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Northern Ireland memoir

NCR staff

On a slow day in 1968, as I drove to Dungannon Hospital to visit a sick friend, I encountered at a crossroads a rowdy, excited procession coming in from small Coalisland five miles away. There were hundreds, as I recall, but this was an Irish event and therefore disorganized and stretching back forever -- I remember being mad about the delay. Later I realized I had run right into history: Northern Ireland’s first civil rights march.

The parade lurched on cheerfully into Dungannon Square where a few speeches were delivered until local Protestants threw stones at the marchers. Nothing serious -- that would come later.

Northern Ireland is at a crossroads, one of a series of crossroads going back for centuries. There is euphoria at this particular juncture. The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to John Hume and David Trimble has been widely applauded. It confers another seal of approval on the peace process that is aptly named after Good Friday. It hints at hope even amid the reverberations of the recent Omagh massacre.

But a cloud will linger long over the North. So much was lost and so many suffered and so many of them were innocent. It would be a betrayal to ride into the future forgetting them.

Because I was there for part of it, and knew some of them, I wish to mark this moment by writing a few fragments in their memory.

I am, frankly, happier for Hume, now head of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, than for Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists and first minister of the new Northern Ireland Assembly. It’s not so long since Trimble danced, literally, with the notorious Rev. Ian Paisley at Drumcree as both tried to rub Catholic noses yet again in William of Orange’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Yet Trimble did make amends, seized the moment.

But Hume goes back to the beginning, bore the heat of the day. I drank tea with his large family in their tiny house in 1969. Our paths crossed only a few times. Not everyone knows he went to the same high school as that other Nobel winner, poet Seamus Heaney.

I was at the time prior of a large priory, which I shall not name lest the place should ever need deniability.

Irwin’s story

A young man named Irwin was waiting in our parlor one evening. A Protestant, he wanted to become a Catholic -- to “convert,” as we used to say. It wasn’t clear how noble this was or how pious the aspiration: He was planning to marry a Catholic girl. In many parts of the world this would be a more indifferent circumstance than in Northern Ireland where ancient history and hate were usually part of the picture.

Irwin was the only person I ever instructed in this manner. For several months we met weekly. He read the books I suggested, asked many questions. We became friends. When he was ready, I arranged for the local pastor to hear his confession and baptize him. It was done without fanfare. This was not Paul thrown from his horse.

The two were married. The girl’s family attended the wedding in large numbers. No member of Irwin’s family was there because they were not only Protestant but Orange, and bitter. Behind the merriment, it was a sad old day.

A couple of years later, Northern Ireland did one of its small political maneuvers. As the violence got out of hand, the all-Protestant, ruthless, part-time militia, known locally as the B-Specials, was suppressed by Britain in favor of a bipartisan force, the Ulster Defense Regiment, that, the government promised, would show equal justice and tolerance to both sides. Even the leading Catholic politicians endorsed this new force. Irwin, an idealist, joined: He had more motive than most to bridge the wretched divide.

The new force never quite managed to be nonsectarian. The few Catholics who joined were threatened by the IRA. Irwin stood firm, doing the usual patrol duties. Then the IRA kidnapped him. They gave him a month to leave the country. But Irwin made no move to leave. One afternoon, as he drove home with his two small children, gunmen shot him twice in the head.

He had gone down more than one hard road. One might have thought it enough, even for the IRA, that he made the wrenching move away from an Orange family, crossed to the other side.

I remember vividly the last time I saw him alive. I was stopped by a military patrol late one night on a country road -- such “road blocks” were common then, in the early 1970s. It was a dark and very wet night. As the commander poked his flashlight through the car window, I saw Irwin at the back of the patrol of six or eight. He did not speak to me nor I to him. To this day I’m not sure why. Instinctively we both knew it would be easier for all of us not to know each other. In a matter of months he was dead.

The funeral created its own surreal ambience. Though there was a Mass for Irwin in the Catholic church, it was soon clear the Protestants were claiming him back in death. As a huge crowd of Catholics lined the streets, it was the Protestants, led by the Orange Order, who lined up, in rows of eight, to march behind the body down the wide streets of Portadown.

This caused me a brief personal dilemma. Though unsure of the protocol, I was determined to pay tribute to Irwin. So I stepped into one of the wide rows of marchers as the Lambeg drums spread their doleful sound across the town. I soon found the Orangemen wouldn’t march with me. They moved forward or back, so that I was always the odd one out, I in my telltale Roman collar, they in their Orange sashes and hard black hats, ours was a weird liturgy that did little honor to Irwin’s memory yet was a fitting end to the hard road he had chosen more than once.

There was one other wrinkle in the Irwin story. I knew an old woman, Ellen, a paraplegic, who lived alone on the banks of Lough Neagh. She was mildly famous for reading tea leaves. People would drive out to her house, with varying degrees of credulity, give her half-a-crown, and Ellen would read their cups.

Irwin, his wife and another couple had gone to visit Ellen. She read their cups, amid the usual banter, until she came to Irwin’s. She refused to read the cup. The banter soon stopped. The more she refused, the more he insisted. You will be killed, she eventually told him, or some such words. It was in the tea leaves -- she told me so herself after he was dead.

Pat John’s story

Another young man, Pat John, used to come to our door. He had a mental disability and was, as far as I know, mute. He stank to high heaven. He would sit on the concrete steps outside, rain or shine, and eat the sandwich we would bring him. I regret, now that it’s too late, that I never took him inside, nor sat him down with some of the swanks who came to our place for various purposes, nor ever gave him an outrageous dinner, a once-in-a-lifetime feast he would never forget.

One day British soldiers beat him, no doubt because he was unable to answer their questions. So, next time he saw them he ran. The soldiers riddled him -- that was the local expression when the bullets were too many to count -- because, they said, he did not halt when ordered.

Pat John was a member of a sad little family, parents and four children, all mentally handicapped, who used to walk our neighborhood. I gave last rites to the mother a few minutes before she died. She was lucky enough to be gone before her son was riddled.

Americans, as well as others, are puzzled by Northern Ireland. They ask the big question: Why all the fighting? Then most glaze over long before I can get to Irwin or Pat John. I usually start with the Ulster and other plantations, in the 16th century, when Irish Catholics were sort of kicked out of the North and Presbyterians from Scotland and Northern England brought in. It was presumed this would create a more compliant population loyal to London, but it never worked. The original Catholics never altogether went away.

So when the outlawed Catholics got rambunctious, the Protestants founded the Orange Order with the slogan, “What we have, we hold.” An Orange toast from the 19th century gracefully combines its members’ political and religious aspirations:

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.

Young men with a cause

One morning, at two o’clock, a colleague and I were lingering over a last cup of coffee in the kitchen when the door bell rang. Pat answered the door while I put away the mugs. When I reached the long corridor, Pat was approaching, followed by two boys, members of the IRA it turned out, ages 16 and 17, their guns pointed at my colleague and then at myself. We took them to what we called the breakfast room.

Three of them had been in a fight with British soldiers in the next village three miles away, they said. It was all quite complicated, like war. They had first enticed the army out to investigate a fabricated ambush, a common ploy. In the real-life ambush that followed, one of the three was captured. The remaining two had hijacked a car, had then run smack into a road block. They had fired shots directly into a police car and now feared their comrade might have been in that car and possibly killed. They had run across the fields, chased by a helicopter, which now hovered above our priory, its powerful searchlights scanning the dark fields.

The two were scratched and bedraggled. They had raced to our place not by accident but because one had made a retreat there the previous year. It was all very Irish Catholic.

For an hour we argued. We were prepared to put them up for the night -- to save their lives or the lives of others -- but only if they gave up the guns. Their orders were not to part with the guns until they were dead -- at the time new recruits were easier to find than guns. In the end a compromise was reached: They would give up the guns, but we would return them after a month. The whole thing was too farfetched for a movie script. A code word was agreed upon for future communications. It was a night of tough choices. Had we insisted, they would not have forced themselves on our hospitality but would have risked the night amid great danger because there were road blocks everywhere.

So we fixed them a meal about 3:30 in the morning. They were starving. There was no bravado. In arguing his case to keep the guns the older one had pulled a holy card from his inside pocket, with a “Prayer to St. Joseph for a Happy Death” on the back. “I say it every day,” he said.

After eating, we had to find them old clothes and burn what they were wearing because of the telltale gunpowder. It was routine. For a few hours they slept soundly. Getting them off our hands was a whole other story. We never learned their names. The young one had phoned home. I overheard him make the lame excuse of being delayed at a friend’s house, so he would not be at school. It is likely that when he returned home his family would ask no questions. It is certain that, back at school, this kid would have dropped no hint of what had happened. Kids with swagger and a loud mouth were not recruited. Rather, the Republican strain ran in quiet, deep families, and one could never be sure who was in and who wasn’t.

The two young IRA men had grown up in the shadow of their own pantheon of heroes, especially, at least back then, Patrick Pearse, a gentle and religious barrister and teacher who had a high regard for sacrifice. “Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing,” he wrote, “and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood.”

By executing Pearse and others after the insurrection of 1916, the British created patron saints for idealistic Irish youth for the rest of the century.

The North’s tattered history

One fact long forgotten by the world is that when the present troubles started, the IRA was about as potent militarily as the Flat Earth Society. Whatever remnant remained from earlier skirmishes threw in its lot with the nonviolent civil rights movement, which was consciously following Martin Luther King’s American model and whose modest original demands were as rudimentary as “one man, one vote.”

The Protestant-Unionist majority, after a century of domination, was not in a giving mood. Since the border with the Irish Republic was created in 1921, the more sophisticated Unionists, many of vaguely aristocratic blood through connections across the water, had relied on the more thuggish element in their midst, especially the notorious B-Specials, to keep the minority Catholics in their place. And there has generally been a demagogue to hijack the thuggish element for Unionist purposes. In this recent descent into hell the role was played by Paisley, who, if there is such a thing as evil people in the world, must surely be a hot candidate.

The peaceful protests soon gave way to cities on fire. Then one day John Gallagher was shot. I don’t remember who was second or third, but I could point out the spot where Gallagher died in Armagh because he was the first, innocent and by accident. A fateful threshold was crossed. Soon there were too many to be household names. We each had our own little list of those we had known.

In my callow youth I played Gaelic football in Armagh. Fred was a member of our team. Small and wiry, he was more a psychological irritant than physical threat to the opposition. A nondrinker, he visited a pub one evening, his first such visit in more than 20 years. Protestant extremists came in and sprayed the Catholic pub with bullets, and Fred was riddled. Gaelic, as it happens, wasn’t his game. He grew up a Protestant playing rugby until he “converted” to marry a Catholic girl. In Northern Ireland there are bitter ironies everywhere.

Jim was a better football player, a star and household name. In 1969 I wrote a passion play performed outdoors. Jim played Christ carrying the cross. But before each performance, if you watched carefully, you could see Jesus breaking all the rules, drinking a six-pack hidden in his pickup truck.

As he drove home one evening, Jim, too, was riddled, along with a couple of his children.

Everyone has stories. Some are in a lighter vein. When a major politician came to our place for a debate, he handed me the handgun the British government had issued to all ministers of what was then a lame parliament in Belfast. Since I was moderating the debate, and didn’t wish, either, to be encumbered with the surprisingly heavy gun, I ran upstairs to my bedroom and hid it under my mattress.

And some are light stories turned terrible. Barney was a good friend for many years. A character, he laughed his way through life. He drew the dole but worked on the side, frequently getting caught, but fervently devoted to outwitting the authorities. Every week or so, a couple of us would visit Barney’s lively and happy family, drink tea, listen to his stories. He was an operator, a doer, never far from the spotlight: master of ceremonies at concerts, referee at football games. When our seminarians played and Barney was referee, he considered it his sacred duty to ensure they won by any means necessary. Football apart, he was not political.

Years passed. I had been on a visit to South Africa for NCR and had an hour to wait in New York between flights, so I bought The New York Times to catch up on the news. After glancing at the front page, I opened the paper at random. My eye fell on a small news item, no more than two inches, that said Barney had been blown to pieces by an IRA bomb gone wrong.

He had been calling the numbers at bingo that night. Afterward, he was driving his niece home. The usual IRA warning phone call did not arrive in time. As the car passed the local police station, the bomb shattered the car and its occupants.

As the local people gathered, they were confronted by an awful sight. One of Barney’s sons was soon on the scene. There was a leg in the ditch.

“It’s my da,” the son said.

A local priest, prior at the time, as it happened, tried to reassure the son -- he might be mistaken.

“No,” the son said. “I’d know the leg.”

Bombings and shootings that are so impersonal from a distance are very personal close up. One might wonder how communities could ever recover. There are approximately 3,200 dead since John Gallagher, each a personal story.

At first we all thought we had solutions, then we ran out of solutions. But the people carried on, because they had to. It’s poignant how such a small thing as the Nobel Peace Prize could cheer them up.

Everyone is tired in Northern Ireland and needs a rest. May the dead and living all rest in peace.

National Catholic Reporter, November 13, 1998