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It's the old, everyday hate that still grips

Armagh, Northern Ireland

Portadown, a tidy, uptight, mostly Protestant town, forms one angle of what has become known as Northern Ireland's Murder Triangle.

Early July 6 police dragged away some 200 Catholics who had threatened to block an Orange parade down Catholic Gervaghy Road. In the afternoon, 2,000 Protestants marched. Instead of the usual triumphalist music they marched to the eerie beat of a single drum. Only a few Catholics watched. Only a few bottles and rocks were hurled. No one was killed and few were hurt. The Orangemen were in and out of Gervaghy Road in less than 10 minutes.

Though a small matter in a world full of bigger turmoil, this episode was reported around the world -- as if there were more to it than meets the eye. While most accounts were woefully shallow -- the TV reports I saw took less than 10 seconds each -- they hinted that heavy issues were at stake.

It reminded me of poet Patrick Kavanagh, from across the border in Monaghan, ruminating about a similar small-time skirmish -- two pitchfork-armed farmers fighting over land -- that seemed inconsequential "Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind/He said: 'I made the Iliad from such a local row.' "

What blows in the wind -- that's what the epic is made of. But it's so far away, and touches few lives in, for example, America. People ask what's really going on but after 30 seconds their eyes glaze over. My wife explained the Orange marches: Imagine the Ku Klux Klan, in full regalia, singing "I wish I was in Dixie" and marching through your town's black ghetto because it was part of the Klan's cultural heritage. This parallel worked well in at least one instance.

The Orange Order was founded down the road from Portadown, in the sleepy village of Loughgall, in 1793. As usual it was the Catholics' fault. The local Battle of the Diamond, between the new Protestant settlers and the dispossessed Irish, left about 40 people dead. Although the avowed purpose of the oath-bound Orangemen was self-defense, they soon found this was best accomplished by driving the Catholics off to barren Connaught and taking over the vacated properties.

A 19th-century Orange toast hints at members' cultural outlook: "To the glorious, pious and immortal memory of King William III, who saved us from rogues and roguery, slaves and slavery, knaves and knavery, popes and popery, from brass money and wooden shoes. And whoever denies this toast, may he be slammed, crammed and jammed into the muzzle of the great gun of Athlone, and the gun fired into the pope's belly, and the pope into the devil's belly, and the devil into hell, and the door locked and the key in an Orangeman's pocket."

While the Protestant aristocracy looked on these buffoons with disdain, the aristocrats needed Orange support, as one wrote: "With all their licentiousness, on them we must rely for the preservation of our lives and properties should critical times occur."

Now it's 1997. Welcome to the time warp.

The Gervaghy Road episode marked the beginning of what is called "the marching season," which, people say, will be more combustible than usual this year. There will be approximately 3,000 such parades by the end of August, mostly by Protestants/Unionists/Orangemen but some by Catholics/Nationalists. The Catholics will celebrate the rebellion of 1916 and aspire rhetorically to a united Ireland after the British have gone safely home; the Protestants will celebrate the 1690 defeat of Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne and vow never to capitulate to a united Ireland. Their slogan: Not an inch!

If pageantry were the purpose, the Orange parades would be, as Northerners sometimes say, a good "turn." And a good tourist attraction. Famous flautist James Galway did his apprenticeship on the streets of Belfast with a tin whistle.

Instead, there is a deadly seriousness about the marches. Catholics in the North say tensions have scarcely been so high since the troubles started. The anecdotal evidence is repeated by Catholics in one Ulster town after another, told almost without anger now, with resignation at the way things are. They are stories of brutality by Protestants against Catholics, while police or soldiers, knowing the score exactly, looked on. No doubt Protestants have some similar stories to tell. Two policemen were murdered in the nearby town of Lurgan in June. It's a powder keg, people say.

The media have been full of peace talks and who could sit at the table, who would disarm first, who would blink. But down in the neighborhoods and in the townlands it's the old hate that grips people, and fear and mistrust. Members of both denominations will say their neighbors of the other persuasion, those who "dig with the other foot," are the best of people, except during marching season or when conflict descends, as it repeatedly does. No one is in the mood for quaint tourist turns.

It is sad as well as ironic that such a large, vibrant community should be arrested in time and place in an otherwise progressive and prosperous Ireland. The little island is currently a cultural mecca basking in the renown of, for example, Seamus Heaney's Nobel Prize, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, Riverdance and U2, world famous playwrights and a litany of compelling home-grown movies. New houses dot the landscapes and swell the cities. Ireland has by far the youngest population in Europe. Its economic prosperity is among the highest in Europe, attracting emigrants back home.

There are downsides such as high unemployment, high crime, anger at the Catholic church and the old reasons for that anger. Yet the island as a whole seems more hopeful than it has been for generations. Impressions abound to confirm the new confidence. It's a modern country building self-consciously on the best of its past. A gaggle of druids descended on Tara of the ancient kings to celebrate the summer solstice. Irish workers are "the healthiest and happiest in Europe" and also among the hardest-working, according to a European study. The natives are celebrating the 1,400th anniversary of St. Columcille, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the first High King of Ireland -- back before the British came.

One interesting thing about Columcille is that he didn't stay home with papa the king. Instead, he was raised by a priest called Cruithneachán. This was in keeping with the custom of the time whereby children of leading families were fostered out to other ruling families. This cemented relations between them, and no chieftain would wage war on a clan where the kid was in fosterage. One can only speculate what such an arrangement between Protestants and Catholics might do for Northern Ireland today. No one seems to have thought of trying it.

In a country renowned for its playwrights, the latest phenom is Martin McDonagh, whose "The Leenane Trilogy" has been described as "a great gothic soap opera." Among the cornerstones of Irish life that take a beating are the family, the law and the church. What is depicted, writes Fintan O'Toole in The Irish Times, is "a version of one of the great mythic landscapes -- the world before morality."

And this, if we want it to, recalls the marchers of the North, "with their little hard hats on their little hard heads," as they have been unkindly characterized. When it comes to assigning blame, it would be a travesty to put Catholics and Protestants on an equal footing. Up to now, the Protestants have held all the cards. They ruled the roost. Their marches were for the most part an act of domination over Catholics, rubbing Catholic noses in Catholic inferiority. That is true as recently as July 6. There was no reason, geographical or aesthetic or spiritual, to march down Gervaghy Road. Only the act of domination.

Others search for more benign explanations for what might be a final act of defiance by Orangemen who see themselves being cut adrift in a new Ireland and a new Europe. Catholics are not only outbreeding Protestants, they are becoming more politically sophisticated. For the first time ever a nationalist has become lord mayor of Belfast. As one newspaper put it, "When the land goes, the roads are all the Unionists think they have left."

How dirty and undignified the marching season will get remains to be seen. History shows logic or love are no match for old hatreds.

O'Toole, describing "The Leenane Trilogy," may not have had the Orangemen in mind, but he could have. The playwright's brilliance, he writes, "drains the heroics out of the myth. He suggests that what happens when order collapses is not just the big, epic horrors but a hysterical riot of incongruities. What makes his characters so like old, mad children is that everyone has forgotten what adults are supposed to learn -- the difference between what matters and what doesn't."

Homer's ghost is still having a field day in Ireland.

NCR Editor Michael Farrell recently returned from a three-week visit to Ireland.

National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 1997