned 11 years of age. If memory serves it was December and I was in Third Form. We crossed the sea on a ferry from Great Britain. We had our copper coloured Range Rover in the hold as we wandered the upper decks on the journey from Stranraer. I had never been on such a ship and I was rather excited. The hulking great ship inched away from the quayside. The pure white foam bubbled up pleasingly as seagulls cawed overhead. The decks were full of hubbub – of harsh Glaswegian tones and bouncy Belfast burrs. The red black swirly carpets were encrusted in countless beer stains and cigarette fumes reeked from the worn upholstery.
It was a cool and overcast day as usual. There were many neon lit and blaring arcade games. I shook down my father for coins to play these mindless jangling games.
I fell in with a group of other prepubescents. Some were English it seemed and some from Northern Ireland. The word ”wee” was mentioned and some long-haired boy, younger than myself, with a pukka English accent turned to me and asked if that meant small. I confirmed that he was correct.
I overheard some dispute. A man in his 30s wearing a footer jersey spoke to his son in a patent Northern Ireland accent, ”so who was the man who sat on you?” The man walked purposefully and rapidly – there was anger in his gait. There had been a disagreement about whose chair it was and a grown man had sat on a boy deliberately. I never saw the outcome of that contretemps.
After two hours or so we docked at Larne. Down to the noisy car decks and into our luggage laden vehicle. We drove out of the characterless town of Larne. It may seem an unkind thing to say about it bearing in mind that I have only ever whizzed through that borough. But all the same that is the notion I got of the place. It is the smallest town I ever saw to have tower blocks.
We stopped at a filling station on a hill leading up, out of the town of Larne. There we got petrol. I had long been indoctrinated by my parents with a nationalist version of the Northern Ireland conflict. The Catholic community were presented as being the downtrodden poor who were barbarously mistreated by baying loyalist bigots. In the usual heuristic childish fashion I swallowed all my parents attitudes. I later considered saying that we were refused service at a petrol station on account of our being Catholics. This was of course utterly bogus. How would they have known we were Roman Catholics anyhow? My parents southern Irish accents would have meant that there was a 95% chance that we were Catholics. Such is the desire to lie all for the good of the cause. Naturally such mendacity must exist on the Unionist side as well. I had not yet developed the intellectual curiosity and the independence of mind to question such narratives for myself. Nor was I well enough versed in the history of the place to arrive at a more considered judgment of the situation.
My mood was to be on the defensive, to feel wronged, victimised.
We drove to Belfast. There my father slowed the car to ask directions from young men for Malone Road. This name Malone was distinctly Irish: even identifiably Catholic. Was it not dangerous to let this word pass one’s lips there? That is what I cogitated at the time. The youths directed us and we got there. There was a 3 m high metal fence and we drove in and parked. Could it be so dangerous that such a fence was needful? The hotel was bright, a couple of storeys tall and very modern but uninspiring. It was almost like an upmarket Travelodge.
Up in the room a documentary was on about the Mughal Emperors. My mother and I watched as an Englishman recounted how the Emperor Aurangzeb had fought his relatives for the paramount position in India.
Next day we had a little time in the centre of Belfast. We parked not far off Donegall Square. This is the principal square of the city. Those of you familiar with Irish Geography will be aware that the county Dongeal has but one ‘l’ at the end. This square takes a double ‘l’ at the end because the land there was once owned by the Marquess of Donegall. That family spelt the word with two ‘l’s at the end. Thus places in Belfast that are named after that family have a double ‘l’.
It was a grey day though not too cold. We surveyed the mighty Belfast City Hall. The British Flag fluttered in the bracing breeze off Belfast Lough. My father stood with his head slightly inclined to one side and his arms folded looking sour. Above City Hall hung a white banner with unmissable words in black:” Ulster Says No to a United Ireland.” The Anglo-Irish Agreement had been not long before. This was a very small step in the right direction. Mrs Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, and the Taoiseach Dr. Garret FitzGerald had tried to improve relations and move closer to consensus on Northern Ireland. Unionists had been enraged at this apparent undermining of their position. They felt that they were being nudged out of the United Kingdom. That is why they hoisted this banner with a trademark uncompromising slogan above City Hall. This was why the nationalist in my father was sulky. We saw an RUC vehicle – it was an armoured car. The Land Rover had flaps right down to the ground to stop people shoving logs under it to stop it. There was chicken wire over the windscreen. My father told me how only 8% of the RUC were Catholics. The implication being that it was dreadful that this figure was so paltry. The resentment on his face was palpable. I internalised all these sentiments and replicated them in exaggerated measure. It did not occur to me at the time to inquire why there being so few Catholics in the RUC was a bad thing? Did he want more to join or not? If they joined they were vilified as traitors by republicans and indeed top d of the death list and if Catholics did not join then the RUC was vilified for not having enough Catholics. So republicans created a problem and then complained about it.
From there we drove to the border. Near the border we really had to slow down. The British Army was there in force. Soldiers in combat fatigues padded along the hard shoulder carrying their weapons with the barrels pointing a little below shoulder height? The traffic was crawling but there was no tension abroad. My father was at the wheel. We neared a checkpoint where cars were being stopped and cursorily checked. Then my mother put her foot on the gas and we lurched forward a few metres before she slowed the car. ”Are you trying to get us killed?” shrieked my father. The week before some youngsters in a car had tried to drive through a checkpoint. The soldiers thought they were being attacked and they shot. Both people in the car were killed. The soldiers had reason to be jumpy. My mother screeched her protests of it being an honest mistake. We got out alive!
We passed through Northern Ireland on the same route only three weeks later.
I think we even did the same return journey a year later
I was 18 when I crossed the border with my friend Thomas. I had become fixated with the politics and history of Northern Ireland. Over the previous two years I had devoured all reading materials on Northern Ireland that I could get my hands on. I had become what in schoolboy terms would be an authority on the subject – not that anyone would want to hear my views on it. I had come to see that the British and Irish identities need not be antipathetical. The nationalist account of affairs that I had been told was not all true or fair. There was another side to the story. I had come to largely reject the nationalist narrative and especially the republican version of events that the British Government had committed the most insupportable acts of oppression there. Nationalist narratives are protean and not all of what was said was specious. There had been denominational discrimination in both directions. The fact that it was in both directions is willfully overlooked by most nationalists. There had certainly been many ghastly crimes committed by loyalist terrorists. I had certainly familiarised myself with the republican account of the conflict. I was surely the only Unionist at the time to be a regular reader of An Phoblacht – the newspaper of Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein whined that Ireland had been fractured by partition – a partition that Michael Collins and the majority of the Dail Eireann had voted for. Every last one of them in the Dail had been Sinn Feiners at the time. I had examined the historical record and reviewed what I had been told to believe. I read veraciously and became very well-informed on this vexatious topic. The republican narrative seemed ever more frayed. Likewise, I say that loyalist lore was also flawed. Moreover, loyalists did not look much beyond the 17th century. The jaded old wheeze runs that as you land in Belfast Airport over the tannoy an announcement blares, ”Please adjust your watches to local time – 1690.” I found myself thinking ”it ain’t necessarily so”. Republicans were falsifiers of the chronicles. No one I ever met in Northern Ireland was groaning under any misgovernment.
I found the Troubles almost fun. It was idiotic of me. It was a sordid chapter in history by any sensible reckoning. There were many indiscriminate bombings.
We were on an Ulsterbus from Dundalk. It tickled me that Northern Ireland could not even have buses – they had to be Ulsterbuses. From Dundalk the flat land rapidly rose up into wild hills. Summer bloomed her uberous best and the flowers gloried in their variegated colours. Clumps of coniferous trees had full and verdant canopies. The lush fields were dotted with bushes and copses. Fir trees covered the thinner soil of slopes on the craggy, dark green hills.
I felt a thrill of danger and taboo breaking crossing the frontier. The fact that Ireland was bisected by this border evoked no feelings of resentment or anger in me. This was the area known as Bandit Country – it was the very furnace of Irish republicanism. I saw the British Army towers that dotted the rough hillsides. These metal towers were called sangars and had some metal netting on them to defeat rockets that might be fired. So far as I know no sangar was ever pulverised by an IRA rocket so I suppose the netting was doing its job effectually. Deep purple heather lined the hillsides and scree lay scattered at the foot of every rugged hill. The varied topography resembled a very badly rumpled carpet with plenty of gulleys. Bruised clouds gathered in the June sky.
I heard the moustache wearing bus driver chatting to his friend. Both were both short and podgy middle aged men from Northern Ireland and I surmised Catholics. I was fixated with guessing someone’s religious denomination in that part of the world. The driver was lamenting that he had been blackguarded by a colleague who has reported, ”Callaghan’s lying.” I do not recall the upshot of this tale of woe and mistreatment.
A weedy grey haired old man sat in the seat in front of us. He turned his wizen face around to us and engaged us in conversation. He was plainly not the full shilling. On mature reflection he may have been inebriated though I did not detect the odour of strong waters on him. There was something child-like about this deeply wrinkled, silver haired buffoon. He asked Thomas, ”What sort of boy are you?” Thomas replied bemused, ”An ordinary sort of boy.” When we had got off the bus Thomas later said he had assumed that this coffin dodger was inquiring as to his religious affiliation. It was ironic since a week earlier Thomas’ mother had been ordained a priest in the Episcopalian Church so there was no doubt which side of the Tiber he was on. In fact Thomas was never a fervent Christian of any kind and he was certainly not possessed of any prejudice on the issue.
The old helicopter roared by overhead to the sangars. The Army moved troops in and out by chopper because in South Armagh they were so frequently attacked usually by roadside bombs.
It was early evening when the bus dropped us off at Newry before it continued to Belfast. There was still plenty of light and the sky was no longer so occluded. Several other passengers alighted. We put on out rucksacks and walked out of the bus station and into this middle sized town. In typical idiotic fashion we had no idea where we were headed. I randomly picked a route and we walked. There buildings were something bare grey stone and sometimes plaster covered house painted brightly. No building was especially tall. Soon we were going out of town and along a fairly busy road. We passed under a road bridge and I saw graffiti about ”Remember Kenny” – I took it as an allusion to Kenneth Lennon – an IRA man who began to give secrets to the security forces. He was shot dead and his body was dumped outside the perimeter fence of Gatwick Airport. It was a threat to anyone who might try to bring peace. I told Thomas about this. We began to see signs on the lamp posts with the black silhouette of a hooded gunman and the legend ”Sniper at work”. This gallows humour was a jibe at the expense of the Army. IRA sniper teams had shot several soldiers in recent years – in all but one case these shootings were fatal. The last man to have been shot to death was killed by a single bullet a bit over a year before – Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick. Coincidentally I came across a memorial to him in his native Peterborough a few years later quite by chance. I had not the faintest notion that that was his home town. I found the ”sniper at work” signs amusing which was perhaps a little wrong of me. The sign was indicative of simmering republican sentiment. My rucksack had no strap around my gut and the weight began to tell as the shoulder straps dug into the flesh. We were adolescents and in good shape so the exercise was not too strenuous for us. Looking back on it I wonder what motorists must have made of us? Who are these two daft boys walking miles with backpacks on? Are they spies? Why would someone do that? Surely a spy would be more subtle. We were not going to be confronted by gunmen, trussed up and abducted for torture before being awarded an OBE – One Behind the Ear. My obsession with the Northern Ireland dispute made me especially confident on that point. There had been a ceasefire in place for over a year and the Good Friday Agreement had just been signed.
We seemed not to be getting any nearer to a campsite or a farm. I saw to our right a, Irish Tricolour flag and some stone memorial. The sign announcing the name of this village said ”Camlough.” We passed a GAA pitch. We decided to ask someone for a suggestion. We turned off the main road and onto a stony botharin turning up a gentle hillside. We arrived at a small white bungalow flanked by some poorly tended bushes and knocked on the door. A middle aged man with a thick dark brown handlebar moustache favoured in that region came to the door and greeted us. The palpable lack of suspicion in him was admirable. We asked if he could think of anywhere for us to pitch our tent and would anyone object if we pitched it on the GAA field. ”Um”, he said pensively, stroking his moustache and letting the bristles flick back up, ”you could go further down there’s a field” and he pointed. We thanked him and moved on back down to the main road and further in whichever direction we were going – we had no idea. It all seems so daft now. Remember there was no internet back then and information was not come by instantly. A minute later we heard footsteps as someone ran behind us. A black haired girl of about ten in welly boots ran up behind us and gave us other directions her father had later thought to add. We thanked her profusely and she gave us an embarrassed smile – aw shucks.
We walked on a little further along the main road lined with numerous coppices and decided to inquire at another house. Darkness encroached and we would have to bed down sometime soonish. Quite at random we went towards a handsome and spacious two storey house. We rapped on the door – it was probably me who did the knocking since I am the more garrulous of the twain and this holiday was my suggestion. A short, stout man came to the door. This clean-shaven man was almost elderly. He had carefully brushed short hair and wore a beige suit. He looked wan and concerned. He answered our question about a place to pitch our tent very deliberately. As we thanked him and turned down the garden path he made some remark about us having to be careful. He was plainly anxious about our safety.
We walked on a few hundred metres on the olive green land beside the road. Then a car pulled up beside us. A slender woman of about 50 sat in the car and told us to come back to her house. We had spoken to her husband she explained and we could camp in the garden. We accepted the offer with alacrity. She had boyishly short blonde hair drove us back. Soon we were ensconced in the kitchen and treated to tea and a snack. We chatted happily and were very relaxed. This woman and her husband were exceptionally kind and welcoming. I quipped that our tent was orange on one side and green on the other and we would put it up inside out if needs be depending on the politics of the district. This possibly controversial witticism met a kindly response. We then went to put up our tent in the back garden. I remarked that we had seen the flagpole and some stone memorial area, ”Is that for Raymond McCreesh?” I asked undiplomatically. The woman of the house handled the situation beautifully ”Ah you are into the history.” I had an unfortunate compulsion to broach the most tendentious topics. People in Northern Ireland get by through not bringing up the conflict. Ray McCreesh was a man from that village who had starved himself to death in 1981 at the aged of 24. I did not know at the time but his brother was the parish priest.
The woman of the house was a nurse. Soon we met her daughter who was in her late 20s. She had black hair and was recently married. She too was a nurse. We were told we could sleep in the room of their two younger daughters who were in America for the summer.
Later the man of the house drove us to a nearby pub. It was quite busy and we downed a few pints. In my cups I confessed to him I was worried that with my short hair I would be taken for a soldier. He chortled at that. This being a strongly republican there were surely a few IRA supporters in the pub but no one showed the least hostility towards us despite me having the same accent as a British officer.
Next day we had a photo taken with the mother and daughter. The daughter then drove us to the bus station in Newry
Later we sent them a postcard from Belfast. Moronically it was of loyalist murals. They clearly did not take it as a sleight because they posted me my towel in September. I must have left it in the bedroom. Their daughter must have found it upon their return from the USA.
We took the bus to Belfast. I noticed the bus drivers flashing their lights at each other in salutation. It was a blazing hot day. We found our way from the bus station to Stranmillis Road. We passed Methodist College Belfast. Some pupils were inside in civvies. I made eyes at a pretty girl and she reacted pleasantly.
We fetched up at the house. The old couple greeted us joyfully – I had never met them before. They were friends of Thomas’ parents and also the parents of my former teacher.
We sat in their drawing room and conversed easily. The man was very slim as was his wife. He asked me ”what religion are you?” I asked him to guess but I do not think he did. I told him truthfully. Thomas later said he thought me asking the man to guess was rude. We slept in a bedroom upstairs.
We walked around the city centre. It was scintillating. The place was all in very good shape and by the standards of a city it was pin clean.
We went to a chippy called the finger and thumb in the Sandy Row area. I knew this to be a notorious cauldron of loyalism – I had read this in Brendan Behan’s oeuvre. A red haired teenaged waitress served us. She was very nubile. I heard a drum outside beat a loud tattoo. I hoped to see an Orange band clatter along the street. We went outside later and sadly no drummer was there. I admired the many loyalist murals. Most memorable among them was the one with silhouettes of soldiers from the First World War in their tin hats and with bayonets fixed charging among the gaps in the barbed wire on the Western Front. There was also the memorial the slain UDA Brigadier John McMichael. He was blown up by an IRA bomb under his car in 1988. This was one of the few good day’s work that the IRA has ever done. McMichael’s outfit murdered dozens of Catholics who were not in the IRA and claimed these crimes in the name of the Ulster Freedom Fighters.
Another time Thomas and I walked to the Shankill Road. This is a cockpit of loyalism. At the foot of the road was an RUC vehicle with a bat eared policeman outside it. He chatted to us and looked us up and down. He was about thirty, average height and spare. He came across as a very respectable sort of person. He was amicable but faintly suspicious asking us what we were doing here. He will have taken us for English. A soldier crouched beside him and looked around – another soldier was in the bushes. To protect the RUC from being killed by the IRA they would go out with a few soldiers. One of the soldiers spoke to us a little and thoughtfully suggested we join the army. Trouble was expected and I said to him, ”have fun.” This blundering attempt at mirth met no response. Later Thomas said, ”Will you quit it with the funnies?”
On the Shankill Road there were numerous murals declaring the residents’ implacable hostility to the IRA. Their British identity was stated in the most over the top manner with a sickly portrait of the recently deceased Princess Diana.
Saturday came and that evening we headed towards a nightclub called the Eglington. We passed a church and there were a couple of girls maybe a year or two younger than us. I suggested going to speak to them. Thomas, despite wanting to be an actor, was hesitant. I had courage borne of sexual desperation and approached them with utmost confidence. The taller one with black hair and in a blue silk dress responded eagerly. They had been in a disco and it was crap but they might go to the Eglington later. She asked where I was from and I told her Berkshire since I had spent five years there. She said she liked my accent and I returned the compliment. She said she loathed her accent. I reasoned that we would be around for about 10 days so enough time to make progess with those girls. In fact we did not see them again.
I almost did a double take as I recognised the hotel from seven years earlier. In my young life seven years are an incredibly long stretch of time. We went into a pub and put away a few pints. The news was on but the pub was so noisy that it was impossible to hear what the newscaster was saying so it was pointless having the box on. The flickering and colour just allured the eye and made conversation tricky.
In the nightclub they played ”sex on the beach” and ”she is the belle of Belfast City” and ”The Tamperer.” As they played ”Sex on the beach” by the vengaboys I inwardly sang ”sex in my life – once in my life.” I hated being a virgin and was sworn to rid myself of this shame as soon as possible.
We got chatting to two girls a bit older than us. In fact we made eye contact and one approached ”Do you like my friend? Talk to her.” Kirstin was a Swedish student and had dirty blonde hair – not that it was unhygienic but that described the tint. Kirstin was reasonably good looking but the main attraction so far as I was concerned was that she had a vagina. She had acquired a total Belfast accent. Her pal I shall called Eimear since I cannot recall her name. Eimear was Belfastie and somewhat chubby with badly done fake tan and long dark hair. One had to shout into their ears because the music was so strong. It turned out that Kirstin’s boyfriend had dumped her that day so Eimear was keen for Kirstin to get some jollies on the rebound. Thomas was looking unsure of himself as he usually does. I even managed to discuss the political situation with Eimear – asking her which side in the conflict I sympathised with. She said the nationalists because most outsiders do. I told them I was English since that was plausible.
Things were going well for us but I do not recollect snogging them in the packed and sweaty club. I optimistically purchased johnnies in the club. The third ever time I had done that. They invited us to their place! This was looking good. As we got into the taxi I handed Thomas a condom.
I was elated to be going up the Falls in their house in a black taxi. We got out at the Beechmount area and Thomas stupidly said, ”We are dead.” I was not in the least worried. I do not think they heard his faux pas. We sat in the drawing room and had some beer. I got to kiss Kirstin there when the others were elsewhere and my hands floundered over her buxom chest. I do not think that Thomas got off with Eimear. She worked as a PA for the bus company. She told me she had once been engaged to a Provo and was an ardent supporter of theirs. Eimear complained bitterly about the RUC removing protestors, ”trying to stop those Orange bastards walked down their street.” She did however approve of the peace process. They played some music for me to boogy to and I did. They also played us a song called Grace which is a whingeing republican ballad about Grace Gifford. She wed Joseph Plunkett just minutes before he was executed by firing squad. This is supposed to be a plangent tale – in fact they were fortunate to be permitted to marry. Plunkett had just been a doyen of the Easter Rising – a totally unjustified act of massive violence against the wishes of most people in Ireland. He had shattered the growing solidarity between unionists and nationalists. Hundreds of people had been killed and surely some among them were engaged. They would never marry but Plunkett would.
They asked us to guess their ages. They were both 24. There was a Portuguese upstairs named Patricia whom we briefly met.
The long and the short of it was we did not get to bang them and slept in the drawing room. It was an unforgettable experience.
Not long after dawn we got up and Eimear came out with us to find us a taxi back. A short man in his mid 20s took an instant dislike to me on the street. ”What are you trying to look like Rambo for?” I had drawn myself up to my full height – rather more than his. I hardly looked at him. I was not afraid. I am not at all gallant but in that particular episode I really was not worried. We walked away down the street. Then a bottle crashed beside us. ”Ah” screeched Eimear, ”he is throwing bottles” and we ran on. None of the missiles hit us.
We came to a goitrous eyed RUC officer on the street. Eimear verbally abused him for not intervening about the bottle throwing. I thought republicans did not want the RUC to come to the Falls or ever enforce the law? There is no pleasing republicans. They always want it both ways. The RUC officer ignored us and stood with his hands tucked into his bullet proof vest. He was supremely self assured because behind him was an army armoured land rover. Two soldiers with helmets on looked out of the roof hatch. Eimear then treated them to a torrent of swear words. I did not know what to think and felt very tranquil. The RUC officer then got into the vehicle and as it pulled off both the soldiers spat at me. One of them scored a hit on my chest. I was surprised but oddly I was not at all offended. Eimear had severely provoked them. I had done nothing at all but they associated me with them. I did recognise that if I grew up in the Falls and this sort of them happened to me oftentimes then I would bear a grudge. Perhaps I was sychophantic towards the British Army in not being upset that I had been spat on. That spittle did not come out easily. They must have agreed to spit at the very last moment when the land rover began to purr away. My indifference to this was maybe self-degrading. I thought it a rich irony that at school I had been in the Cadet Force – a schoolboy military training club – and now soldiers of the army that had trained me had spat on me. In fact I was not a utile schoolboy soldier in the least.
We got home by taxi about 7 am and slipped in.
We claimed to have got home the night before. The man said he heard something about 7 in the morning and surely did not believe us. He did not mind though.
Later we went to a Presbyterian Church.
In the sermon the minister denounced the irreligion of burning Catholic churches. He also mentioned his uncle who had gone into action in the Somme for the last time wearing his Orange sash. He further stated that it was possible for a good Christian to vote yes or no to the Good Friday Agreement.
We went on a few day trips by bus. Train was more expensive so we eschewed it.