Having just returned from a trip to Ireland my interest in Irish history was kindled yet again. Here in Oz its hard to grasp just how sectarian the whole scenario is, but when you step back into it, you can’t help but be confronted with the ever present reality.
Admittedly we did go back in July just before what they call ‘marching season’, the time of year when the Protestants take a day to stomp the streets in uniforms and regalia, while playing flutes and beating the daylights out of monster lambeg drums. Its a remembrance of a battle way back in 1690 when William of Orange defeated the Catholics and took control of Ireland. To some its just a festive event, but there is no denying its place in perpetuating the priority of the protestant way in that country.
Having attended the 12th day marches early in our stay I began to fossick through Amazon for some novels depicting Irish history and finished up with 3 novels and one autobiography all centred on the divisions within this country. While novels may not be actual history, I find them an enjoyable way to enter the story of a country, moreso than just reading a text book.
I began with Return to Killybegs, a novel based on the true story of an IRA informant who returns to his home town late in life after confessing his activities as a spy. He goes back to his childhood home, long since abandoned and sits morbidly in squalor waiting for the inevitable to happen. He didn’t set out to become a spy. It wasn’t in his nature, but an unfortunate event in his teen years was used against him and left him with no choice.
Written by a French author, its a good story depicting the complexity of a person’s life once they get involved in paramilitary organisations. It is based on the actual story of Denis Donaldson, a senior IRA turned spy who was murdered in the small town of Glenties in 2006 after revealing his activities.
From there I moved on to Burning Your Own, a novel about primary school aged boys set in 1969 around bonfire time, and just as the troubles were kicking off. I really enjoyed this one as it recaptured very well the world that I grew up in. The language and the culture was as I remember it and very believable. The story depicts the early days of the ‘troubles’, the fertilisation of fear and the way communities so easily believe the worst of those they don’t know. Based in a working class protestant neighbourhood, it explores the development of sectarian violence in nearby areas and the gradual expulsion of the catholics from that community despite many years of being a peaceful neighbourhood. It focuses on one young boy in particular, (Mal) who is a protestant and his relationship with the red headed Catholic, Francy, who marches to the beat of his own drum, but can’t stop the tide of prejudice and fear.
I went from there to Into the Dark – 30 Years in the RUC, a pretty dark autobiographical account of the police career of Johnson Brown who discovered very early in the day that police work didn’t just involve locking up baddies. Sometimes the police were the ‘baddies’ and collaborated with other ‘baddies’. Its an interesting but somewhat arduous recollection of his time as a detective and the constant undermining he suffered from the untouchable Special Branch. He portrays himself as a model policeman doing the right thing at all times, but the depiction of the thuggery and ‘looking away’ that he suggested happened in the name of the ‘greater good’ is disturbing if only some of it is true. He particularly highlights the colllusion between senior police officers and various paramilitary groups in Ulster and makes it clear that for some it was war on Catholics and it didn’t matter who got the result.
The final novel is entitled The Boys of Derry (Sunday Bloody Sunday) and while I haven’t yet finished this one I can see where its headed. It tells the story of oppression and mistreatment from a catholic/bogside perspective and is interesting because it follows the lives of the central characters from boyhood to manhood, as the Irish civil rights movement kicks off and the violence begins in the volatile city of Derry before escalating into all out war.
Every story tells a sad tale of a country that has lost its way and is stuck in such a rut it may never get out. On my final day in Belfast I took some time on my own to wander the city, to ‘sniff’ and get a sense of what it is like there now. I happened upon an exhibition in a small shop by a group called Healing Through Remembering, an organisation trying to help people move on from the troubles by various peaceful, reflective means. Their exhibition was focused on displaying ordinary household items that got transformed in the troubles (eg a dustbin lid).
In conversation with the curator we discussed the future for Ireland and he mentioned a stat that suggests for every one year of conflict there needs to be thirty of healing. That means that assuming no more major violence breaks out, Ireland is just a milennia away from erasing this tragic period from its collective memory…
That said, things are much much better than they were 40 years ago and there is a peace process in place. You can’t help but feel it wouldn’t take much to reignite old hatreds in all of their fury, but even a fragile peace is better than none at all.