Revisiting The Troubles: Me & Ashley in Belfast, 2003
My friend Bob was recently thinking of going to Ireland so I thought I'd post him a tale regarding the time that me and my (then) 16-year-old daughter Ashley spent in Belfast back in 2003. It's a long story but I am hoping that it will give Bob (and you) a real feel for the place -- and for the rigors of traveling. And, hopefully, it will make you want to immediately hop on the next plane to Dublin and then onto next bus to Belfast, Derry and the Falls Road.
Also, notice the similarities between the war on Belfast Catholics and later the war on Iraq. Plus many of The Troubles survivors I talked with thought that the Brits had used Belfast as a weapons training ground because Britain can't buy new weapons until they have been tested in battle. The Brits also developed such things as helicopter surveillance, plastic bullets, mega-bases, pitting one religious sect against another, collusion, unlimited collateral damage, etc. in Belfast and Derry. They also first tried out the idea of a Wall. And for Tony Blair, Belfast was definitely his favorite hands-on project. And Paul Bremmer would have felt right at home in Belfast.
What ended The Troubles? Mainly, Belfast Catholics unilaterally opted for peace and got world opinion on their side -- while the Unionists just right kept on killing children. Taliban, are you listening? Nobody likes you as long as you keep on with the killing. And nobody likes the US either for making war such a way of life. At least I don't. I'm not gonna respect you the next morning.
Chaper 1: Planning our trip
Chaper 1: Planning our trip
July 3, 2003: "You've done good work here, Jane," said my boss. "I want to reward you by giving you some time off." Time off! Wow. "Start taking it as of July 14." Wow! I had been getting a little desperate, trying to keep all the balls in the air -- my job, my political activism to protect America from the idiots in Washington, spending quality time with my daughter and taking care of the house. Taking care of the house was losing bigtime.
"I could spend that whole time whipping my house into shape," I told myself. Dreams of steam-cleaning the carpet, painting the walls and taking tours of IKEA swarmed in my brain. Nah. "I want to go somewhere."
July 4, 2003: Where should I go? Someplace heroic! Someplace where I can do good and save the world. I e-mailed the Christian Peacekeepers Team. They were sending a group off to war-torn South America; Columbia to be exact. They e-mailed me back. "That mission has been cancelled." Rats. Where should I go? I know! Palestine! But airfare on such short notice was impossible.
July 4, 2003: Where should I go? Someplace heroic! Someplace where I can do good and save the world. I e-mailed the Christian Peacekeepers Team. They were sending a group off to war-torn South America; Columbia to be exact. They e-mailed me back. "That mission has been cancelled." Rats. Where should I go? I know! Palestine! But airfare on such short notice was impossible.
"We need at least three weeks," the http://www.airtreks.com/ rep told me. "Otherwise it's going to cost you thousands of dollars." I had wanted to fly to Israel/Palestine via Europe; work with Jews, Christians and Muslims and then fly home via Bangkok -- finally fulfilling my dream of circumambulating the world. But ten thousand dollars was a bit pricey just to spend four days in the air.
"Global Exchange is looking for people to go to Afghanistan," someone told me. I called them up.
"Yes. Sure. We have a program available now. You are welcome to come." Then there was the three-week airfare brick wall.
"Can't get you there for less than two thou," stated the Global Exchange travel agent. "You have to fly through Bahrain." I've never been to Bahrain. I don't even know where Bahrain is located.
One of our clients at work is from Afghanistan. I told him about my plans. "I would not go to Afghanistan now if I were you. These are very unsettled times there." That's why I would go there. Duh. Otherwise I'd just go to Hawaii and sit on the beach drinking daiquiris. I want to do something useful with my time. I would go to Iraq but can't even begin to find out how to get there. But even Iraq would be less dangerous than cleaning my house.
July 8, 2003: "What would you think if I went to Palestine," I asked Ashely. "Bye bye. Have fun." "Would you want to go?"
"No way. Uh. Uh. Uh. Uh." That was a definite no. After Australia, Ashley had never wanted to travel again let alone go to some far-off war-torn country in the middle of nowhere. "Besides, I have to take Drivers Education." True.
July 9, 2003: "I know what! I'll go to Ireland! Global Exchange has a tour of North Ireland!" Perfect. And affordable. Sort of. It would be a little bit of political activism but not a lot -- and no one shooting at me. I could still wear my peace pin on my jacket -- but speak English and drink in pubs. "We have room," said the program coordinator. "There are only four people going. All of them men." I'm going to be touring North Ireland with four men? Is this good or bad?
"Let me get my flight lined up and I'll get back to you," I said. $500 for a flight, $1800 for the tour. Perfect. No strain on my budget. I could do it. And it would be of benefit to the world. But no getting shot at? Oh well. Can't have everything. Getting shot at is expensive! It costs hecka bucks. "Guess what, Ashley. I'm going to Ireland!" And do you know what Ashley said?
"Ireland? I want to come too!" My jaw dropped. "But what about your resolve to never travel with me again?"
July 10, 2003: Spent the whole day on the internet and talking to travel agents. All the cheap flights were sold out! $1,000 to fly to Europe? That's outrageous! For me and Ashley both to go on the tour, we're looking at over $7,000! Blow all our savings on a two-week vacation and go back to being poor? Forget it.
July 11, 2003: "Ashley, if we went to Ireland, it would take every penny we had and then some. We'd be back to living on peanut butter sandwiches all year." "So?" I took a deep breath and booked a flight. lowestfare.com had the lowest fare. $924 each. We'll fly to London and transfer to Dublin. More work than I would like but we were actually lucky to get even that at the height of the season. This is a crazy thing to do considering my budget. We leave on July 26. Double occupancy. God.
July 14, 2003: I poked around through all my so-called assets today and we still couldn't swing it. Global Exchange wanted $3,700. Plus flight money and expenses in Ireland -- that's $6,700. Can't do it. "We could come up with $2,800," I told Global Exchange's voice mail last night. "Would it be possible to apply for partial scholarships for the rest?" Now I am waiting for a reply back. "If we didn't go on the Global Exchange tour, we could still go to Ireland," I told Ashley. "And we could stop by England on the way back and see Stonehenge too." It is a win-win situation. Either meet members of the IRA or see stone-age monoliths and kiss the Blarney Stone. I wonder which it will be. 12 days left until we go.
"Or," I added, "we could go to Ohio and help the Jerry Springer-for-Senate campaign." Jerry Springer would do a hecka better job than some of the senators we've got now! Ashley's former daycare provider's husband used to be a member of the IRA.
July 15, 2003: What is the most exciting moment in planning a trip? It's when the Fed Ex guy rings your doorbell! "Ashley! Our airplane tickets are here! It's real! We're actually going! Wanna stop by the library and check out books on Ireland?"
"On our way to the movies?" Sure why not. What have you got in mind? "Johnny Depp?" You're on.
"But we still haven't heard back from Global Exchange," I told her. "We still don't know if we are going to be hanging with the IRA or hitting the bed-and-breakfasts and/or sleeping in the park." But at least we know that we'll be getting there. And home again.
July 16, 2003: Haven't heard back from Global Exchange so I guess it's a no-go. Oh well. Forced to hang around Ireland and stay in B&Bs and tour Stonehenge. Poor me!
6 pm: Just got back from walking my bike home from work (flat tire). Global Exchange had left a phone message. "We can't afford to give you $900 off but I'm going to talk to our tour department director and we'll be sending you at cost. I haven't given a scholarship since 9-11. We've had to cut back our staff and everything. But hopefully we can get you $400 off." Now I really feel bad. Of course the tour industry has been hit hard. Any normal tour outfit wouldn't even think of giving money off.
I called up Ashley on her cell. "If we take their offer of $3,300, are you still willing to do peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the next two years?" "That's okay." Ashley really wanted to go on this tour. I was once again surprised.
Then I played phone tag with the tour coordinator for the next two days. I left her a message, "We will take your $400 offer and be glad to have it. I had no idea you were that strapped. Sorry, sorry, sorry." But even so, we were on the road again. The trip was on! Our electricity bill was endangered but the trip was on!
The coordinator's next e-mail read, "The Orange Order marched right through the Catholic part of Belfast today, taunting them and throwing various objects. The police arrested several Orangemen." First time in the history of Northern Ireland that Orangemen were arrested for baiting Catholics. That's the good news. The bad news is that apparently the Protestants and Catholics of Belfast are at each other's throats again and me and Ashley are about to arrive there. I can see the headlines now. "American tourists blown up by car bomb." I should have gone to Palestine where it's safe!
11 pm: Ashley is in her room reading the new Janet Evanovich book "To the Nines" and laughing her head off. Shut up and go to bed!
July 18, 2003: Nothing is easy. I should know that by now. Wasn't Murphy's law invented by an Irishman? The coordinator called me up at my job. "I can't get your credit card to work. And the money is due tomorrow." I ran to the bank.
"Why isn't my card working?"
"Your card works fine," said the teller.
I ran back to work and called the coordinator. "My card is supposed to work!" My card isn't working. My trip is falling through. I started thinking about the wonders of Stonehenge again but it turned out that the Global Exchange card-processing machine couldn't handle debit cards. I ran back to the bank, got a cashier's check, ran to the Post Office and mailed it off to the coordinator. Bye bye Stonehenge. Belfast, here we come! Again.
"And what do you want to do about the train?" asked the coordinator. Because our return flight leaves so early in the morning from Dublin, we will have to chose between missing the big march in Belfast the day before or getting a good night's sleep in Dublin (at our expense). I'm too old to spend 48 hours in a row on airplanes and trains. Or am I?
"Forget the hotel in Dublin," I sighed. "Book us on the overnight train to Dublin." I didn't want to miss a single moment of the Irish experience. I can always sleep in my grave.
"Whenever I get really, really tired, negative thoughts come pouring out of my subconscious and overwhelm me with angst. But who knows? Maybe the leprechauns in Ireland will take charge and my subconscious mind, its doors having been forced ajar by jet lag, will overwhelm me with positive thoughts for a change!
July 23, 2003: "I can't go on this trip! I only have 15 shades of lip gloss!" wailed Ashley. Yeah right. And only ten shades of nail polish. In preparation for the trip, we watched "In the Name of the Father" last night. "Look! There's Humbees in the movie! They're crashing Humbees! And look at those cute camo uniforms too!" Sometimes Ashley likes to jerk my chain.
Last night we also made an emergency run on Walgreens. Film. Lip gloss. Batteries. Toothpaste. Band-Aids. Five more shades of nail polish including orange, silver and black.
"Now I'm the one who can't go," I wailed. "I've lost 15 pounds since our last trip and my lucky travel jeans don't fit!" They sagged. Ugly. I looked like a rap-star-gone-seedy. Me and Ashley. Part of our brains are save-the-world crusaders. The other half is valley girl clones. "You know that where we are going is the most militarized zone in western Europe?" I asked.
"Then I'll be in charge of photographing the hot guys."
"Then I'll be in charge of photographing the food." We'll be staying with families in Belfast, Derry and someplace called Armagh. Oh God. Ashley is going to use up all their hot water.
July 24, 2003: "You are not going to believe this!" shouted Ashley. "We got a child-support check in the mail!"
"Enough to keep me supported for a long, long time!" Perfect timing. I was planning to start panhandling once we got to Dublin. Thank God. Which reminds me. I forgot to buy a lottery ticket. I can't remember everything. I forgot to confirm our flight even. Yikes. Tomorrow is the big day. I won't sleep tonight. Every time I take a trip my pre-trip jitters decrease -- but they are still there!!!!
July 25, 2003: "Ma, what airport are you going to?" asked my son Joe. "SFO."
"Do you have much luggage?"
"Well, we are going to a birthday party afterwards and there are four of us." Okay. All six of us plus our luggage got squished in the car somehow. Then we got stuck in interminable traffic and sweated being late -- as usual. I had more intimate body contact with complete strangers during that ride than I've had since I got pregnant with Ashley but we finally made it to the airport in plenty of time. Virgin Airways. The food was good, the flight was short. After flying home from Australia last year, any flight was short.
July 27, 2003: Sitting in Heathrow Airport, spending our three whole hours in England reading books; Barbara Kingsolver and Harry Potter. Worldwide, all airports look alike, except at Heathrow you walk in circles a lot. "What movies did you see on the flight over?" I asked Ashley. Every seat had its own screen and that made the flight just speed along. I had watched The Pianist, Bringing Down the House, The Hot Chick and parts of The Matrix, Pretty Woman and The Shawshank Redemption.
"I watched What a Girl Wants, Treasure Planet and Bringing Down the House." Plus she played a lot of SuperMario. I had the salmon dinner. She had BBQ chicken. We give Virgin Airways two big thumbs up!Noon: We're sitting around Heathrow, waiting for our 2:25 flight to Dublin -- but only after schlepping miles and miles through the interminable terminals. Heathrow must be the size of Los Angeles. The shops at the domestic terminal sucked. "See anything British to buy?"
"Skittles, Danielle Steele and Seiko watches." Oh, and Coca Cola. Not even a Tower of London key chain. Nobody even speaks British. Rats. And why isn't the Queen here to meet us?
7 pm Dublin time: I am really tired. Once again it has crossed my mind that perhaps traveling is not worth all that jet lag. "I've been traveling since noon yesterday!" I wanted to yell to the world. The Aer Lingus flight from Heathrow to Dublin (not Shannon) was an Airbus commute trip. They crammed us in, were one half hour late and only feed us orange juice. Dublin airport looked like -- any other airport in the world. We caught the 41 double-decker bus to downtown, five miles away. "10 euros, please." A euro equals $1.12. That's 11 American dollars to go five miles.
"Dublin looks like Oakland," I commented to Ashley. "A few landmarks and lots of dollar stores."
"No, Dublin looks like a flea market," she replied. I was expecting the Dublin of Parnell and Joyce and Yeats. Instead, so far we had gotten the Dublin of the Oakland Raiders and cheap sun glasses. But maybe it's just the section of town -- or that I'm so tired.
Once off the bus, we walked all over downtown, pulling our suitcases behind us. "Have you seen the Celtic Lodge? Do you know where the Celtic Lodge is?" Everyone else in Dublin was a tourist too. I even tried to hire a cabbie to drive us there.
"It's just around the corner," he waved grandly. It was not. The damned street dead-ended at number 41 and we were looking for number 82 -- which turned out to be two blocks below number 20. It went number 80, number 20, number 40. Ashley remained remarkably sanguine during this ordeal of dragging suitcases on jet lag all over Ireland's largest metropolis.
Lodging: "We don't take American dollars. It's 90 euros for the night."
"Okay." 120 American dollars. After some intense negotiation, I convinced the night clerk to take the dollars and handed them over. Food: "Do you take American dollars?" I asked at every restaurant on Talbot Street in a three-block radius.
"No." This is Ireland. What was I thinking? But they took American dollars in Egypt. In Cuba.
Back to the hotel. "Can you trade me $20 in euros? It's Sunday night, the Bureaus de Change are all closed and we're starving!" I did the kindness-of-your-heart thingie and the night clerk, not wanting to see two customers starving on her doorstep, made the exchange. It would have been extremely disrespectful to the heroic memory of the Long Kesh hunger strikers if nothing else. Then I spent another half hour scouring the area for cheap food. A huge football match had just gotten out and there were revelers everywhere and dressed up in purple and yellow wigs. I finally bought one $15 order of shrimp spaghetti to go for me and Ashley to share back at the hotel. But actually, it was rather good.
Lodging: We are housed over an Irish pub and they have an Irish band that plays Irish jigs right below our room. Ashley and I didn't even have to pay extra to have the Irish Experience all night long. "Thar you go, boyo, thar ye go-o-o-o."
9:45 pm: The boyos have upped it a notch. "We should go down there and thump our feet and hoist a pint and have a good old time." Right. Shut up, jerks. We're trying to sleep here.
July 28, 2003: 4 am. Wide awake. And hateful. Lack of sleep does that to people. I soon worked my way through hatred of the US death machine ("War as the ultimate consumer"); how my daughter Elizabeth hasn't stepped foot in my house for three years because she thought it was too cluttered and how she accused me of giving my granddaughter tainted baby clothes the last time she was in town; the fact that most of the Irish we've met so far have been unhelpful, surly and even downright rude; and that it's 4 am in the freaking morning and I'm freaking wide awake with a headache.
"Did you notice that when we were wandering around asking for directions yesterday, that people were singularly unhelpful?" I asked Ashley -- who I could tell was awake because even though she had a pillow over her head she had just reached over to punch buttons on her CD player.
"There was this one lady," said Ashley, "who bumped into me and I was just standing there with all this luggage and she said, `watch where you're going.' I think the whole country is PMS-ing." So, faced with the alternative of being grumpy for the next few days, I started up my little rituals -- we all have them -- of self-comforting. That's what my daughter Elizabeth says that my baby granddaughter does; self-soothing. I turned on my tape of Gregorian chants, started writing in my travel journal, reassured myself that the bottom line of human nature was goodness and hope (not just hate and PMS), took deep breaths and contemplated eating. Food! Four more hours until the "breakfast" part of "bed and breakfast" kicked in. Goody!
Today we have nothing to do. Tomorrow we tour Dublin. Maybe tonight we'll go listen to Irish music.6 am: We're both all lying around starving to death, waiting until breakfast is served and contemplating how the orange-colored walls remind us of salmon and mangos when Ashley reaches into her backpack and comes up with -- fortune cookies! Good girl.
Ashley is reading a romance novel, "Dancing with a Rogue," and I'm starting off her latest volume of Harry Potter because I want to savor my Barbara Kingsolver book as long as possible and stretch it out for the length of the trip. "Is the world ruled by evil Valdemorts," I asked Ashley, "or are they just Muggles with no imagination?"
From my Franklin Daily Planner: "Live with the attitude that there is an abundance of resources and opportunities. Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted -- Albert Einstein." I need to start looking for the basic goodness in people instead of constantly searching for their basic flaws.
Noon: After a good breakfast of sausages, eggs, Wheatabix, toast, marmalade, canned beans, orange juice and bring-your-own herbal tea, Dublin is definitely looking up. It's Monday morning and the streets were filled with people and the shops are open. I guess that when we came in last night, we only ran into the surly types who hang around downtowns on Sundays the world over -- and the drunken football fans streaming back from the stadium yesterday. I went out in search of euros this morning and met some very helpful people. I also went in search of eye glass frames.
"Got anything unusual?" I asked. "I think of glasses as accessories, as jewelry. I'm always on the lookout for something different." I told the sales clerk all about how I'd wake up each morning all excited about choosing which glasses to wear that day. She smiled in understanding and brought out a stunningly lovely pair; a real work of art. "How much?" I asked breathlessly.
"140 euros." Almost 200 dollars! Oh but God they were nice. But I couldn't justify $200. And that's not including the cost of the lenses. Sigh.
I walked around some more, through the streets of Dublin; it had just rained as usual. I stopped at an internet cafe to e-mail home "I've arrived safely" and to check on the latest political foolishness in DC. Bush was threatening to veto the House bill countermanding the FCC's latest media give-away. When I got back to the room, Ashley was sound asleep. I swiped her Harry Potter book again and climbed back in bed. "Ahhhhh."
6 pm: We met almost everyone in our group and talked over the phone to the one who was still lost in the airport. Our two tour leaders, down from Belfast to pick us up, seem sort of "Irish". Stern types. Hope they lighten up because the rest of us seem to be very easy-going -- politically progressive but definitely laid back. Their names are Sam, Sean, Cezar and Eugene. As Ashley would say, "Not butt-munches."
We went shopping for glasses. "You are looking at men's glasses," one shocked middle-aged Irish woman said to me. We went shopping for pants. "Those are men's pants!" one shocked middle-aged man said to Ashley.
She replied, "Thank you, Captain Obvious." What's with all this middle-aged angst over gender definition? There must not be too much confusion in defining gender because you sure do see lots of babies in Ireland. "Why am I being so hard on Ireland?" I asked Ashley.
"You're not. They all walk around with sticks up their butts." Well, everybody definitely does in America. But I had somehow thought the Irish would be different. But after 500 years of colonial rule, what did I expect?
The younger people are more easy-going but 500 years of "Troubles" can make any nation cautious. Look what 200-300 years of colonialism did to India -- or what centuries of colonialism did to the Middle East. The great thing about America is that when Britain tried that colonialism crap on us, we gave them the boot bigtime (or perhaps we were just lucky that we were so far away and had the French on our side).
So here we are in Room 204 of the Celtic Lodge, wrestling with questions of colonial imperialism. The tour we are on is geared to explore "Peace -- with Justice?" Ashley and I are right on task.6:30 pm: "Where is the room key?" We gotta meet the group downstairs in two minutes. We tossed the room three times and were 45 minutes late. Where were they? "Here they are!" In Ashley's backpack. The missing member of the group who had been lost in the airport showed up a half-hour later than we did. So ha! Four men and us. From Georgia, Philadelphia and Richmond, CA. I'm the oldest. Ashley is the youngest. "Now we are going to walk over to the Temple Bar," said Thomas, our fearless tour leader. "It's famous for its restaurants and bars." He gave us 13 euros each to spend on dinner. Dinners at the Temple Bar restaurants started at 26 euros. We ended up having pasta.
Beer arrived. I made a toast. "Here's to Northern Ireland, Southern Ireland and Peace,"
"We don't think of two Irelands. We only call it `the northern part of Ireland,'" said Thomas.
I told everybody at the table my two Irish stories. "My boss's wife's sister was married to the heir of the Guiness brewery. And Ashley's former daycare provider's husband escaped from The Maze prison."
On our way to the Temple Bar district, we ran into officers from the Indian navy. Naval officers from India. It was raining and we all huddled under an overhang to wait until the rain stopped. "For God's sake," said one naval officer, "Pretty soon it will be America against the world."
"No," I replied. "It will be Bush against the world. America by that time will be just another gulag."
"Bush is a madman," he said.
"That's the same thing the guy who runs the internet cafe said," I told him. "But America voted for him."
"No we didn't. They tampered with the voting machines."
"But the Congress supports him."
"The Congress was bought and paid for by the Republicans through media influence and electronic voting machine tampering." When it comes to stealing America's democracy, I'm pretty outspoken -- almost a conservative when it comes to government tampering with citizens' rights.
Now we are sitting in an expensive Temple Bar restaurant drinking Hennekin, the Irish national beer as far as I can tell -- and listening to Ray Charles records. The restaurant's building was built in 1500 by Sir William Temple who built a dam across the River Liffey, called the Temple Bar. Sir William apparently was one of Queen Elizabeth I's many boyfriends. She also appointed him provost of Trinity College where we are going tomorrow to look at the Book of Kells, a famous medieval hand-painted manuscript.
11 pm: After dinner, we walked back to the Celtic Lodge through the streets of Dublin and across the River Liffey. Sam and George, our van driver, headed off to go listen to traditional Irish music. Cezar bought a bar of chocolate and split it between us. I stopped off at a late-night internet cafe to check my e-mail yet again. Ashley went back to the room to watch British MTV.
"I know why walking home was so nice," said Ashley. "There weren't so many people running into us." T'was true. And some drunk was actually being lectured by two Garda (Gaelic for "police"). One Garda was actually wagging a finger at the drunk. "If that had happened in America," said Ashley, "They would have had the guy spread-eagled and cuffed!"
July 29, 2003: I'm wide awake at 5 am again. Groan. Today we are off to a walking tour of historical Dublin and a trip to a jail.10 am: Finally we can stop speculating on the human condition and start touring Dublin. We all pop into the van. George drives and Thomas tells us what we are seeing as we drive around. His Irish-accented English is hard to understand but we get the drift. "That's where they make what we call 'The Black Stuff'. There's the Four Courts, the Irish equivalent of your Supreme Court. There's the train station." Georgian architecture and Guiness. Lots of stuff in Dublin is made out of stone. There are endless quarries in Ireland. "An endless supply of stone. Basalt." And an endless supply of Guiness too I would imagine.
We arrived at the Kilmanaham Gaol. Big pile of stone. Old as hell. Built in 1796. Closed as a jail in 1924. Ireland became independent in 1922. "Except for six counties," added the gaol guide, "but full independence is coming." Northern Ireland is the longest-standing colony in existence according to some. "During the potato famine, over one million people died of starvation and another one and a half million emigrated." I learned later that lots of food was being grown in Ireland at that time but the landowners were exporting it for profit. "Many lives were saved by this goal. In prison, the meager diet kept them from starving. However, the disease-ridden, over-crowded conditions killed them instead."
An account book on display at the prison showed that one William Leary was sentenced in 1847 for "being in possession of stolen potatoes." James Bowes was sentenced for "forcibly stealing bread." Yuck. One guy went to goal for stealing turnips. Things must have been really desperate. Turnips? Things were in a sorry state back then. Even children were in the goal in large numbers. Treadmills, stone-breaking, picking oakum, shot drill: Ways to put the prisoners to hard labor. "The shot drill consisted of passing heavy cannon shot from man to man to form a pile at the end of the row and then passing them back again to form another pile on the other end. The practice was discontinued when in 1862 the Governor was seriously injured when a prisoner threw one of the iron balls at him. The expression `picking oakum' came from the practice of forcing prisoners to untwine old rope. In 1874, breaking stones for roadbuilding became the main form of labor."
As Oscar Wilde put it, "Every stone one lifts by day becomes one's heart by night."
George Bernard Shaw's view of prisons: "If the prison does not underbid the slum in human misery, the slum will empty and the prison will fill." I knew there was a reason I came to Ireland besides buying pants for Ashley at the bargain stores on Talbot Street. This is real history! Things were really bad back then. It's a wonder that the Irish national character isn't more dour than it is. Lots of housekeepers served time for murder here.
Diet: Potatoes, bread, sour milk. Occasionally rabbit soup. There were eight million Irish in 1845. There were only six million in 1850. Two million disappeared. People committed crimes to get into gaol. But guess what? The gaol was a hellhole. Typhus, cholera, tuberculoses, pneumonia, pleurisy. Yuck. Limestone walls absorbed damp and cold. There was no heating and no windows. We're standing in a cell block now. It is cold and claustrophobic even in the middle of summer.
Many criminals that were transported to Australia eventually became prominent statesmen. One criminal became governor of the territory of Montana.
Many of the prisoners of Kilmanaham gaol were political prisoners of the British. Yet despite all the jailings and executions and bother, Ireland finally became free -- once again proving that punishment always leads to resistance. The British punished the Irish. They also punished India, Iraq, America and much of Africa. There is a moral here somewhere.
"So many people died here that burying them became a problem," said our guide. "They would pull up the flagstones in the courtyard, shove the bodies under them and cover them with quicklime -- which would eat through and dissolve even the bones of the prisoners within three months. You are standing on the graves of countless former inmates now." And many of them were young children too. "There were five-year-old serving time here; usually for stealing bread.
"I took Ashley's picture in the main cell block. As usual, she stuck out her tongue.
Back on the bus I snuck a peek at the book Sam was reading: "Growing Up in a Divided Society: The Influence of Conflict on Belfast Children". I opened it to page 71. "Childhood recognition and acceptance of conflict and bloodshed create a vicious cycle of violence, one that is difficult to break in adulthood." Imagine how this prison must have hardened the hearts of the children who were given lashes on their backs every Sunday as a routine procedure. Imagine the hellish childhoods that the designers of these prisons must have endured.
"But you must understand," our guide had said, "Killmainam Gaol was a `reform' jail. You should have seen what they had before this!
"What next? "Lunch. Walking tour." Umbrella shopping! "The wind blows rain off the entire Atlantic Ocean and onto Ireland," said Thomas. "We have 40 shades of green here. We have rain every day all year long."
In the van, we listened to the radio news. "New houses in Ireland now cost an average of 230,000 euros." And I thought living in Berkeley was expensive. That's $259,900 for a house -- that's assessable only by Boeing 747.
2 pm: Ran to the Surf Center, checked my e-mail. Ran to the Bread Shop, bought Cornish pasties (pronounced "past-ies"). Ran back to the van, drove off to the walking tour. Didn't have time to buy an umbrella.
3 pm: In the basement of a pub in the Temple Bar district, we met Lorcan Collins, the guy that you think all Irishmen were going to be like: Verbose, interesting, funny. "Irish history is divided into pre-famine and post-famine. Three million people emigrated. People starved." He gave us a lecture and tour based on the 1916 rising. "The rising was actually quite small. Only 1600 people were involved even though every man in every pub will tell you after a couple of pints that their grandfathers fought there." He talked too fast for me to get it all down but I tried. "'I met Roger Casement today in this hellhole of a jungle,' wrote Joseph Conrad. Sir Roger Casement protested injustice in Africa as well as injustice in Ireland. The British knighted him for his humanitarian work in Africa. For his humanitarian work in Ireland, the British tried him for treason.
"When Casement was caught, The O'Rahilly took an ad in the Independent that the rising was cancelled." I think the rising was supposed to be scheduled for Easter Day but ended up being on Easter Monday, apparently the day after Easter. So now the rising is always celebrated on Easter Monday although it happened on April 24. I gotta check my facts on that one. However, there was no encyclopedia readily available at the pub and Lorcan was moving rapidly on. There is a lot of revolution to cover in just one afternoon!
Lorcan ended the lecture at that point and began collecting his little group for the tour. "Now you can all pay me ten euros," he told us, "except for me brother-in-law there." Even the brother-in-law coughed up. The tour turned out to be quite worth it. We walked over to Trinity College. "They should have taken Trinity College because it was centrally located and had lots of windows to shoot from but they didn't because no Catholics were allowed to go to school there and even the professors took up arms to defend it. A couple of emeritus professors who couldn't see too well went up on the roof and shot a few British as well as revolutionaries." The revolutionaries didn't seize the parliament building either, apparently because it had no windows. There was a window tax back then and I guess the government was too cheap to buy any.
From what I gather -- the guy talked really fast -- the revolutionaries did sieze a bunch of buildings (the train station, the General Post Office, Boland's Mills, the Four Courts, the College of Surgeons and Jacob's Biscuit Factory) but they couldn't keep them because, although there were 2,000 soldiers at the start of the rising, 29,000 British troops arrived shortly thereafter and that was all she wrote. "Outnumbered. The leaders were executed at the Kilmainham gaol in mid-May."
"Our tour guide obviously didn't like Eamon de Valera. "He hid out in America, raised five million dollars and ended up maybe giving $500,000 of it to the cause." The guy was a showman -- the prototype of the media manipulators that inspired Geobbels and Rove. I know the type. De Valera used a half mil to buy newspapers and then proceeded to rewrite history. Suddenly he was Horatio at the Bridge. Just like our fearless leader George Bush -- who was AWOL during Vietnam.
"The British taxed everything made in or exported from Ireland. And the Irish aristocracy was rolling in money too from this, even during the times of the worst famines. However, the Brits allowed Jamaican rum, brought as ballast from the Caribbean, to come into Ireland untaxed." Like when they tried to turn the Chinese into opium addicts, the British tried to turn the Irish into alcoholics. Guess what? They succeeded. Next we walked over to the statue of James Connolly and his Starry Plough. "The cause of labor is the cause of Ireland. The cause of Ireland is the cause of labor." Another revolutionary-slash-labor leader in those times was Jim Larkin. "He went to help the dock workers strike. When the police came to break it up, Big Jim convinced the police that they were underpaid too." Then we walked on to the GPO, the famous Dublin post office. "Here on Easter Monday of 1916, Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. From this building, he commanded the forces that asserted in arms Ireland's right to freedom." Stirring words.
According to Lorcan, "Everyone else at the Post Office that day thought the revolutionaries were freaking nuts." After a while, some of the men wanted to go home. "Are ye scared," asked Pearse, the George Washington of Ireland.
"Nah," replied the brave men of the Rebellion. "But we gotta go to work tomorrow." No one liked the rebels at that time. People thought they were like the lunatics that get on soap boxes at Hyde Park. "But opinion changed radically and within six months they were heros."8 pm: "That was the best chocolate cake I've ever had. I could eat another piece. We've gotta tell Elizabeth!" What? Elizabeth is going to get on a Concorde and fly here to Dublin? That may not happen but it was still great cake. After the walking tour we ended up back at the New Millennium Spire on Talbot Street. Built for the millennium, it was finished in 2003. July. It is maybe 12 feet in circumference at the base and the tip is maybe 20 stories high. "They call it the world's largest hypodermic needle," said Lorcan. "The stiletto in the ghetto. The Liffey Stiffie."
On the way back to the Celtic Lodge we perused Talbot Street and bought high-tech sneakers for Ashley at Bargain World. One pair cost 12 euros. The other pair was 14 euros. Clothes are cheaper here. And there are a bunch of bargain stores to chose from on Talbot Street.
For dinner we went to an Irish pub catty-cornered from our B&B. Irish stew -- a lot of Irish stew -- for me. Ashley had fish and chips. We debated long and hard whether we should splurge and get the chocolate cake with hot chocolate rum sauce topped with acres of whipped cream. "Let's flip a coin," I said. "Heads or tails?"
"Tails." Tails won. Tomorrow we leave for the New Grange megalithic tombs.
9 pm: I called home. Guess what I learned? "Slim the Cat misses you!" said my housesitter. This is the cat I've fed in my back yard twice a day for ten years and who still barely lets me touch him. "He came running into the house..."
Slim? Inside the house? Missing me?
"...ran up to your room, meowed like crazy and wouldn't leave." Me? Slim? Inside the house? Gosh. "I called Joe and he was amazed," the housesitter continued. "He said that Slim had to stay outside unless I wanted to clean up the poop..." Slim? Inside the house? What?
Tomorrow we leave Dublin forever...or at least until August 10 at 4 am. Just when I've come to like Dublin. Damn. It takes me a while to warm up to a place. I think it was the walking tour that did it. Once you come to recognize Georgian architecture, everything falls into place. All those Georgian landmarks and all those Irish revolutionaries trying to blow them up. You gotta love Irish revolutionaries. Large times call for large men. Poets and artists and revolutionaries and hard drinkers seeking justice and ending up in front of the firing squad.
What did I learn about Dublin? It would have been a lot less heroic city if the British had behaved like human beings and left Ireland alone in the first place. Less heroic and colorful and scenic, sure, but it would have been a lot better for the Irish people. And their kids. And even for the British.July 30, 2003: On the bus on the way out of town, I saw more Georgian architecture than I had seen in all the rest of my life put together.
As we were getting ready to leave the Celtic Lodge, our van driver, George, said, "Want to come with me to get the van?"
Having slept very little the night before and not being too swift, I declined his offer. But walking up the stairs to our room to get our luggage, I realized that I had just missed a final chance to walk around Dublin some more. "Wait for me!" I cried but by the time I reached the street he was gone. Irish people walk really fast. If you are standing in the street, Dubliners will walk right into you. They don't swerve, they don't accommodate -- they just walk straight into you like you were a bowling pin. Bless them, they do stop for a minute -- but only to wait for you to apologize to them. Walking in Dublin is a contact sport. And when they run into you, even the petite young women are hard as rocks.11 am: George drove wild-eyed through the countryside and slam-dunked us into a parking spot in front of the New Grange megalithic tomb museum in County Meath.
"This burial chamber and the mound on top of it were built 5,000 years ago. It is 1,000 years older than the pyramids," said the guide. There in front of us was a little round hill. "Watch your heads here as we enter the tomb through this passage." The rock-lined passage was approximately 50 feet long, boring straight into the heart of the mound. "Those who suffer from claustrophobia need better wait outside."
Once inside the tomb, the rock construction opened up into a cathedral-like open space with massive slabs of rock laid horizontally in a circle that got narrower and narrower as they formed a dome above our heads. Each slab was approximately six inches thick and six feet long. It looked like a Frank Lloyd Wright sculpture.
"I'm going to turn the lights off now," said the guide. "This was the first known solar-aligned structure from the neolithic age. Built a thousand years before Stonehenge. On the day of the winter solstice at 9:15 am, the sun reaches into the tomb and illuminates it. Sunbeams bouncing against the back burial chamber reflect throughout the crypt." A light from the front of the passageway was turned on and we could see what it must have been like at winter solstice. Not too shabby for Stone Age guys wearing deer skins and living in grass huts.
"After 5,000 years," I asked the guide, "aren't you worried that the slabs might fall down?"
"They have been tested. Solid like a rock." I wish you could have been there -- to see the beauty and complexity and effect of this Stone Age masonry.1 pm: Still driving north from Dublin, George pulled the van up to a graveyard. "Here is where St. Patrick built his monetary in 433 BC," said Thomas. The graveyard, abbey and medieval castle stood on the hill of Slade. We climbed up the narrow steps to the top of the castle keep behind the graveyard and surveyed miles and miles of countryside. "Ashley. How many steps do you think there were?"
"A lot." At least a hundred. I figure 20 steps per floor times five or six stories. Those stairs were narrow and dark and wound around in tight little circles. I climbed them on my hands and knees.
On the other side of the graveyard was the ruined stone abbey. Although the building itself was roofless and in ruin, you could still see the stone seats where the monks sat at chapel. Someone had erected a plaster statue of St. Patrick in the cemetery. "St. Patrick," I said, "If you bring us world peace, I will buy you a Magnum Bar." Magnum Bars were the chocolate ice cream bar equivalent in the United Kingdom and Ireland to our Eskimo Pies. (The UK consists of Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales by the way. Great Britain is all of the same minus Northern Ireland.)
"I'll give it a go," replied St. Patrick. "After all, I am the saint of Challenges and Heroic Endeavors." And snakes. Don't forget snakes. Then we got back in the van and left, but a chunk of my heart stayed behind. Slade Abbey had reverberated with hushed expectation. It was a very holy place.
Driving north again, we saw a huge truck-trailer overturned on an overpass next to us. Firefighters were spraying it with water. "This is the last turn we come through before the border. It's called the Dogs Head," said Thomas. "During The Troubles, a lot of Belfast people settled here, right across the border."
The radio in the van carried a story, "Tony Blair declared Belfast today to be an unsettled area and a point of potential conflict. Conditions in Belfast have become unsettled in the last week." Great. There's been no Troubles there since the IRA declared a unilateral truce, effected in 1998, but as soon as I set foot on the Emerald Isle, things fall apart. But it's not my fault! Honest. Thomas said it was because the "Orange Order" have been taking advantage of the truce to stir up trouble. The next week or so should be interesting.
3 pm: Truck-stop lunch: Sausage pasties and shepherd's pie. I have a problem with euros here. They only take sterling (English pounds) in the north so I had made a conscious attempt to spend all my euros when we left Dublin and so we were now down euros. "Cezar, can we borrow some euros off you?" Sure. Shepherd's pie! Home free. Back in the van.
A shepherd's pie is the British/Irish equivalent of the hot dog. I don't mean that they are hot dogs, but they are as available here as hot dogs are in the U.S. Actually, a shepherd's pie looks about the size and shape of a Swanson's beef pot pie but is covered with mashed potatoes instead of crust.
"Those are the Mountains of Mourne," said Thomas. Remember that old song? "Mary, this London's a wonderful sight, with people here working by day and by night...but for all of its wonders I'd much rather be...where the Mountains of Mourne stretch down to the sea."
So we stopped at the Irish Sea and skipped stones and watched a British gunboat watch us. "When Chernobyl blew," said Thomas, "much of the fallout landed here. They had to kill all the sheep. Plus the Sellafield (gotta check the spelling on that one) nuclear facility at Cumbria releases radioactive waste into the Irish Sea and it all floats our way." I think the famous baby tooth study (where they collected baby teeth and tested them for radioactivity) took place right around here as well. We got back into the van and drove north again, past the greenest fields I've ever seen. And lots of sheep. Bucolic. There was another ruined castle on our right.
Remember in Regency romance novels where they talked about the fad among the aristocracy of building "picturesque ruins" on the grounds of their estates? This castle surely would have qualified as one of those -- except this one was awfully big.
Edingford, where we stopped next, looked like the penultimate medieval town -- and I have the pictures to prove it. It had medieval-looking townhouses made from granite blocks. It had an old-timey churchyard surrounding a very medieval-looking church. And it had a ruined castle par excellence. Tourists that we were, we crawled all over it. The sign in front of the castle read, "Built by King John in 1200." Actually he didn't build it per se. Actually, he ordered a castle built in every city in Ireland around this time. Although he did stay here for a few days in 1204.
The castle's floor plan is D-shaped, with a courtyard taking up one half of the D and several stories of residences and facilities on the other half. "It was built on this promontory next to the sea so that boats (this was way past the time of Viking raiders) could land on its front porch.
We got back in the van. Then, about ten miles later, without fanfare, we were in Northern Ireland. The only difference I could see was it looked more prosperous. And there were surveillance cameras on poles here and there along the roadside. "This is the only part of Northern Ireland where the British don't walk the roads. They stay in their military bases. Everything is brought in by helicopter," said Thomas. "One British soldier mysteriously disappeared after going to that pub on your left." There were watch towers on the hills. It all looked normal to me. Even picturesque. There's a cow. There's a tractor. There's a sheep. There's a suburban house with a Ford Escort in the driveway. There's a British army helicopter.
"War is the Ultimate Consumer." The demand for goods is terrific -- before, during and after a war. Goods sell like hotcakes! Two million dollars for an F-16? Two billion dollars for bomb silos? Got to have them! In designer colors too. We, as consumers, can never match war's awesome buying power. Keeping up with the Jones is nothing compared with keeping up with the Pentagon.
6 pm: George dropped Ashley and I off at a supposed bed and breakfast but it was basically a private home run by Norman Bates' mum. We are in a small town in Northern Ireland whose main feature is a British army base. Picturesque town. We were walking down the sweet little main street when suddenly a gigantic olive-green helicopter gunship rose up from behind the local pub like some Star Wars deux ex machina. Jesus H. Christ! The thing was massive. I started to duck and cover! Then we went to the local chip shop and tried to explain the American concept of Salad to the woman behind the counter. Rows of greasy fried foods: Breaded and deep-fat-fried. "I would like some salad," I said.
"What kind?" The woman behind the counter pointed to a half-hidden selection with its choices of potatoes, turkey, rice, dressing....
"Gots any lettuce?" They did. "Gots any salad dressing?"
"Somewhere." We had it going on! And the sausage pasties were excellent. I was happy. I left a big tip.
On the way out of the chip shop, I saw a British Army sergeant and two grunts in camo carrying submachine guns. "Hi, guys," I said.
"What's your lapel pin say?" one asked me. "ACLU? Keep America safe and free? Sounds good." I smiled and flashed him a peace sign. Jesus H. Christ. What was I thinking! Well, at least I smiled.
"Yep. Gotta keep America safe and free. And get rid of that idiot George Bush." "Hey," said the sergeant, "you guys elected him."
That set me off. "Oh no we did not! The Republicans tampered with the voting machines!" He laughed and moved off.
Sam immediately attacked me. "You don't joke with the cops. You don't even speak to cops. What were you thinking?" I was thinking Freedom of Speech, Sam. Duh.
"They tried to frighten us into silence after 9-11," I told him. "They tried to frighten us into silence about Iraq. Been there, done that. I don't do that any more." But it does make me sad that one of my first encounters in Northern Ireland was with full-flack-jacket Terminator wannabees and that Irishmen can't even make jokes about being free without having submachine guns shoved in their faces and I would hate to endanger Thomas, whom we have grown to love. But as for myself, I'm too old to be endangered.
"I thought Thomas was going to be a butt-munch when I first met him. But he's nice," said Ashley. "What's the area code for America?" Her main goal in life at that point was to buy a calling card and call her friend Mia. Sean said one thing. Eugene didn't know. Thomas was willing to make something up but Cezar knew the code. 001. And there is no e-mail in this God-forsaken town. Crossmaglen village.
8 pm: We heard a talk by two local residents who object to the increased military presence here even years after the ceasefire. They were members of the South Armagh Farmers and Residents Committee. Apparently the whole area around here is called South Armagh. "The economics of the area has been negatively impacted. Tourists don't want to come here -- not with armed foot patrols in daily presence. And our livestock die from the increase of diseases spread by the patrolling forces. They just don't know to check their feet after walking from one pasture to the next.
"The livestock get stampeded by the helicopters and have to be put down for broken legs, etc." "When the hoof and mouth disease hit, the soldiers would tramp from one farm to the other, spreading the disease. The effect on small farmers has been disastrous. The British are ruining the small farmers. They know it -- and they don't care. Fences are broken down and it is impossible to get compensation."
The other resident spoke. "Our children are terrified of the men carrying guns. There are death squads. They know you are here. They already know everything about your group even though you've only been in town for two hours. They know where we work, where our children are."
The residents showed us photos of fires started by the helicopters, children being intimidated, soldiers trespassing, barbed wire, spy towers and tank tracks breaking up the roads. "The paramilitary hasn't been stopped by the British -- never been persecuted either. The British will try to tell you that the people here support their presence -- but the truth is that they are using this area as a military training ground."
Training ground. Of course! There is a law in the United States that all weapons must be tried out in a battle situation before being purchased by the military. Maybe this is what they are doing here too. "We have the largest military installation in western Europe. They've also tested interrogation techniques, helicopter maneuvers, etc. They developed a whole new dum-dum bullet here. Whitehall is making big profits here. Even the Orangemen don't want them here."
The residents of South Armagh were being double-teamed with sad facts. "The children are developing nervous disorders," the first resident continued. "In Belfast, the Orange Order have been starting to attack the Catholic schoolchildren. They threw pipe bombs at five and six-year-old girls. It's everything we can do to keep the Nationalists from fighting back. The Orangemen are trying to provoke a reaction." Apparently, even the police were shocked by this conduct.
"There's one law for the Loyalists and Unionists. And there's another law for the rest of us." Definition time here. Nationalists just want to stay with Ireland, Republicans want to stay with Ireland and are willing to fight for it. Unionists are the Orangemen who want to remain in the UK. Loyalists are violent supporters of remaining inside the UK. "If on hindsight we had to vote again on the Good Friday Agreement -- the ceasefire hammered out by the Nationalists and Unionists in 1998 -- we wouldn't do it. Everything we give them? It's never enough."
I was shocked. I thought The Troubles were over. How sad. I didn't realize how much killing had taken place here either. There are memorials on the highway every few miles where Nationalists and Republicans have been killed.
"There have been numerous murders in South Armagh. We have documents; names and dates. But no one prosecutes the paramilitary perpetrators. And the British Army has paramilitary connections -- their death squads."
The second resident took over again. "No one in their right senses wants to go back to 30 years of Troubles but.... It's weakness to put up with all this. We give it one more chance. Sinn Fein, the political party, has bent over backwards. They are only looking for equality. It's like the Jews and the Nazis."
And the British? "The British are trying to throw the area back into war again. But even the Unionists don't want that. The Nationalists and Unionists get along fine. There is no need for the massive military outposts here." Apparently, cancer clusters are spring up here as well. "An expert came to do radiation studies, to see if any is coming from the equipment on the base. At the time he came, the base equipment was shut off. They knew he was coming, of course. They tap our phones." Tapped phones? Sounds like John Ashcroft.
"Soldiers peer into our windows, wire our parks, place surveillance cameras throughout our town. The whole town just wants to see them gone. If someone burglarizes your home, the last thing you want to do is call the police. No one is South Armagh would ever want their child to grow up to be a policeman."
And here is the worst part. "The police force is actively encouraging drug dealers. They want to wreck the community. They aid and comfort the dealers, allow them to seek safety on the base."
Still the residents keep trying. "At the last peaceful protest, they shot our people, sicced Alsatians on us, etc. We have to protect our people. Now we have a cell phone-tree to get silent witnesses with cameras." After the meeting, the residents shook hands with us and left. They had given us a lot to think about. George drove us the three blocks back to our B&B. The men stayed in bedrooms above the old (really old) pub.
July 31, 2003: So. Ashley and I had to share a bed at the B&B last night. It wasn't that bad. "I got the hiccups at 3 am and had to get up for water," reported young Ashley. "Did you hear me?" I didn't hear nothing. "And you kept hogging the covers too." Me?Chapter 2: Learning more about The Troubles
"Is there any place I can check my e-mail?" I asked our host over breakfast this morning. First things first.
"At the post office. I'll drive you there." Wow. How advanced. Internet connections at the post office! It turns out he thought I was talking about regular mail. But I tracked down the local library which as usual came through. Except it was closed today.
A local man gave us a tour of South Armagh next. "The Brits here think this is real soldiering, that they're serving in a war." What a joke. What do they think? That the cows are subversive? Armed Leprechauns? I've never seen a friendlier village.
"What is the educational system here like?" I asked.
"Higher education is prohibitively expensive now. When the Brits first arrived, they instigated free education for all. The Catholics went for it. The Unionist Protestants knew they had jobs for life at the shipyards so they'd quit school at age 14 and go to work. The result is that now many of the doctors, dentists and lawyers in Northern Ireland are from the Catholic underclass." What a unique situation. It would be as if most of the professional class in the U.S. were African-American.
Then we jumped into the van and drove off through a cow pasture and down a country lane to Annaghmere cairn, another 6,000-year-old ceremonial ruin. "Cezar, which way is east?" Cezar has a compass on his watch. The main passage faced north so it wasn't designed to catch sunbeams but it did form a T-shape with the eastside passage, doing an astronomical winter solstice thing.
Ashley found a frog and chased me down the lane with it. "Ugggh! It just pooped on me!"
"We are now passing an area called Whitewood," said our guide. "As you can tell, the British cut down the woods in the 1700s to build their ships with -- and also to defoliate the countryside so Irishmen had no place to hide." Just like what was done in Vietnam.
Then we stopped at a memorial to fallen Nationalists. "How did you build this without the British stopping you?"
"They tried. We'd just build it somewhere else. They destroyed roads. We'd rebuild them. They destroyed bridges. We dropped a lorry into the stream and built over it. They murdered one of ours a few years ago -- December 30, 1990 -- and there were so many witnesses that we formed a community court of inquiry. Brought judges in from America. The Brits said the guy's car had tried to run a checkpoint. 40 witnesses said he didn't. The Brits said he was running arms but nobody even bothered to check the car. The Brits said he killed a British soldier but there was no body. Finally the British settled out of court -- but it set a precedent. Soldiers can't just get away with murder any more.
Sam bought a penny-whistle and started practicing "Ode to Joy" in the back seat of the van. Are we cool or what!
Then we stopped at Fergal Caraher's memorial. "He was a mechanic come out to fix a doctor's car. The British crack troops -- like your Green Berets -- were apparently sent to poor little South Armagh to 'set an example' here. They were given carte blanche. Fergal was 20 years old, left a widow and a two-year-old son. But whenever we start getting too sad we tell ourselves that in Belfast, hundreds of innocents died in the same manner."
At this point, Ashley's CD player bursts out with the Cha Cha Slide.
"But after we took Fergal's killers to trial, arbitrary shootings lessened as other communities followed suit." The people of South Armagh, Unionists and Nationalists alike, have worked hard over the years just to keep their normal lives. Why are the British doing this? War is the ultimate consumer.
"How do people in this area support themselves?" I see Mercedeses and Beamers as well as Hondas and Fords -- although Mercedes are not so expensive over here as they are in the U.S. They are not an import, what with the European Union.
"Many go down and work in the Republic during the week. Many go to the U.S. to work then come back home. Some smuggle. Cigarettes, gasoline. The farmers and tradesmen all work together, exchange labor. It makes homebuilding cheaper."
We stopped by a lake and saw swans and used the restroom. Now we are parked in the middle of an old stone bridge over a small river, the Fane. "We are now halfway in Ireland and half in the North. This wee river is the boundary. And that old stone building next to it is the ruins of a flax mill. You can see where the waterwheel used to be. Terrible business, working flax. Lots died from tuberculosis."
Public transportation? "We got a bus that leaves for the next town on Thursday and comes back on Saturday. If you don't have a car, you're pretty much stuck."1:30 pm: Pub food for lunch. "I'll have the vegetable soup, a burger -- with lettuce and tomatoes -- and lemon meringue pie." You gotta request vegetables especially. These Irish guys are meat and potatoes men. Fo' sho'!
We ate lunch with our guide's 15-year-old son Mick. "I'm going to be a tile layer (he said tiler, but I don't know how to spell it) when I graduate secondary school. For the last two years of school, I go to work two days a week and have only three days of school. On the job training."
"When do people get married around here?" The boy blushed. "I got married when I was 17," commented George. "Shotgun wedding. But it was okay because I got it over with when I was young."
"How many kids are in your class," I asked young Mick.
"And what about church? Do you attend?"
"I'm to go to church five times," he joked. "I've already done christening, communion and confirmation. All I got left is the wedding and the funeral." Ashley's and my lunch at Ma Kearny's Pub came to four pounds sterling. That's $16.24 at the current 1.16 exchange rate. Now we are off to the local cemetery. I love cemeteries!
"Cregan means stones," said our guide. "Everything around here has `cregan' in its name. The fields are all covered with stones. You clear the fields one year and the next year there are stones again. They just rise up from underneath the ground like bubbles floating to the surface of a pond." Cregan churchyard was as worth an eulogy as any I have ever seen. "There is a story of a poet who was taken around the world by an enchanted muse. 'Take me to Egypt,' he told her. 'Take me to Rome. Things in Ireland are not so good now, but when it comes time for me to die, bury me here in Cregan.' And they did." I could see why the poet would want to spend eternity here. There were rocks and trees and lots and lots of green. The weather today was overcast and gray.
"It's so depressing," said Ashley. "All these forgotten graves." It didn't bother me. I can't think of a nicer place to spend the next 10 million years. Next grave site: The memorial to the 13 H-Block hunger strikers at Long Kesh Prison, also known as The Maze. Bobby Sands was the last to die -- after 66 days. Trial by hunger. "In the days of the Irish kings, there was the custom of going on a hunger strike to prove that one was willing to die rather than agree to a lie. Sands got elected to Parliament during the strike." Then we drove around a lot and saw a lot of cows.
4:30 pm: We're up on top of the highest mountain in the area. Colingford Loch lies 2,000 feet below us; a great winding river that separates North and South Ireland. Suddenly we were in the middle of a cloud and could see nothing. "That reminds me of the Irishman who went to Spain," said our guide. "He wanted a certain Spanish lady to marry him. 'I own land as far as you can see in all directions,' he told her." Ha! Guess you know what the punch line is. A fogbound valley. "The Spanish lady died of grief." Oh well.
We just passed a sign, "Warning: Pedestrian activity ahead," followed by a sign that said, "Give way". Right-o. Then we visited another hilltop. Windy. "Here's another neolithic cairn." Megalithic stones form a chamber, with a row of monoliths leading up to it -- like a dragon's head and scales.
"They didn't build those thing as tombs," I told the guide. "They built them to get out of the freaking wind!" Then it started raining too. I can't even imagine what the winters are like up here. "One last question. How come most of the houses in this area are new?" "The old houses were terrible." Oh. "No wiring, no plumbing, drafty...and the old folks were never willing to take out a mortgage, whereas the young people would." It also probably had something to do with the new money from smuggling but that would have meant a lot of cigarettes and gasoline to finance so many new and remodeled homes. In any case, I found it rather strange that hundreds of Brand New Houses were dotting the ancient landscape. But at least they weren't subdivisions! Each house seemed to have a minimum of five acres around it.
9 pm: Back at the B and B: Ashley did her nails and I read her Harry Potter book, saving Barbara Kingsolver for on-the-road reading. One cannot haul a three-pound book around in one's purse. "That was so funny today, what Mick said," said Ashley.
"You mean when I asked him what he wanted to be."
"Yeah. And he said, 'My dream is to be a tiler or a roofer' but that he really wanted to be a tiler because roofing was too messy."
"That was just so bizarre," said me. "Back in the 1950s, guys actually thought like that -- get some dull job, work at it for 50 years, retire and die. Boom. That was their life. Maybe a trip to Disneyland to add a high point. I can't even imagine a Berkeley kid saying that! First off, the question would be, `What college do you want to go to...'"
Mick had stopped me cold and made me realize there was a whole different world of people out there. And guess what? It was a good thing. Or we'd never get any bathrooms tiled! That reminds me. Did I already mention that one of the strange things about Dublin is that their bus drivers, street cleaners, taxi drivers and maids are all white guys? Except the maids? It made me realize how racially polarized our jobs in the U.S. have become. I tried to apply for a job as a school janitor once. I figured, "What a neat job! Getting people to pay me to exercise!" That's like getting paid to go to the YMCA. But I didn't get the job which is just as well. You gotta like children to work in a school. I love children. But at a safe distance.
I'm going to bed early tonight. A pleasant change.
August 1, 2003: Here we are, driving through the world's most pleasant countryside. Cattle and sheep and horses and greenery like you wouldn't believe; on our way to Belfast. Zipping down the country lanes at 60 mph. Belfast is approximately 50 miles away from South Armagh and the border. "Exactly how is the population in the North distributed?" I asked Thomas.
"There is an Orange majority," he replied. "52% to 48%." Not much of a majority, that is. The Orangemen need to learn who to spell the word "cooperate". The whole human race needs to learn to cooperate. Human beings simply can no longer afford the luxury of war.
Driving through this peaceful countryside, it's hard to believe there has been 30 years of deadly animosity. "I think people in the North are much more friendly than people in the South," said our B and B hostess this morning. I agreed. Having gotten to know our hostess better, I realized that she wasn't as bad as I had first presumed and any oddness she had exhibited -- there was a sort of Stepford Wives quality about her -- probably came from living in a war zone for 30 years. Later I learned that many of the residents of Northern Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant, dealt with The Troubles in the old-fashioned way: First Valium and Miltown and then Prozac.
That morning, when we had gone to the village of Crossgalen, picked up the boys from their pub and were watching them load their gear into the van, I realized that something was up. "Grab your purse and run like the wind," I yelled at Ashley, who was sitting in the van. "Follow me!"
With only moments left before the van was to leave, I rushed her off to the village green where there was a flea market selling...hoodies! Good work, me. After seven days in rainy Ireland without a jacket, Ashley now has a powder-blue hoodie with "A.W.O.L." emblazoned across the chest in green camo letters.
After driving for a while we arrived in downtown Armagh, a good-sized city and an Orange stronghold. "See over there is the prison. It's closed down now. But they used to bring the Nationalist prisoners there. Human rights organizations cited them for torture," said Thomas. I find it bizarre that this charming city is world-famous for torture.
We drove past a church. "Ye must be born again!" the sign in front of it exclaimed. I keep forgetting that the early Christians believed in reincarnation.
"Armagh is also famous for its apple orchards," added Thomas. Look! More sheep. We're back in the countryside again, back to all those mysterious new houses. It reminds me of China, where all the cars are new. There are no old cars in China. Before the 1980s/1990s, there were simply no cars in China at all. Don't tell me that before the 1980s there were no houses in Ireland!11 am: We stopped at Portadown, on the Derryanvil Road. Sweet little area. Large stone church on a hill surrounded by the obligatory graveyard. Little Stone bridge over a meandering country stream. Peaceful as hell. Lots of cows. This bucolic scene is the location of the notorious annual Orange Order march. People were killed on this spot as Orangemen marched down to intimidate the local Catholic neighborhoods. "But things have changed," said Thomas. "For the first time this year, when the Orange Order marched, they got arrested."
A little wooden placard on the road read, "We stand here. We can do no other," followed by a British flag.
On to Belfast. I'm hungry.
11:30 am: On the freeway to Belfast, we drove past the famous Long Kesh, aka The Maze prison. There it was! Scene of the hunger strikes and everything. It looked like that 1950s architectural style they used on my elementary school in California. Rats. I had been expecting some rat-infested stone monstrosity like Kilmainahan. Once again, the dark underbelly of the human soul is hidden within the mundane.
Coming up on Belfast, Thomas said, "See those watch towers next to the freeway? There are cameras everywhere. They're always watching you." I always wondered about that. Doesn't that take a lot of man-hours to keep an eye on every Catholic in Northern Ireland? Just like all the millions of man-hours it must take for dear John Ashcroft to read every single e-mail in America. So much for the neo-conservatives' promises to strip down the size of government. But I digress. Now we are driving up John F. Kennedy Road on our way to Thomas's house, where we will meet his wife and children.
Afterwards, I went for a walk around the neighborhood and looked at a 50-foot-long mural painted by the local Nationalist school children who lived in the rows of houses next to it. The mural was captioned with the Bobby Sands quote which I saw for the first time here and which deeply moved me. "Our revenge will be the laughter of our children."1:30 pm: Now we are driving through downtown Belfast after consuming the most greasy lunch in the entire history of the western world. No vegetables. None. Zero. Zip. A pint of partially-hydrogenated on each chip. 2,540 chips and that was just for me.
"There's a tower with an army barracks on top. To your right is Unionist-dominated East Belfast with all its built-up and prosperous industrial parks. To your left are the Nationalist cemeteries and bogs." He also pointed out the Hotel Europa, "The most bombed hotel in Western Europe."
Graffiti: "The Loyalist village will not tolerate Republilians." They will not spell Republicans either. Obviously the whole cause of this conflict is too much oil in the chips. You are what you eat.
Regarding Belfast? Hell, it all looks normal to me. We just drove past the River Lagan. "There's the docks and the shipyards. That's where they built the Titanic. No Catholics were allowed to work on it. Now the docks are closed. Grass is growing there now."
We passed a mural. "Time for peace. Time to go." It showed British soldiers heading home. "To England."
Our next destination? East Belfast and the Short Strand Youth Center. What we did not know, as we drove into the Youth Center parking lot, was that we were about to embark on a ten-day-long political journey that would take us into the bowels of The Troubles in such a way as to put a mark upon our hearts forever. I had arrived in Northern Ireland uneducated and unprepared. I barely knew who Gerry Adams was, had never heard of the Falls Road and had no idea at all what the Good Friday Agreement was. Totally ignorant. All that was about to change. Bigtime.
The counselor we met with at the Youth Center gave us a tour of the facility before taking us out into the neighborhood. There were kids playing there and a computer room. E-mail! I jumped at the chance and started checking my messages like crazy. Later Ashley told me that when the counselor asked our group if there were any questions, someone answered him, "Sorry. The one who asks all the questions isn't here," and Ashley was sent off to find me.
Once I was in hand, the counselor gave us a quick briefing on the history of Short Strand. "This area is a small Catholic community located right in the heart of Protestant Belfast. This is valuable real estate and the Loyalists are trying to do everything they can to force us out due to the location. If you are a Catholic and you try to buy a house in East Belfast and they find out you are Catholic, your house will be burned and you will be shot at." He then took us on a tour of the area, approximately 6 to 8 blocks square. "See those houses over there? The Protestants would come over the fence and bomb them." I looked at the new fence. It was 30 feet high with spikes half-way up.
"Last May, the UVF raided this area -- totally unprovoked. 200 came through, beating anyone they could get their hands on. We have videos of it."
"You mean this just happened? Last May?" I asked.
"Yep." One of the main targets of the UVF was the local Catholic church. As we walked over to it, we saw a statue of St. Mary, surrounded by barbed wire. "The little metal crosses mark where Catholics were shot in front of the church. Even the funerals were attacked by the Loyalist paramilitary. They had to put British flags up on the other side of the fence to keep the paramilitary from attacking Loyalists by accident." What a swamp. Get your limbs blown off at any minute. "It was like a ghost town for kids. They were all sent away. But the last two days have been calm." The last two days? I looked at the area, composed of simple family homes and couldn't even imagine that two days ago I would have been hit by rocks at the very least. We stepped over various bottles and bricks and moved on.
"Insurance is a problem in this area." No sh*t Sherlock.
9 pm: I am just so bone tired. Too much to absorb today. Just too much to absorb. I would take the next plane home if I could afford it -- just so I could get ten minutes at home in my room alone. And to soak in a nice hot bath. God but I'm spoiled. Today at noon, George announced, "Okay. Everybody out of the van. The door won't shut properly and if we get stopped by the police, they'll fine us for all we're worth." It's apparently like that up North. The cops give a lot of violations to Nationalists. Driving while Catholic?
So we all popped into Thomas's little Vauxhall and chugged off, looking for all the world like a little clown car in a circus. Plus we had two of Thomas's children with us -- bringing the total to nine.
Before going to the infamous chip shop, we visited Kieran Doherty's parents. "Kieran was one of the 13 hunger strikers at The Maze Prison H Block," said Thomas. "He lasted 72 days." I immediately bonded with his mother, a truly nice woman who hand-knit the most wonderful dolls.
"I have a son about the age Kieran was when he died," I told her. "I can't even imagine what it would be like to lose him like that." By this time I was crying.
"The pain never goes away," she said.
Kieran's memorial was inscribed with his dying words. "It is not those who can inflict the most but those who endure the most who will win in the end." There's a sad truth in that because right now people seem to be either oppressors or victims. But someday all the human race will be free of all of that. And we shall all be friends. If I couldn't believe that, life wouldn't be worth living.
After Short Strand, there was more clown car activity and waiting and carrying on. The person we were to stay with wasn't home. Dinner took forever. Ashley went into the sulks because she was tired. "Can I just go check my e-mail and walk home?" I asked Thomas. There was an internet cafe across the street from the restaurant and our lodging was only about ten blocks up the Falls Road. It was like getting a pass from your kindergarten teacher to go potty! After waiting 45 minutes for everyone to actually get into the car, the internet cafe was closed, my new host family was busy and now I had the sulks.
"You owe me money!" exclaimed Ashley. "You never gave me my money!" "How much do you have?"
"I've got $90. You owe me $200."
"What about the clothes I bought you in Dublin?"
"That was only $35." I got out my Franklin Planner. "Aha! You spent it all at Walgreens before we left!" I'm innocent. I did not steal Ashley's money. Whew.
Now I am safely ensconced in the top back room of a two-up two-down Belfast row house one block off of Falls Road where British troops and Loyalist paramilitaries have pretty much burned and shot and bombed indiscriminately for the past 30 years. What a strange vacation this is turning out to be.
August 2, 2003: Having barricaded myself in my room for an hour last night and swearing up and down that I would take the next plane home no matter what it cost, I started feeling better.
"You owe me money!" Ashley started in again as well. I guess she too was tired.
"No! I do not. I gave you a whole bunch of money. You had $300 to start with. I gave you $200 of it. I have one hundred of yours left. End. Of. Story."
"No, you owe me another $100!"
"I have one word for you, Ashley. Walgreens." Ha. "And Dublin." She didn't believe me. I couldn't remember. Had I stole Ashley's money? Do I look like a thief that would steal money from a child? Hadn't we gone over and over this already once today? When Ashley is tired, she likes to argue. I've finally figured that out.
Last night, our new hostess, who has lived just off Falls Road all her life, began to tell us stories. "We were young when The Troubles began. I was only 18. We only wanted to peacefully protest injustice; call a little attention to it. And they came down on us with everything they had."
We were sitting in Mary's front room. She was smoking a cigarette. It was 11 pm. "Had we known then what our next actions would lead to...." Her voice trailed off. "War is a terrible thing. We had no idea. We were young and we weren't going to let the Loyalists get away with it. My husband spent 18 years in jail. He was in every major prison in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland. I always say that jail was our contraception."
Mary loved the Good Friday Agreement. "We must compromise, cooperate and give-and-take. I think the other side sees that too. Having known war for 30 years...people just have no idea what a terrible thing it is. You talk, you dialogue, you negotiate. You do whatever you can to keep the Good Friday peace." She reminded me of the Bob Dylan song, "I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now."
Mary is now active in building a community from the ground up. "Before no one knew how to work a government. Not even the Orangemen. Neither of us had people on the Council. Now we do. We started from the bottom up. When the British do leave, we will know how to govern ourselves." That's what we are doing in America, I told her. We're stepping up against the "Stealing of America" -- stepping up to the plate one city at a time. One person at a time.
It's 9:30 am, Ashley is asleep, it's time for me to get up and do the wash and eat breakfast. Today is a free day -- except Eugene and I are going to go talk to a drug counselor at 3 pm. The bathroom is way down stairs. A hundred miles away! I thought about, in the spirit of roughing it, going without a shower today. Nah. I'm spoiled. Hell, I already gave up taking baths. There's only so much a person can sacrifice for World Peace!
"Bring me your laundry, dear, and we will get that taken care of," Mary called up from downstairs. A traveler's favorite words. She won my heart forever. "And after that, we will take a tour of the bog." Bog? I want to tour a bog? Why not.
"In America, this place is what you would call a wetland." Oh. Lovely. "Migrating birds stop here now on their way to Africa. The community organized and made this happen. This used to be the local garbage dump." The bog was a conservationist's dream. Clear streams and duck-infested pools and cattails and brambles and lots and lots of sky. Hurray for the bog.
"Through here is the Milltown Cemetery, where the fallen of The Troubles are laid to rest" said Mary. "In 1969, Bernadette Devlin was a young student at Queen's University and she and some others introduced the idea of `one man, one vote'. Up until this time, it was `one property, one vote'. If a Protestant landlord owned 15 properties, he got 15 votes -- and his Catholic tenants got nothing." This was in the 1960s? You gotta be kidding.
"They organized a protest parade, using Rosa Parks and MLK as their model. The next thing we knew, the Falls Road was on fire and they were killing us. Actually killing us. Our shock was bottomless. And we started to organize to fight back."
Then we stopped at some graves. Kieran Doreghty, Bobby Sands. The hunger strikers. Volunteers. Rows and rows of Volunteer graves. How sad. Mary cleaned some graves and rearranged some flowers. "I knew many of these people. I went to all of the funerals. It seemed like a time there all we did was go to funerals."
In the last few days, I had made various futile attempts to make internet contact here. After Mary's unofficial cemetery tour, I found an internet cafe in the local shopping plaza up the road from the cemetery. It was called The Kennedy Center, presumedly after John Kennedy. The Irish loved John Kennedy. As did the Americans! The cafe was buried upstairs behind a chips shop. I had just settled into http://email@example.com when Thomas came and dragged me away to hear about drug pushers in Belfast.
"The Loyalists bring the drugs in," said the drug counselor, "and the IRA is trying to get the dealers out. The Loyalists began to develop contacts inside the Catholic community so they could get in and get out." Wide-spread drug misuse is relatively new here. But alcoholism is a big problem. Both sides have a large temperance movement. There is a drinking culture here; the round system where each mate buys a round. So if you are out with five people you have to drink five rounds. "People here drink to get drunk."
Prescription drugs are a big problem also. "Stress. After a shooting, doctors just repeat the prescriptions. Older people are taking them. We're having a `Dump all Drugs' campaign."
Baikbre DeBruim, a Sinn Fein health minister, set up a drug strategy team to deal with all aspects of the problem; health, education, social and economic factors. "We need to get jobs for the dealers," the counselor stated. "We have about six million dollars in funding. It's a start. On the ground, we have drug education and rehabilitation." The program's goal is to keep addicts out of jail and to give them a sense of future. "We try to give them alternatives. Life skills. Positive reinforcement whenever jobs are well done. Weave them back into the social fabric of the community."
Working with the police has been unsuccessful. "The drug dealers themselves are part of the Loyalist police intelligence-gathering network so we don't work with the police." The probation system in Belfast could be preventative but in order to qualify for their programs, you have to become a criminal. "Nothing goes into prevention in terms of criminal justice funding."
One result of The Troubles is that we have one of the strongest community infrastructures ever. The old IRA members have become politicians and community activists. The Loyalist army members have become criminal gang leaders and drug dealers. The IRA fought for justice and still does. The Loyalists fought for hatred and they still do. They tried to subdue the Catholics. Now they are trying to subdue their own people. And the Loyalists who want to do what we are doing are blocked by their own people -- whereas almost everyone in West Belfast is politically aware." Interesting.8 pm: Sean and I are sitting in the Cineplex, waiting for an Irish movie to begin. We passed on Terminator, Spy Kids and Legally Blonde 2. How's that for taking tourism to the extreme!
We had just gotten out of Saturday evening mass. "Sorry if I cross myself wrong and elbow you," I told Mary. "I'm a Byzantine Catholic. We're under the Pope but we do the Eastern Orthodox rite and we cross ourselves from right to left instead of from left to right." It was nice going to mass in a Catholic country. Or at least in a Catholic half of a country that just got done recreating the War of the Roses.
The priest did a great homily. "A man baked four really big loaves of bread. Five pounds each. He took the first loaf to London and put out a sign next to it saying, `This loaf of bread for one hour's work.' No takers. People jeered at him. Then he tried the same thing in New York City -- and got arrested for soliciting and thrown in jail. He did the same thing in Legos, Nigeria. Ten people there offered to work three hours for the loaf. Then, when he went to the poorest section of India, 100 people offered to work all day for the loaf." That's deep.
Then Sean and I went off to see the Irish movie; about an investigative journalist who was done in by the Dublin drug lords she was trying to expose. Based on a true story. Veronica Guerin. Then we walked home in the dark through the Milltown graveyard. That experience alone was worth the whole trip to Ireland.
August 3, 2003: This memoir is getting out of control! There's so much to write about here in Catholic Belfast. And so much to see and do during the West Belfast Festival. Did I mention that all the Michael Moore tickets got sold out in just two hours? The festival is famous all over Europe, involves plays and concerts and speeches and tours. One play, about the heroic Black Taxis that took over running up and down the Falls Road when the buses were being boycotted, described the taxis as being "hijacked, targeted by Secret Service spooks, attacked by gunmen -- driven by lunatics."
Mary was still trying to educate me. Over the mandatory sausage, toast, bacon and eggs, she told us stories. "Gerry Adams and John Hume met in secret for two years before the truce was declared. One day a Sinn Fein rep from the neighborhood saw Gerry going into a monetary and a few minutes later they saw John Hume going in too. This was the first we knew that some sort of settlement might be in the works." That's one story right there.
Everyone else on the Falls Road has a story. One woman told me how her husband was an IRA bomber. "He tells me I need to take a vacation. Then, while I'm gone, he tries to blow up the Queen." And while another man quietly talks to us about recreation programs for the kids, I look down and see he's missing a finger. And yesterday I went to a talk tying the Spanish Basque struggle for freedom with all the other freedom struggles -- most of them labeled as "terrorism" by the powers that be. And then I turned on the TV to images of Liberia and Iraq in flames. Half of the world wants freedom and justice and the other half of the world wants money and power. So far, money and power seem to be winning out but in West Belfast such is not the case. These people are highly politicized here and they know what they want.
"I'll tell you what we don't want however," said Mary. "We don't want another freaking war."
I talked to my son Joe over the phone last night. "Can you bring me a T-shirt?" he asked. "Something Gothic." Today I will look for Gothic T-shirts, do the Falls Road Fun Run (Ha!), watch the Festival's opening parade and attend a comedy show entitled, "Israel and Me: An Irishman goes to Palestine".
There's a long day ahead of us. But we were up for it after a stupendous amount of bacon, sausage, eggs, toast, Wheatabix and more stories from Mary. "I was looking for work and the Labor Council had me scrubbing floors," she said. "It's either scrubbing floors or going back to school and getting my GED." Or whatever they call it in Northern Ireland. "I can't do that! Go back to school like some clone!" Mary is a wonderful storyteller. "When I was a wee girl and misbehaved at school, they'd throw me in the storeroom and unscrew the light bulb. Well, after the first time, I brung me own light bulb. Here's me. `Oh please teacher! Don't throw me in the storeroom!' And I'd bring me comic book with me." Go Mary! "So I says to the Labor Council teacher, `You have one month to teach me something.' And he did. He told us to write an essay on our earliest memory. Well, my earliest memory was breaking me nose after falling off a swing. And I'd seen a dog be hit in the road and be taken off by men in white coats to put it to sleep. So I saw the men in white coats coming for me and I thought they were coming to put me ter sleep too."
To make a long story short, Mary got her GED. I don't know if she went to university after that because it was time for Ashley and me to leave to run in the West Belfast Festival Fun Run. "Ashley!" I said. "Time to go!"
"I'm not going and you can't make me." I stole her CD player. She poured cold water over my head. We were ready. I came in 20th out of 20 and got my picture taken for the newspaper and got a free bottle of Evian at the finish line. All of West Belfast came out to cheer me on. Go me!
8 pm: I'm at the Palestinian thing. "Be sure to take a Black Taxi," Mary told me but I thought it might be nice to take a wee walk instead. Three miles later, all straight uphill and most of it spent lost, I finally got to the Roddy McCouley Club up on Glen Road. Magnificent view. It turned out that the event was a movie about a British television personality's experiences in Palestine, called "Jeremy Hardy vs. the Israeli Army". Sam and Cezar were there. Sam was his usual bratty self. I got a free orange juice at the bar because I got in a discussion with the barman. "Palestine may still be the issue," I told him, "but so is Belfast and American schools, jobs, social security and freedom." He liked my "Clinton and Gore in '94" button.
Yikes. Everyone smokes in Ireland. Everywhere. All the time. But the cigarette boxes all read (in big, big letters), "Smoking kills." Ashley's favorite is "Smoking causes infertility and decreases the sperm count."
They brought the wrong film to the showing and now we are watching a scuba diving documentary in Finnish! But it does have subtitles.10 pm: All over West Belfast are signs in support of the Palestinians opposing Israeli occupation. They are everywhere. But I only have seen one (1) reference in opposition to America's brutal occupation of Iraq. Why is that?
They finally found the right movie. It was a graphic portrayal of Israel's brutal occupation of Bethlehem. As a Christian, I really resent that tanks and APCs are driving up and down the streets where Christ was born and shooting at women and children. And the Catholics of Belfast do too. What is going on in Palestine reminds them too much of The Troubles.
Is it time to walk home to St. James Road and Mary's rowhouse? Or is it time to stay a little longer at the Roddy McCouley Club and have a Guiness? Guiness? Yuck! The guy next to me is drinking Carlsberg.
Jeremy Hardy himself had been at the event and answered questions from the audience. What was the best way to get to Israel/Palestine? "The best way to go is on British Airways," he replied. "The security on El Al is insane. And when you get there, expect a six-hour interrogation. And lie like crazy! Never ever mention the `Peace' word." Several people in the audience suggested that America was the puppet master that is controlling Israeli foreign policy and that a boycott of American goods might be in order. There was also a lot of talk about "America" as being the bad guy. It's not America. It's Bush and his neo-cons. And then finally someone asked, "What about the bloody disgraceful war in Iraq?"
Also, one Palestinian in the audience got up and said, "The Israelis have made every effort to humiliate Palestinians. Tell people that we are being crushed and oppressed and humiliated." Self-esteem is as important as food and water to human beings. When they are humiliated, they cannot help but resist. "If Arafat had accepted the Camp David agreement, there would be no Palestinian people today. If the Second Intefada hadn't stopped Arafat from agreeing to the accord, Palestinians would be a just a footnote in history." Oh. So that's why he didn't sign.
11 pm: I care deeply and truly about justice. And I'm really, really hungry. Justice -- with ice cream.August 7, 2003: Well, my two days without Thomas ordering me about are over. "Why are you taking so long? Come on, we're late." Ha! We arrived ten minutes early. "And you can't take all that stuff with you. What do you need all that for?"
"I'm a lady," I replied. "I need my stuff so that I can look all refined and beautiful." That shut him up. But he got his revenge. When I went to get into his teeny tiny little Vauxhall, he threw me in the very back and then squashed the seat in front of me back so that my knees were up at my chin.
Last night as me and Cezar and Sam were walking home around midnight, we ran into one of the neighbors on the block where they stayed. "The Festival in the park ended in a brawl," the neighbor told us. "100 drunks stole a police van and started throwing rocks at the Peelers." It hadn't been political. It had been a good old-fashioned drunken Irish brawl. Heads were cracked. Police heads too apparently.
On the way home, at midnight on the most balmy night in the history of Northern Ireland, we walked among the sleepy rowhouses with occasional young family men sitting on the front steps. I could tell these were young roofers or tilers or whatever -- 25 years old and already the father of two or three children. It is a working class community of the old school. America in the 1950s when a man's only dream was working the same job for 50 years and maybe buying a house. Same as Mick's dream. My dream? World Peace!
I said goodnight to the boys and walked down the row to Mary's house. A big German shepherd cornered me behind a Ford Escort and we circled round and round the car, him looking for a tooth-hold on me leg. "Grrrr," he said.
"Nice doggy," sez me.
"Rarrrf! Rarrrr. Grrrr! Growl. Bark!" Lots of hackles raised.
"Nice doggy." Then Sam and Cezar came to the rescue!
11:00 am: Now I am at a women's health clinic. "Come this way," said the director. "Do you want a foot massage or a neck massage?" My kind of health treatment!
"This is better than spending $100 on a psychologist!" I exclaimed. "Sometimes just a gentle friendly touch is what is needed." Sometimes what is missing in our lives is merely human contact.
"Would you like a facial and a manicure too?" Better than a shrink! Much better than Prozac! I'm going to start one of these women's clinics in America! They gots an instant convert in me. And then they loaded me down with hydration-plus moisture lotion with essential surface protection and anti-ageing properties as well. Oh my God. Cezar is getting homeopathy and Bach flower remedies! Me too! Me! Me!
1 pm: We're on the road to Londonderry, called "Derry" by the Catholics. 71 kilometers stuffed in the Vauxhall. We can do this! "Wait! Thomas!" I cried. "I forgot my nail polish!" Another one of Thomas's famous glares.
Michael Moore will speak at the Festival on Saturday at 5:30. "You may not be able to get into the venue, but you can sit in the Milltown Cemetery next to the grave of Bobby Sands and hear every word," I told the boys. Doesn't get much better than that.
We just passed over the bridge of Toome. "That's where Roddy McCourley was hung in 18-something-or-other," said Thomas. "Francis Hughes, the IRA Volunteer who later became a hunger striker, attacked a barracks there. He operated out of Ballaghy and was later captured in the full uniform of the Irish Army." So The Troubles were not just limited to urban areas and South Armagh. They were spread throughout the North. As we neared Londonderry, we passed a sign where the "Derry" part was crossed out. Usually they cross out the "London" part. "It's a preemptive strike," joked Sam.
We entered Dungiven, home of hunger striker Kevin Lynch (71 days). "There's the Dungiven Castle -- or what's left of it. We'll stop for a sandwich here." It was a small quaint country town. Pizza Palace. KFC. "I want pancakes!" shouted Ashley. And she actually found them too.
We ate lunch at a family-run cafe. "Can I use your restroom?" It was off what was obviously the family's kitchen. The kids were eating lunch at the kitchen table. The family members were really nice. The thrift store across the street was closed. "Bank Holiday" said the sign in the window. Oh. 17 km further to Derry.3 pm: "There's the hospital where they took the bodies after Bloody Sunday," said Thomas. Meanwhile, the news headlines on the paper I picked up in Dungiven screamed, "Gerry Adams receives death threat from IRA dissidents." Interesting. But doubtful. Threatening Gerry Adams is like threatening George Washington. Everybody likes him. Why bother.
As we approached Derry, Thomas reminded us what various Protestant initials stood for. "UDA stands for the Ulster Defense Association. They are the paramilitaries. DUP stands for the Democratic Unionist Party. They are politicos." That's our next stop. Now we are in Loyalist territory.
Across from the DUP office was a giant British army watch tower and base. The DUP is the political arm of the Loyalists -- just as Sinn Fein is the political arm of the Nationalists. We were visiting a Londonderry district councilman who had agreed to met with us and tell us the Loyalist side of the Northern Ireland story. He was friendly and polite. He didn't have horns. In fact, he was really very nice.
"One and a half million people live in the North," he told our little delegation. "More than half live in Belfast. The River Bann separates East from West. Northern Ireland has six counties, 26 district councils." Apparently the District Councils run the areas around them. This man was the District Council representative from Londonderry.
"The Council elects the Mayor. Since The Troubles, the Council's powers have been restricted. The split has caused a lot of problems but despite that, the bread-and-butter politics of street cleaning etc. go right along. You get people venting on things like what to name the city or whether to break with the UK."
Sometimes when a issue is being blocked, councilors may go to "the other side" to get a majority. "95% of the Protestants live in the waterside area. Protestants send their children to government schools but the schools are open to Catholic children as well." Being a councilor is a part-time job. "I work in this office as well as downtown. Our salaries are about 4,000 pounds a year."
The councilor told us that all the Bloody Sunday events are still going through the courts. "It is a slow process. But then we still remember what happened in 1690 -- and the Billies who were forced to move to the American South because they supported King William."
With regards to Ireland, "I think we should trade with Canada but we want to remain a part of Britain. Great Britain is England, Scotland and Wales. Add Northern Ireland and you get the United Kingdom. I thought Londonderry was a beautiful name, using the best of both shapers of the area. Most of our former industries, the shirt factories, have moved to third world countries." Ten-year-olds willing to work twelve hours a day for peanuts are too hard to resist. "Companies can't afford to stay here. Companies say, `If we don't move offshore, somebody else will and then we'll go out of business.'"
As for the Good Friday Agreement, "You would have to be crazy as a Nationalist not to vote for it. But the word that caught the Unionists was peace. They didn't want their children to go through what they went through. I personally didn't vote for it, however, and more and more Loyalists are unhappy with some of the provisions. But nobody wants to go back to war. There must be a way for all of us to live together. You can't run roughshod over people's shoes whichever side you are on. There can be no mandate for murder. We all have to sit around the table. The paramilitary or the IRA -- a terrorist is a terrorist whichever side they are on." The way to stop violence is to have it stopped from the roots of the community up.
"Maybe 5% of Catholics like being under the Queen. But mainly the Catholics want to join Ireland. There is a religious aspect. And also an economic factor. But the Protestants weren't as well off as the Irish Catholics. My parents' generation put up with the poverty in order to not join Ireland." Someone in our group asked a question. Apparently, Ian Paisley, the DUP's candidate for some national office -- I'm not clear exactly what -- appears to be bigoted towards Catholics. "I think he's not. And we need to move on from the Good Friday Agreement, to modernize it." He said that politics, in the end, is how you deal with people's differences. "Concentrate on the things you can agree on."
Many use Unionism as a cover for bigotry and violence? "There are still extremes on both sides but you can't always go to your lowest common denominator. It's time for them to go on with their lives."
Sometimes the things that I think the people we talk to mean to say aren't what they say at all. I may not have gotten things right but from what the Councilor was saying I gathered that the demand for civil rights by the Catholics in the 1960s was misunderstood by many of the Protestants -- who in fact wanted many of these same rights themselves but were afraid to make waves because it might wreck the country. And sometimes their fear of change just got out of hand.
"As for drugs -- there wasn't any when I was a child. When the drug dealers came along, paramilitaries dealt with them by kneecapping and murder. But it turned out they were just clearing the territory for themselves."
Cezar requested a tour of the inside of one of the police towers. And by God the Councilman picked up the phone to see if he could get us one. Tomorrow at 2 pm.
On the way to the car, we saw a Unionist mural which said, "There must be no retirement with our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. We determine the guilty. We decide the punishment." Underneath this bold statement there was a terrible skeleton guy charging out at us with murder in his eye; like some Grateful Dead dude gone psychotic or like something seen on a very gothic T-shirt or a medieval depiction of the Black Death. I got a picture of Ashley standing in front of it. Next to it was a mural of the queen. How Gothic can you get?
5 pm: After dumping our stuff at a high-class antique-laden bed and breakfast in the heart of old Derry, our group went out for dinner. On the way, we stopped here and we stopped there. I could see that it was going to be another one of those evenings that took forever. "I'm sorry Thomas," I finally said, "but I just need to flake." There's only so much group activity I can endure. I left Ashley with the guys and wandered off by myself, found an internet cafe, ate a sandwich and blanked out my mind by reading e-mail. "I feel better now." Ice cream, Jane? Don't mind if I do.
By accident I ran into the group after dinner and we all trudged off to a screening of the sad Derry tale, "Sunday," based on the horrors of the Bloody Sunday massacre. Ashley, however, had seen the movie the night before on TV with Mary and had no desire to see it again. Apparently, she had cried the whole way through it. Accordingly, she trudged back to the B and B. Trudging alone at night was perfectly safe in the olden-days section Derry.
After the showing, both filmmakers gave us a talk about making the film. "We had a 2.6 (did he say thousand or million?) pound budget which isn't much when it comes to making a film. We started out in 1997, seeking the approval of the families of the victims. They all approved of the project and, in fact, one of the actors portraying a slain marcher is a nephew of the dead young man." Judging by photos, he looked just like him too. We also got a history of the march. "Plantations' were granted to English lords during Queen Elizabeth I's time and the lords threw the Gaelics off their land. Even despite this, there have always been more Gaelics in Derry than Protestants. However, gerrymandering and voting by property-owning only gave the Unionists political power. Some of the claims in this movie seem outrageous but it has all been meticulously documented and researched."
It was strange -- sitting in a theatre in the middle of the ancient part of Derry and listening to a tale of its more recent history. "Every year the Unionists would march through the Bogside area and stone its residents. One year the Gaelics fought back." The protest demonstrations were non-violent but everyone got shot at by the police and the British nonetheless. "On January 30, 1972, there was a peaceful civil rights march in Derry. So many people -- men, women, children, families -- turned up for it that there was an expectation that the sheer size of the march would make a difference and that there would be a change in the way Catholics were treated in Derry. Instead, the British Army opened fire on the peaceful marchers and continued to fire into the fleeing crowd."
You need to go out and rent this movie for yourself. It was a drama! Based on facts but drama just the same. I cried. A lot. I'm never been one to give the ending of a movie away -- but it was definitely bloody. British Special Forces went to Derry with the deliberate plan to provoke resistance by killing everyone they could shoot so that they could seize the area -- like Ariel Sharon provokes the Palestinians so he can move in and take more land. The Bogside was primo real estate. Three months later, the Brits moved in and flattened the Bogside. (That would be Bloody Sunday 2, The Sequel.)
11 pm: Despite it's bloody history, Derry is a fabulous tourist town. You have no idea! "After the movie," I told Ashley when I got back to the swank B&B, handing her a carton of carry-out Chinese food, "We went for a walk on the city wall." At 10:30 at night, it was still vaguely light out and so we walked placidly around, content to stay up late. The ancient city of Derry is rimmed with an ancient stone wall 20 feet thick, looking for all the world like it had the same architect as the Great Wall of China. "It is 20 feet wide and 30 feet high, with spaces cut out to dump burning oil on attackers or shoot at them; your choice." We passed the ancient cathedral and Bishop Berkeley's house -- the same bishop that my hometown is named after.
"The cathedral used to be Catholic," said Thomas, "but after the Reformation, the Protestants took it over. Down to your right, you can see the Bogside. Over to your left are Loyalists." The Loyalists had painted a sign there, "Londonderry West Bank. Still under siege. No surrender!" What were the Unionists under siege about? I have no idea.
Walking further, we came to the ancient Guild Hall, now serving as City Hall. Impressive. And the food in this city is cheap too. Why aren't the tourists flocking to Derry? The B and B we are staying at would make even the most picky tourist absolutely drool.
It was a magical night, walking around the walls. Everyone in our group actually behaved themselves. Even me!
August 5, 2003: Tuesday. Only six more days until we fly home. I started thinking about Berkeley, ie, what can I do to make my job better, easier, more interesting, more effective when I get back? "Hey, Ashley. Will you come help me straighten out my office when we get back?"
The church bell carillon played at 8 am this morning. Lovely. The B&B we are staying at was built in 1870 -- relatively new for Derry. What a charming place! Except of course for the "No surrender" and "We decide the punishment" parts. Don't they know that punishment always leads to resistance?
I found an optician around the corner from the B&B. They've got nothing! What's with the world's frame selection? It sucks. Getting our schedule for the day from Thomas is like prying state secrets out of the neo-cons but I did manage to get out of him somehow that we would be leaving immediately. Translation: I have at least another half-hour. Currant jelly and Earl Gray tea and fresh canned fruit for breakfast. This is a high-class B and B.
Next stop. "The Pat Finucane Center is working with the Derry families to get a straight-forward acknowledgment of the Bloody Sunday murders and cover-up," said the rep we met at the Center, located in the top floor of a Victorian-style house that overlooked the Bogside. The center was named for a Belfast human rights lawyer who was murdered in front of his wife and children by the UDA in 1989.
"So far, after all the work we've done to try to bring the Bloody Sunday perpetrators to justice, we only have one man convicted of manslaughter -- but only after he changed his story five times, finally saying that he shot someone who was shooting at him. When we investigated, we found that the soldier couldn't possible have seen the location of the so-called shooter from his own location, which was around a corner."
Apparently murder of Catholics won't get you kicked out of the British Army. "Murderers in Derry are now serving in Iraq under the same circumstances." The rep told several more stories. "You can get kicked out of the British Army for DUI or marijuana but it's okay to shoot unarmed Irish civilians." And the Derry police force isn't much better. The force has many gross abusers of human rights still high up in their ranks.
"As for plastic bullets, 17 people have been killed by them recently. They are supposed to be fired from 20 meters or more." Ha. "125,000 or more plastic bullets have been used since 1980 in the North of Ireland. They have only fired 50 bullets outside of here -- including at Kosovo." He passed some bullets around. Four inches long, one-and-one-half inches in diameter. "One man was killed at 16 meters. Most were killed at point-blank range. One was shot in the back of the head, execution-style." Most times the Center cannot even find out the names of the soldiers.
"One woman was killed standing in her doorway on the Falls Road. The soldiers gave sworn statements of being under fire. Someone got it on film that they were lying through their teeth. The shooter got decorated by the Queen."
Now Derry has a police ombudsman with great powers on paper. "We have yet to see if the office will be allowed to practice its powers however." The object is to hold the police accountable. "Our goal is to eliminate lethal weapons as a means of crowd control. Mostly young children are killed by the plastic bullets used here. They are more lethal than even the ones used by the Israeli Defense Force." The Center is taking the murder cases to court one by one.
"What is collusion?" someone asked. In Northern Ireland, it apparently refers to when legislators and army officials look the other way when civil rights advocates are assassinated and thus are in collusion with murder. A charge of collision is a serious one, similar to "aiding and abetting" charges.
The presenter continued. "Rosemary Nelson was another lawyer who became too high-profile in the collusion cases. She was executed by the Loyalists. As was Pat Finucane." Lawyers who take these cases to court have a very low life expectancy. "30 years ago, the British kept getting away with these murders but as Britain ignores case after case, the EU takes notice -- and we can claim jurisdiction in the EU courts." The new EU courts are similar to what the US Supreme Court is supposed to be in the United States.
"We survive on individual donations," continued the rep. "The government wants to fund us -- in order to buy us off. We've seen it happen too often to accept that."
What about the actual trials? "After a case has been chosen, we have some of the best legal firms in Northern Ireland take over." Whew. Having a large legal firm behind you is really important. Sometimes cases are won or lost purely by the battle of the photocopy machines.
"Sometimes we have to use moral means when we are losing in the courts. Sometimes the media will help us win a case. We have a variety of means, not just the law. 360 people have been killed directly -- both Loyalists and Nationalists. 75% were Nationalists. Yet only four soldiers have been convicted." Some families don't want the cases reopened. "We would work on Loyalist cases too but we have not been asked. We log all sectarian incidents on all sides." They also painted an army barracks pink and printed out a bunch of deportation orders for British soldiers under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Trying to get the working classes to fight each other seems to be what is going on here as well as in the rest of the world. "How do the people in power profit by setting the Unionists and Nationalists at each other's throats?" I asked. "Power. Money. Power."
Chapter 3: More Experiences in Derry and Belfast -- and Michael Moore
Noon, August 5, 2003: We toured the Bogside. "You are now entering free Derry," said the giant wall sign at the entrance to the Bogside area. After 30 years, the sign is still there. Sunday, January 30, 1073. Ironically, this sign was inspired by a "Free Berkeley" sign from the Free Speech Movement there in 1964. Hurray for my hometown!
We looked around the area. "The marchers were not expecting the British paratroopers," said Thomas. "Nor were they ready for them. They were marching peacefully down that hill toward your left; families and children marching behind a `Civil Rights Association' banner. Suddenly the paras came charging down the streets from the hill on your right with tanks, Saladin armored cars and `pigs', armored cars that looked like pig snouts in the front. They just opened fire. It was a miracle that only 13 were killed and 28 wounded. There were thousands marching. There has been a march here every year since."
After Bloody Sunday, the Brits did upgrade some houses, both here and at the Falls, to keep the natives from getting restless. But self-esteem cannot be bought for housing. "They called us shit and treated us like shit." New housing wasn't making the cut.
3 pm: We went to the police station. While we were waiting to be seen, Cezar and I used the uni-sex restroom. "What was wrong with that bathroom?" I asked Cezar.
"I couldn't see anything wrong with it," he replied. What is the first thing a woman looks for when she goes to the bathroom? A mirror! There were no mirrors in the police station bathroom. Do they really hire women? I was about to find out.
"We are making every effort to recruit women and Catholics onto the force," said the officer who talked to us. He offered us tea as well. This was going to be okay. He was even nice. Thomas had refused to go in with us and so did Sam. They were truly afraid of police harassment. At first I was terrified also after all the stories I had heard about the RUC, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It is now called the PSNI, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but here we were, inside the lion's den, sipping tea and eating biscuits.
When we told Thomas about the "new" PSNI later, he was quite adamant. "The guy worked for the RUC for 30 years and he's a captain? Don't tell me he wasn't Special Branch." Seemed like a nice guy to me.
"What's Special Branch?" I asked. They are special forces; like the Green Berets. "The RUC gets paid better than anyone in Northern Ireland." So if The Troubles go away, these guys will be out of cushy jobs? Hummmm. Sounds like the American munitions industry's relationship with the War on Terror.
We got to tour the communications department where they get the 999 calls. We got to sit in an APC! How cool is that.
Now it is raining. Thunder, lightning. Are we going to go off to Donegal or not? What is Donegal? "I don't want to go to Donegal," said Ashley. "I don't even want to be here! I want to go home."
"Did you buy a phone card while I was out touring the PSNI?" "No. I didn't even have time for that."
Donegal is across the River Foyle, a bit down the road, in the Irish Republic. It's raining cats and dogs and there's thunder and lightning and Thomas wants to drag us off to the beach? I don't think so. "We're going to see the Chieftains," sez Thomas. At this point, I'd rather read Harry Potter than drive around in the rain stuffed inside a Vauxhall with five large guys and a bored teenager...but did Thomas say Chieftains? Maybe. Got any cairns? I'd definitely go if cairns were in the offing.
"The police officer told you that they have to hire 50% Catholic officers," said Thomas (and 30% women too.) "But did he mention that they haven't actually started doing it yet?" Aha.
4 pm: "They're using machinery to pick potatoes now?" asked Eugene. Good grief! I just saw my first potato harvest. We're in Ireland for sure now, Boyo. And when we stopped at a quickie mart for gas, they were selling 20-pound sacks of coal.
5:15 pm: "This is the holy well," Thomas told us. We'd driven through hilly bogland for 20 minutes. Lots of heather. Lots of carbon monoxide from sitting in the back of the Vauxhall. "If you take your shoes off, stand in front of the well and say a bunch of Hail Marys, you get your wish." My kind of place! World Peace, here we come!
"Up there is the Mass Stone," Thomas told us. "Back when the British colonizers were hunting priests, they used to celebrate mass up there." We trudged up a small hill in the rain, saw 365 degrees of heather and granite and bog, trudged down the other side and there, in a hidden little place, was a stone alter. I left a picture of George Washington on it, with him saying "Pray for Peace" right above the words "US Treasury".
Then we went up to Doon Rock (Carraig an Duin). "From 1200 AD to 1603, all the chieftains of the O'Donnell clan were initiated here." Wow. But before I could be too filled with fresh air and wonder, Thomas jammed us back in the Vauxhall. Guys tend to like to drive. I could have stayed there at least another hour. Now we are driving off to Doe Castle.
"I think it's unfair that I don't get to sit in the front." Ashley calls shotgun after we poked around yet another castle. Sam and Cezar explored the dungeons. I sat out in front of the castle and tried to see Scotland across Mulroy Bay. The place was built in 1544 and then got caught up in the various battles for possession of Ireland during the early seventeenth century. The Brits won.
This was another one of those dream castles we tourists crave from the bottom of our souls. "Now we are going to the Singing Pub," announced Thomas. A small country pub out in the middle of nowhere. More cows. More Guiness. It was perfect. If you are a tourist, run-don't-walk to the Derry/Donegal area. Tell them Jane sent you.
All the truck stop toilets in Ireland are nice and clean and even functional, causing me to write the following:
An Ode to Irish Toilets
In Mexico and Egypt
They really really try
In China and in Turkey
You go there with a sigh
In Australia and in Jersey
They make you want to cry
But the toilets here in Ireland
Are by far your better buy!
11 pm: We heard what sounded like a bunch of gunshots outside our B and B back in Derry. Not a good thing to hear in Northern Ireland. "Do you think it's gunfire?" I asked Cezar, who was running out the front door toward the sounds. "Cezar! Do you think it's a good idea to go outside!"
"Don't worry, Jane. It's just fireworks." And it was. A fabulous display that lit up the night sky like the aurora borealis. The Unionists were getting ready for their big Apprentice Boy Parade on August 12 -- which used to be a commemoration marked for decades, perhaps even centuries, by beating up Catholics. However, things have changed. Yesterday the city cemetery was desecrated and "scores of graves" had their headstones vandalized -- pulled over or broken. Many historic old eight-foot high Celtic crosses were shattered or toppled. However, according to the newspaper, "Both Protestant and Catholic graves were attacked." Pre-1998, it would have been one or the other. That's progress?!?
August 6, 2003: After the most fabulous breakfast of fruit, eggs, bacon, Earl Gray tea, yogurt, really crunchy home-style toast smothered in marmalade and served in a sunny "morning room" next to a garden, we stuffed ourselves into the clown car once again. "Does anyone want to drive along the route of the march?" Big deal, a couple of blocks? Sure. But I was wrong. They marched a big long time! At least a mile or two. They formed the march up on the hill overlooking Derry, marched down the hill and then marched north toward the "Free Derry" wall where hundreds of families were ambushed and mowed down by the "paras".
"They didn't have to shoot the marchers. Hell, after that bit of exercise, the marchers would have been too tired to do anything!" sez me.
"What? And it would have been okay to shoot them if they were full of energy?" Thomas pointed out.
"Here's where Liam Neeson was raised," Thomas pointed out. We were on the road to the Giants' Causeway now, flying past the obligatory sheep. "There's the Fruit of the Loom factory. It's shut down now. There's the Rising Sun Bar where the UFF, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, entered on Hallowe'en night, said `Trick or Treat' and shot up a bunch of Catholic old men having a pint. Back in the 1980s."
Another British Army base was at Ballykelly; surveillance cameras and towers. "Why do you think the British have such a presence in South Armagh and not in Derry?" asked Thomas.
"To keep down the smuggling?"
"The Brits don't care ought about smuggling. And they could smuggle through Donegal as well."
"Bigger IRA presence in South Armagh?"
"Well then why?"
"Nobody knows why. I think they just needed a training ground and tag they're it. Who knows how the Brits think."
"We'll stop at the mountain where St. Patrick tended sheep as a boy. He came over here around 400 AD; from Gaul." St. Patrick was French? "`Padriag' is the Irish spelling."
"David Trimble is the head of the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) in the Stormount." Unbeknownst to me, the Stormount is a big Georgian pile of stone outside Belfast where the legislature of Northern Ireland used to conduct its assemblies before Tony Blair called off elections.
I forced Ashley to watch a video once called "How to be a Superstar Student" where the guy said that human beings only learned by adding new knowledge to what they already know, tying the new knowledge to the old knowledge by using the term, "It's like..." Let me see if I can connect Northern Ireland politics to America's political reality. The Stormount is sort of like the US Senate and Trimble is like the Majority Leader. However, Trimble and the DUP are also like the Americans who sided with the British in 1776. The Catholic politicians, on the other hand, are like members of the Continental Congress, trying to force representation out of the British -- who are still up to their old tricks. And the IRA would be like the Continental Congress's army. Nationalist politicians like Gerry Adams and John Hume would be like Thomas Jefferson or John Adams. Theorists. Thinkers. Humanitarians. (Not slave owners however. And no affair with Sally Hemmings.)
Gerry Adams is in Sinn Fein. "John Hume is the leader of the SDLP, the Socialist Democratic Labor Party," says Thomas, driving along the coast road.
Just then, some idiot cut in front of us. "Unionist!" I screamed at the driver. Thomas had just told us that Portrunh was a Unionist town. We were back in Northern Ireland and the small towns that dotted the coast road were mainly loyal to the British. British flags flew from many of the houses.
"We're in Ian Paisley country now. He's a member of the British Parliament. Right wing." We stopped at Dunlace Castle, perched way up on top of a cliff jutting off into the Irish Sea. Scenic as hell! "Who built that," I asked Thomas.
"The Vikings came to Ireland and built the coastal settlements, including Dublin. The Celts came from Germany, France and Spain. And the Normans built all the castles." Oh.
Then we drove through Bushmill. "This is a Unionist town. During The Troubles, American Irish boycotted Bushmill's Irish Whiskey." The Union Jacks flew all over in Bushmill. "Yell `Up the IRA' out the window, Ashley!" I said. It was a joke!Noon: We stopped at the Giants' Causeway. "Those hexagonal rocks were formed two million years ago when volcanic basalt cooled and cracked," said the guide. Each basalt pillar was approximately two to three feet in circumference. They were all laid out in steps. One could dance down the steps. I did.
"Remember Jack Keroac's book, The Dharma Bums?" I asked Sam. No? Well. "When you're going down a mountainside, if you sing the ABC song and make sure that your foot lands on something every time you say a letter, you can dance down the mountain at breakneck speed and never lose your balance." So. I danced down the Causeway and it was lovely.
Many of the hexagons were hollowed out and held water. Little yellow daises grew around the edges of the small pools. It was a magical microcosmic world. And the gift shop was great too. I bought two key rings, a double-dip ice cream cone and the world's ugliest leprechaun.
"We're in Ian Paisley country now," said Thomas once again, gesturing around him.
"All I see is sheep," I laughed. Each sheep had a spot of red spray paint on the back of its neck.
"Look!" said Sam. "Red neck sheep!"
Next stop was Corrymeela, a summer retreat out in the country where either opposing side of the urban conflicts could meet in a safe space. Or else where people in shock from physical violence could go to attempt to recover. "When we go home, what is it about home that keeps us from reconciling there as well as here?" asked the director. "We try to find out the answer to that question so that things will actually change when they go home instead of just slipping backwards. Also, opposing groups interact here while doing dishes and preparing meals instead of being in venues where they shout and shoot.
"Corrymeela is a non-sectarian Christian community. "This site was built during the troubled 1960s, to engage in questions of religion and social responsibility. Then The Troubles came and we opened our center to that as well." From the courtyard, there was a beautiful view of the Irish Sea just below us. They also had a football field.
Ashley really liked their "croi," a small room with a domed ceiling. "It is built to enhance sound," said the guide. "I know about that!" said Ashley. "It's like the ancient Greek amphitheaters -- they too were built to amplify sound. An actor would stand directly under the dome, say his lines and then step aside for the next actor." The croi was like that. We talked there in a normal voice and it echoed loudly, like we were using a microphone. It was lovely. (They say "It was lovely" a lot in Ireland.)
3 pm: We were supposed to be back in Belfast by 2 pm. It was 1:15 and Belfast was 60 miles away over country roads. "Thomas! If you drive slower than 80 mph, I'll be forever grateful!" My fingernails dug into the back of the seat in front of me. Talk about your Mr. Toad's Wild Ride! "Don't nobody tell Global Exchange about this," I cautioned everyone. Thomas drove a Black Taxi for 22 years. The man can drive to the inch!
Now we are in a meeting with Community Restorative Justice in a funky upstairs community action meeting room. Mix-matched furniture and memos Scotch-taped to the walls. No air conditioning on the hottest day in Irish history (that's not saying much). I felt right at home.
"We work according to the ancient Brehon Laws of Ireland," said the presenter. "It dates back to the sixth century and its basis is ceart dom, ceart dnit: Right for me, right for you -- based on the `Do unto others as you would have others do unto you' principle." There were cookies too. And smoking. Everyone in Ireland smokes everywhere. Yuck.
The CRJ is basically a dispute resolution service. Mediation. Conciliation. "Restorative justice is an alternative to punitive justice. This informal system developed here after 30 years of conflict. At first, the Republican movement dealt with miscreants brutally. Now we try to focus on the harms caused by wrongdoing more than the rules that have been broken. We help victims become empowered and we support offenders as the work to understand and carry out their obligations. We encourage collaboration and reintegration rather than coercion and isolation." I think what he was saying is that in the midst of The Troubles, no one had patience with criminal activity and they developed an informal system for the criminals to make amends to their victims.
The community also gets involved with prevention of crime. The presenter quoted Judge Barry Stuart of the Yukon Territories. "The health of a community improves when its members participate in conflict resolution. When they leave the task to others, the quality of community life declines. Gone is the collective sense of belonging. Gone as well is the community's natural capacity to prevent crime, redress the underlying causes of crime and rebuild the broken lives and relationships caused by crime."
The CRJ helps criminal and victim to meet with each other face to face. "Using this method, closure can be reached. One young man who had broken into someone's house signed a contract to pay the victim back over time." It's an effective way to resolve criminal situations without bringing in the police. And the process is much more cost-effective than jail. "We try to make it that there are no losers." They also try to get fewer lawyers and lawsuits involved. If we had this sort of thing in America, we could save billions. "Also, in the training, we have found that women take to this like ducks to water because they have already developed mediation skills just from raising children if nothing else."
One dispute between families had been going on for 30 years. "When we resolved this conflict, the police were amazed; they had been called out regularly for as long as the could remember." Also, the locals would trust the CRJ where they had developed wariness of the RUC. "Sometimes people walk right past the police to come here."4:30 pm: The CRJ interview went well but it was hot and we were tired and hungry and ready to flake. Guess what? It wasn't going to happen. "Now we have to go off to the Victims and Survivors Trust," said Thomas. VAST was located in some second-floor rooms on the Falls Road, a few blocks down from St. James Road. As we drove past St. James, our Ashley, looking pretty much wan and wilted, said, "Please just drop me off at the corner." We did. She had put in a Spartan day. It was 95 degrees outside. Enough was enough.
"During the great potato famine, there was plenty of food," said our VAST presenter, a kindly middle-aged woman who under ordinary circumstances would have never thought of politics, who had obviously been turned very political by the effects of long years of war. "But the food was being exported to Britain by the upper class. The Troubles was basically a class war -- between the two lower classes. The Troubles never effected the upper classes. When both lower classes had started grumbling about the way things were, the wealthy class had set the two religions factions of the lower classes against each other to distract them; so that the wealthy could remain in power. It worked rather well for all too long."
The presenter then talked about collusion. "The Loyalists would drive up Falls Road past the British surveillance station and would murder shopkeepers and their customers -- just shoot them up. The British and the RUC knew who did it. It was collusion. Why? The thought of the Catholics obtaining civil rights scared the powers. It would be an economic cost to them."
The presenter's son was shot and killed when coming home from work one day. "Even now we have to be careful during the Orange marches. But even this is changing. Some Protestants have come up for the Festival -- even though they wouldn't tell their neighbors they were coming. And we also have Protestant members of VAST who actually come here to the Falls Road. We never turn anybody away." VAST's work spread by word of mouth, newsletters and going on the radio. "The families come to us. We are here for them and try to help. We have groups, activities, do crafts. What makes us different is that we also have been through what they have been through."
VAST members themselves started the organization up, meeting in people's kitchens. "Many of the innocent victims were being discredited by the government and press. They were called bombers and terrorists. The rest were swept under the carpet. It wasn't just the UFF and the IRA that was doing the killing of our loved ones. There was collusion as well. We want that recognized."
The Unionists are extending the "peace process" as long as they can. They are afraid that if there is an actual, on-paper, officially recognized resolution to The Troubles, the British will pull out. "Many of the Unionists actually consider themselves to be British." Shut my mouth! Really?
Apparently the Catholic church didn't help to end The Troubles either. "During the bad times, I was going to a Catholic school. The morning after our house was burned out, a nun took me aside and warned me not to mention what had happened because there were children of magistrates and policemen at the school and she didn't want anyone upset. If the Church had wanted to stop the slaughter, then they could have. Not only did we lose our homes and our lives but we lost faith in our religion as well." The church supported Catholics' right to basic human and civil rights -- but not their right to do anything about it. The Bishop was pro-British and actually wrote the Pope that the Brits were doing a good job.
"They asked the old Bishop to see the torture, see the ruins, see the plastic bullets killing children. Cardinal Daley went to the prisons, saw the hunger strikers and protested. The press started calling him the Rabble Cardinal, trying to discredit him."
The presenter also talked about reconciliation. "One of our members met the Loyalist who had killed her father. He thought he was doing the right thing at the time. The daughter and the killer made it up and became friends."
One thing that came out of The Troubles that was good is that people all feel so strongly about their rights that they all vote. I was impressed. "Only 15% of American voters apparently voted for George Bush," I told her. "I need to go back to the US and start another 'One man, One vote' campaign."
"Because of The Troubles," the presenter continued, "women here have gotten more educated." They go back to school, they stay in school and they educate themselves in the political process. They have become interested.
After the presentation, I talked with one of the members of VAST privately. "Some men have been coming in lately," she told me confidentially, "and they start to fill out the forms. They start to fill out the forms and they start to cry...and they say, 'I have never talked about this stuff in 30 years. I have kept it all inside.' Terrible things have happened to the men of Falls Road. And they just don't talk about it." I hugged her, she hugged me and I knew...could suddenly see.... All the horror of what had happened to these good people who had only been hoping for a better life finally settled into me. After listening to horror stories all week objectively, now it was too much. What am I doing here? What am I trying to prove, poking around in these dear people's wounds like some gallows-humor coroner unpassionately doing an autopsy on the corpse of a child.
I didn't think this consciously as I talked to this woman. But it was there and it came to the surface that night in my nightmares.
10 pm: "We need to get a bite to eat and go hear Bernadette Devlan MacAlisky speak," said Thomas. Yes. It had been a long day. From Derry to VAST, it had been intensive. Ashley had bailed after CRJ. The weather had been miserably hot. There had been no air in the VAST building. We were hungry. It sounded like a good plan. I bought Ashley her usual (very non-traditional Irish) dinner at Culturlann: Filo prawns, stuffed mushrooms, salad and chocolate cake. I had my usual too: Chicken enchilada. They were out of apple crumble so I had to settle for strawberry cheesecake. Poor me.
"It's not Bernadette that will be speaking," said Mary. "It's a community forum put together by the local radio show 'West Belfast Talks Back'. A RUC guy will be there and a Unionist too. They're coming here. We're listening to what they have to say. If some of our guys went to the Unionist part of town like that, they'd be killed."
What is happening now in politics in Ulster is that the Unionists (and good old Tony Blair) have cancelled the promised elections. "They want Gerry Adams to promise that the IRA will lay down arms forever before the Unionists will have the elections. But if Gerry does that, then the Unionists will drop all the reforms and it will be as if the 30 years of Troubles never changed anything."
On my way to the talk, I cut through the Bog and the cemetery. I was early. Hummm. I could just go check my e-mail for a few minutes...be back to the talk in plenty of time. An hour later.... "Dear Joe, Elizabeth and Global Exchange: We went all over Northern Ireland yesterday. We covered it all. And Joe, we are still looking for the perfect gothic T-shirt for you. Maybe tomorrow. And Saturday night we are going to sit in the Milltown Cemetery and listen to Michael Moore speaking on the other side of the fence."
The Global Exchange coordinator e-mailed back immediately. "You mean THE Michael Moore?"
On the way to the internet cafe, I had momentarily joined a "No More Plastic Bullets" protest lining the center stripe of the Falls Road. Middle-aged housewives held up signs to the oncoming traffic. "They told these children that plastic bullets wouldn't hurt them," said captions underneath poster photos of four children killed by plastic bullets. I had to leave. I was starting to cry.
Meanwhile back at the auditorium of St. Louise's, "West Belfast Talks Back" had been filling up. By the time I finally got to the gate, it was, "Sorry, Ma'am, it's all full up."
"But I have a group in there I have to meet!"
"Lady, I'm just doing me job," said the guy at the gate. And he was cute too.
"Oh God," I replied. "That means that I've got to trudge back through the cemetery and jump the fence. I'm too old for that!" The security guy laughed. But I never did find a place to climb over the fence and I got covered with stinging nettles too.
"Nettle stings are good for the nervous system," Mary consoled me. I found out later that the Unionist speaker went on and on about how the Protestants are just as unemployed and miserable as the Catholics.
When I got home, Ashley was watching ER. "They just found a newborn baby in the dumpster, that guy's father just died of a heart attack and they just cut off the other guy's arm." Great. "In your next book, Mom, can I be Jean-Claude Van Dammm?" Sure. And then she burst into song:
Black socks. They never get dirty.
The longer you wear them the blacker they get.
Sometimes I think I shall launder them
But something keeps telling me,
'Don't do it yet.' Not yet. Not yet.
Roll roll roll you blunt
Lick it at the end
Light it up and take a puff
And pass it to your friend.
"Repeat as necessary."
Then Ashley burped and broke into the theme from the Addams Family. Ashley is a valuable person to travel with. And she does a great imitation of Thomas too. "Go find your mum."
"She's your mum."
"But you lost her."
August 7, 2003: I woke up in tears, a terrible dream. While I was busy looking at books up on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, a four-year-old child was brutally raped. The little girl tried to explain it to me. "He took off my overalls and did that nasty thing." She clearly could not grasp why this thing had happened to her. That's when it hit me. The little girl was an allegory for Northern Ireland. That the people I was casually talking with each day had lived through a hell beyond comprehension. And what was I, a casual tourist, doing here among all this pain? Me, worried that there might not be enough hot water after Ashley got done taking her shower or that I might go without apple crumble for one night. I had thought I could save the world by coming to Belfast. All I have done is walk into the jaws of the monster.
If they could do this in Belfast or Palestine or Iraq or Columbia or Warsaw or Auschwitz, then they could do it in California too.
10 am: Another bacon sausage egg and toast breakfast then off to the Linen Hall Museum in downtown Belfast, to see an exhibit called Troubled Images: Posters and Artifacts from the Times of The Troubles.
On the walls of the old Linen Hall are original front page headlines from August 3, 1994 such as, "IRA Calls For Ceasefire" and "PM Welcomes End to Violence," and "After 3,168 Deaths and 25 Years of Terror, The IRA Says...It's Over".
These hopeful headlines are followed in 1996 with "Truce Lies In Tatters. I Did Not Know About The Bomb Says Adams," written after the February 1996 bombing of a building in London. Then the vote is held and on May 23, 1998 the headlines read, "The People Give Their Verdict. It's Yes," as the Good Friday Agreement is ratified by the voters of Northern Ireland. Over 70% voted yes. The attached photo showed that they used paper ballots.
Just then two good things happened. First they let Ashley and me check our e-mail in the museum's reference room and, second, I met an Irish-American fireman and an Irish-American policeman visiting from New Jersey. "Our guys got it in the neck on September 11," said the fireman. "Bush has no idea the fire he's playing with. He should come to Belfast and listen to what these people are going through before he stirs up his hate."
"Some say that he and his gang set off 9-11 to begin with," said I. "They had no right to kill innocent civilians. Just like they had no right to kill civilians on the Falls Road -- or on the Shankill Road either. During The Troubles, we took Belfast kids over to America to get them safe."
"And everything that happened in Belfast, Palestine/Israel, Iraq and Columbia will be happening in America soon unless we start to learn how not to hate," I replied. "Hate is a down-hill spiral that only leads to destruction and war." They nodded their heads.
"They cut our services," added the policeman. "They expect us to close down firehouses and do twice the work on half the money."
"What I don't understand is why every man, woman and child in America doesn't march on the White House and demand the neo-cons' resignation." Collective sigh.
"We went to funeral after funeral after 9-11," said the fireman. "The play about writing eulogies? That was our exact experience." Another collective sigh.
Ashley and I ran out to look for Joe's evil T-shirt -- and immediately got completely lost. I ran from store to store. "Evil T-shirts? Got any evil T-shirts?" I found the perfect one at a store called Fresh Garbage -- a Celtic knight with a skeleton's face holding a medieval sword. At 17 pounds, it was pricey but it was the perfect design. Only it was an extra-large and Joe would never have worn it. Finally I found an acceptable evil 17-pound T-shirt in a women's store three blocks away.
"Do you take Mastercard?" No. I emptied out my purse. "I have 13 pounds, 70 pence and an American quarter. Okay?" She took it. Whew.
Then I started desperately looking for Ashley, whom I had lost. I was actually getting ready to call the RUC. But she, clever girl, had actually found her way back to the Linen Hall and was in their souvenir shop buying a silver Celtic cross. "She's a keeper," said Sam.
Lunch on the run. Sausage rolls. At a bakery in the downtown -- where no one who shopped there or worked there admitted that they were Catholic. Or even Protestant. The downtown appeared to be owned by Protestant upper classes but money, not Queen Elizabeth II, ruled here and therefore it was neutral ground. Next we went on a lightning tour of the first Catholic chapel in Belfast (1783) since the Norman invasion. I barely had time to cross myself. Then we ran past Belfast's oldest still-open-for-business pub (1720). We were off to meet with a Unionist social worker on the Shankill Road. We met with her in a 1950s style social services building. She served us tea.
"This area was a Catholic-Protestant mix of millworkers who lived in small cottages that went with the job. Then when the mills closed down, the unemployment rate soared. Unemployment was a new phenomena for the Protestants. They panicked. Most of them were uneducated and had no skills to fall back on."
Their cottages were torn down. The Troubles came. "Almost overnight the Catholics moved out of the area. The Protestants were told that the IRA had told them to move out so they could blow the Protestants up. The Shankill Road population went from 76,000 to 26,000. The uneducated and unemployed Protestants became UFF and Loyalist gunmen. Only the old people and children were left here. Young girls of 13 or 14 years old started getting pregnant. The community fell apart."
The Shankill Road was a good location -- close to downtown. Good schools, abandoned houses that could be built up. "We started rebuilding the houses, afraid that no one would buy them. Everyone wanted one. The people who had lived here before wanted to come back to their old homes."
The community groups also started to increase education programs and to get students involved. "The families couldn't afford school fees and uniforms. We changed that. We made going to school a requirement for getting work." Community leaders looked at what was being done in America and also what the Catholic communities were up to. "We actually work closely with the Catholic community," she said.
The groups got funding. They opened three centers based on what paramilitary group the locals supported. "This is the Lower Shankill, the most notorious area." They also concentrated on organizing community daycare. How do you educate children whose parents had a bad experience at school? "Some parents have never known anything but The Troubles. There is a lot of post-traumatic stress also. We developed a pre-school program and a school-work program for older kids. The programs are working." It was hard to convince that authorities to accept community involvement, however. "We have two well-known paramilitary groups here who want to go to war with each other. There have been seven people killed, 300 families burned out. Protestant versus Protestant. Turf wars. The UDA are the gangsters. They took over this area and moved their people in. Extortion. You can't even have a party without paying off the UDA. The murals in this area are all about conflict. (The Falls Road murals are all about defense against injustice.)
Eugene asked if the paramilitaries are defending their religious ideals. "They actually think that they are. It is a result of the disintegration of family values. The children see that adults get what they want through violence. There are drugs here now. And child prostitution. Child prostitution in Northern Ireland? Unheard of. And the Protestant churches here closed their doors and turned their heads. And the people got repeat prescriptions from doctors. Prozac and the like. Parents were giving their children Valium so they'd be no trouble."
The Peace Line was built. "We started working on it as a token wall. Now it is 30 feet high and 15 miles long. We are trying to integrate across it through employment and education." Catholics and the Protestants commute to jobs in the downtown, whether they take Black Taxis down the Falls Road or buses down the Shankill. Both streets converge in the city center. "Everyone knows who the paramilitaries are. But the police are afraid to arrest them -- afraid they will burn the whole Shankill down. When they arrested Johnny Adair, everyone held their breath."
On the subject of politicians: "Local community members are working our balls off to make this community better. The politicians need to get to work too. The Shankill community feels they are downtrodden and ignored. There are no Gerry Adamses here. People here are alienated. They have to believe the change can be made and be sustained." So good programs are put in place. And then the funds run out. "We've cut our programs down from 100 to 40. But you have to have a bit of hope. Pessimism is the one luxury we can't afford."
Politicians appear to be the biggest problem. They don't even live in the community. "One politician said we ought to fence the area off and just let them kill themselves. The paramilitaries now recruit 10-year-olds. They can't get the 18-year-olds any more."
Eugene asked, "What about AIDS."
"It's like drugs. Nobody talks about it. Cocaine. Pills. The big cannabis bust yesterday was in a Loyalist area. In the Catholic areas also. Paramilitaries can buy a 100,000-pound house. Cash. No problem. Yachts, Cadillacs. People say here, "The Crown talks but the half-crown talks louder. Protestant estate agents will even sell houses to Catholics. Money will integrate the Shankill."
The family center where we met was empty. Why? "They're all on a trip to the local park!" Good. I had wondered if the center was actually used. It is. Good.3 pm: After we left the center, we drove down the Shankill Road and I understood what the social worker was talking about. The UVF murals were threatening. They showed masked commandos dressed in black and carrying AK-47s. Their message seemed to be, "Disobey us and you are next." The people we saw on the Shankill Road looked miserable and badly off. It looked like the worst of East Oakland. But they did have a lot of thrift stores. I don't suppose Thomas would stop the car.... Ashley had bought a sterling silver Celtic cross necklace in downtown Belfast. Now we are hanging around The Rock pub admiring it and waiting to hear Pete Hammill and Gerry Adams talk. "There goes the man himself!" declared Thomas.
"Gerry Adams?" "No, Pete Hammill." Okay. Now we are standing out in front of some pub on the Falls Road, elbowing our way into the event. God, I wish I was back at Mary's, reading Harry Potter. Playing solitaire. I'm burning out here, guys.
4:15 pm: We're still waiting but at least we're inside and the air conditioning is on. Some guys in masks came in. They claimed to be clowns but anyone in face masks in a crowded pub on the Falls Road makes me nervous. Frankly the tales about the paramilitary I heard today scare me. Those guys are capable of anything. Those guys are weird. "Anyone want to play BS?" asked Ashley.
"You have to go to the White House to play BS," I replied. She meant BS the card game.
Suddenly there's Gerry Adams! "Hey, Gerry," said Eugene. And there's Pete Hammill. We've got liftoff. The program starts off with some dude about to genuine traditional Irish music. Go, us. "X" that. He's singing an old American slave song. Then he broke into the worst poetry I've ever heard.
Another poet spoke. "In a few nights' time, you will flee in your pajamas down the Falls Road." This guy is good. "Our Protestant friends and we talk about everything under the sun but politics.... Does Johnny really love the Queen?" He talks about when he was 16 and The Troubles are just beginning. "I will never see Johnny again."
The pub is filled with young people. I feel so bad for them. No jobs for them and each one has many brothers and sisters and daughters and sons younger than themselves, pushing up, searching for even more of the non-existent employment slots. There are children and babies everywhere you go in Ireland. I worry that they also will have nowhere to go when they grow up. I worry about American children too -- for the same reasons.
"This young man is dead naive. He thinks he is a member of the MRA, which has been defunct for 70 years...." The poet is telling stories from the lives of ordinary people during The Troubles. "I wrote a letter to my wife today, describing my troubles. I know, sez the jailer, I read it." Tales from the prison. Then tales from the pubs. Those were hilarious. You had to have been there. Something about stealing a stag head from behind the bar and being arrested as a terrorist. "We can all rest assured that Ireland's most dangerous men are now under lock and key."
Then we suffered through a half-hour from the loudest and worst keyboard player ever. Things go on and on at Irish events. We want Pete! We want Pete! Not more Guiness. Gerry and Pete!
"My mother was a resident of the Short Strand," began Mr. Hammill, "and my father was from the Falls Road." With an eighth grade education, his father then moved to New York, broke his leg playing soccer, got his leg amputated from gangrene and "met my mother who arrived in New York with perfect timing -- on the day the stock market crashed in 1929."
Hammill came back to Belfast for a visit in 1963. The news that Kennedy had been shot came over the radio. "No! No! No.... All through the Catholic neighborhood that was Andersontown, there was wailing." Even on the Shankill Road, there was mourning. "Our Jack was Irish." Pete ran to The Rock bar where we sit today, searching for his father. His father quoted Yeats to him. "What made us think that he would comb gray hair." Soon the whole bar was standing and saluting the young Irish-American president.
Then Pete read from his latest book. "Noah only allowed two daughters on the ark. The other daughters built their own ark and ended up in Ireland," he prefaced the reading. "What a people loves, they will defend...." He had written a book about the old legendary times of Ireland and was reading something about a speaking tree and a secret altar in a grove. It sounded like the chieftains' stone I saw on Tuesday. Cool. "She finished the chanting and began to sing..." What is this? Pete Hammill is talking about megalithic groves? Burial ceremonies? I was totally surprised. Who would have thought that a hard-bitten NY newsman would end up exploring the romantic essence of his ancestral heritage. This gave me a small clue about what it means to be Irish.
"One of the great talents of the Irish was to create union," Hammill continued, "to help people work together." Irish and African music together created tap dancing! You take the slag, add heat, skill and art and create alloys. New York would not have survived without this pulling together. Hopefully something new will be made in Belfast as well. "One of the things September 11 taught us was a certain fatalism...to live every moment...to not be afraid of recapturing life." That is the essence of this community -- to hold together. "And you ain't seen nothing yet!" Standing ovation.
Afterwards I asked Mr. Hammill, "Now that the Irish are together, what can we do to dump George Bush?"
"If he gets elected in 2004, we can kiss America as we know it goodbye," he answered.
"And America will become what the Falls Road was like ten years ago," I replied. Hammill nodded his head yes. Then the event was over. No Gerry Adams.7:30 pm: I have two orders of Culturlann prawns filo and stuffed mushrooms sitting on the chair next to me at a talk by an Iraqi expatriate entitled, "Who Are You Calling a Terrorist Now?" And chocolate cake for Ashley and Bailey's Irish Creme-flavored cheese cake for me.
"Iraq after the First World War became a monarchy after the British could not control it any more -- although they still sucked up Iraq's oil." In 1958, there was a revolution followed by a counter-revolution sponsored by the Ba'athist party and the CIA. The Iraq area has great influence due to its fertile valleys. Iraq has been a solid rock for Islam geographically; also philosophically. "Like Rome is attached to the Catholics, so the Muslims have looked to Iraq." The prime objective of the Ba'athist Party was to defeat communism. Then it made defeating Zionism a goal.
"In Iran, the Shah became too big for his boots and the fundamentalists took over. Iraq had many riches. Saddam was a trained thug." And his rise to power was due to America's need for such a thug to take up the assault on Iran. Saddam was America's cats-paw. The Iranians threw their armies at Iraq in defense. "Saddam told America that if they wanted him to fight, America had to arm him." They did. He then bombed the hell out of Iran. Iran surrendered. Then the Americans cut off Saddam's arms...er...armaments."
America pressured the Kuwaitis and the Saudis to produce more oil. The price was down to $9 a barrel. The Soviet Union was collapsing. The price of oil also helped to collapse the Soviet Union. "Saddam was given the green light to invade Kuwait in order to trap him." He was a thug and a murderer but he was our thug and murderer. But we no longer needed him to control Iran. Then something financial happened. Billions of dollars were in Beirut banks -- a threat to US currency. "Therefore, America created instabilities in Lebanon and Europe in order for monies to go to the US instead." Now America apparently is creating instability throughout the world for a similar reason -- American currency has become unstable. There was also the energy factor. At this point in time, America, China, Russia and Europe rule the world based on their control of the energy supply. "This war is part of the energy struggle."
The US went to war because they thought Iraq was weak and would collapse. Saddam was hated. That's why the neo-cons had no other plan. But the neo-cons didn't count on over a thousand of years of Islamic history. "All the Iraqis of different ethnic origins are very cosmopolitan despite their differences." Now they have to rebuild the state. "The elite minority that the US has created came to rule a country that has resisted fascism for 35 years -- and Iraqis are not about to give in now." The Shia and Sunnis have lived together for years, intermarried. Even Kurds have integrated. "The thought of America coming to tell them what to do is bankrupt. The Iraqis will never give up."
Americans killed over 100,000 Iraqis in the retreat of 1991. It was a racist war. Saddam caused the disappearance of many others who had resisted him at America's instigation. "America had a big hand in all that." Plus all the children who died due to sanctions? Doesn't sound like a good recipe for loving America.
On Iraqi trade unions: The Americans actually brought the old Ba'athists back. In a large bakery, the workers refused to work under Ba'athist supervisors and kicked them out. Trade unions have been having country-wide elections. Oil workers, teachers, transportation workers. "The unemployment rate in Iraq now is at 70% because the state ran everything. Then the Americans told everyone to go home." Now they are all sitting outside Paul Bremmer's headquarters.
On non-violence: "The Shia are trying to proceed as peacefully as possible but they will never go back to a handful of people running the country." They are dogged about this because they are afraid to go back to being persecuted. If the Americans continue the way they are, the whole south will explode. Fallugah, Tikrit will be nothing. And millions are highly trained in weapons and they own the weapons too."
I asked what the Iraqis thought of non-violence. "The Iraqis are being non-violent now, patiently waiting for the Americans to come to their senses. But they will never accept another thug. They act as a mass, always having demonstrations. Two to four million people demonstrated peacefully. No police or nothing. It all went peacefully. The Iraqi people are disciplined when they want to be. Iraqis move en mass, based on the eternal need for cooperation in agriculture. Organizations, mass movements and resistance comes naturally."
Many third-world countries work this way also but the West spent the last century setting up third-world governments run by small minorities who have been given privileges and are dependant on foreign power and heinous methods for their power. For instance, the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia are not a majority. In these places, the majority are not strong enough or aware enough to revolt. Another example is the Tutsi minority ruling over the Hutu. The Hutu finally rebelled against the Tutsis. But the Iraqis will never do that. They are united and they cooperate."
An audience member noted that Americans supplied the satellite intelligence to the Iraqis that allowed them to gas the Kurds. And why does America want Iraq so badly? "Iraq is a strategic country now that the Saudis are becoming unstable and cannot serve as an American military anchor to the region any more." Ah. That's like what Harold Zinn said. The US wants a permanent military base in Iraq. "The fight to support the Iraqi people and against globalization is a fight for world peace. People who care about humanity must care about this war." There is a crisis on a large human scale, leading to a fight to say no to bullies. "America's savagery is amazing. And the Arab League is a joke created by Britain. Arabs know who they are. And they know what is right. The Arabs are not stupid, will not allow themselves to be slaughtered.
"The Kurds historically have aligned themselves with the larger foreign powers -- the Shah, the Turks, Kissinger. And the powers always sell them out. Kurd leadership is in the pockets of the Americans and the Kurds themselves resent that."
More questions: Is it the Ba'athists that are striking back? And/or Al Qaeda? "Before oil, Iraq was very rich and exported food -- feeding Iraq and beyond. There has been a deliberate destruction of agriculture in Iraq since the oil." The Americans can't get the oil out. "Someone keeps bombing the pipeline every day. The Americans have spent 60 billion dollars so far. The oil would only bring $25 billion a year." 50 cents to produce a barrel of oil in Iraq, $9 in Texas, $15 per barrel in Alaska. "The oil should belong to the state, to a democratically elected majority." The Americans want to control the taps so they can control who it goes to.
Everyone in Iraq has weapons. The British tried to disarm the Iraqis. That didn't work. "Iraqis know that the Americans don't care if they kill a million Iraqis." Americans want the control and won't give it up easily. "We must support the trade unionists. Don't think only of armed resistance. 10,000 soldiers are now unemployed. And they are resentful. The Iraqis say to the Americans, 'Go home.' And an American soldier was stupid enough to answer, 'You go home.'" Are the Iraqis being fed? "There are 22 billion dollars left in the oil for food program. The Iraqis are getting fed. They wouldn't tolerate not being fed. The UN has the money. Bush can't get at it." But I betcha he's trying his damndest!
August 8, 2003: I had a restless sleep last night but thankfully no more nightmares. "Do we have to get up?" I asked Ashley. "We're supposed to tour five different places today. Let's just can it all and stay in bed." The weather is hot, hot, hot -- already in the 90s. Mary is miserable. "I'm just not used to all this heat," she said.
I've got to start conserving energy for the long trek home. "Only two more days," said Ashley.
"The big march starts at 1 pm on Sunday," I replied. "Maybe we could paste a 'No Collusion' sign on our luggage and march from the Ardoyne district to the bus stop." I've simply absorbed more information than I have had time to process.10 am: We got a van! Thomas scored a community center van to ferry us around in. We da bomb!
This morning Mary and I battled out the sins of the world. "Instead of war, they should just assassinate dictators," said Mary."
"What! And become just like all the other thugs? And the very first dictator to be assassinated would be the lunatic who have seized the White House. No, I would demand trial by jury before anyone did that. I want to see Bush thrown in jail! And in the case of Saddam, that they check out where his funding came from. Saddam was a murderous thug -- but he was the CIA's favorite son."
"The UN would try them."
"And it would be democratic, voted for country by country. And with no veto!" Then we argued about Castro. "He's a bloody dictator!" said Mary.
"But he uses his power to provide education, childcare and medicine as compared to our neo-cons who use their power to enlarge their Swiss bank accounts."
"No. He's a dictator who imprisons dissenters." We finally agreed that what we hated about Bush, Castro and all of them was that they tell us what to think and what to do.
"I'm too old to have people telling me what to do," I said.
Next stop: The Stormount Building, home to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Georgian architecture, built in 1932. Not in the style of George the Third. More like George the Fifth!
After we got there, we met with an Assemblyperson. "I am a MLA, a member of the legislative assembly," he said once we were settled in his upstairs office. "Welcome to Stormount. They call it dormant Stormount at this point in time. This assembly is like an American state assembly, us being one of the 'states' of the United Kingdom. I am a member of the SDLP, the Socialist Democratic Labor Party."
As we sat around a huge wood conference table, the MLA talked about the Good Friday Agreement and then about the fact that Tony Blair had suspended the entire Assembly last May. "We are now grappling with the problem of suspension. We need elections and we need them to be worthwhile." He was looking for a positive outcome -- of political institutions coming back to life. The official SDLP position is that "The time has come to stop all the messing, the posing and the spinning. The SDLP fought hard and won real commitments on criminal justice, on demilitarization, on equality and on human rights. We cannot allow the postponement of elections to be an excuse for delaying the delivery of the Joint Declaration's commitments."
The MLA said, "The when, where and how of the Good Friday Agreement has not been spelled out." Oh. He's referring to the "peace process". Whenever the word "process" is attached to the word "peace" it means that someone is stalling in order to either avoid peace at all or to grab up, a la Ariel Sharon, as many goodies as they can before their hands get slapped.
The SDLP's position is, "People have had their fill of the politics of whine-whine. If the will exists, politics can be about win-win for all." Works for me. "Let's get on with it."
"One thing we have demonstrated," said the MLA, "is a tremendous capacity to work together. The four parties have been able to arrive at decisions together. The message of this is, 'Yes, we can do it'. So why aren't we doing it? So that we can get on with administering this small part of the world." There are only 1.7 million people in Northern Ireland. "We are only a small part of the world. Why can't we get on with that?"
The Northern Ireland community is small. Everyone knows everyone else. "You would think that our strong Christian tradition if nothing else should teach us to get along together." Yet there is still murderous intent.
"But the driving force of politics is optimism. If you weren't hopeful, you would get out." As for the police, "If the police don't have the confidence of the community, they will fail." Independent police commissions have made many viable recommendations. The Patten Report has already restructured the police department. "If we say that all goals must be achieved in order to keep the reforms in play, there will never be an end to it. We need to give up being Monday morning ball players and run with what we have." Recruitment and human rights factors are already in place. "There are no guarantees in life but there is a probability that we will succeed with the reforms. So far they have been successful. There is a good chance that the new police force will continue to succeed. A lot of the senior police personnel have left." Apparently the senior personnel were the ones most tainted by collusion.
"Sitting on the sidelines waiting for others to make the necessary changes and then complaining about the results? I just can't buy that."
From listening to the MLA, it sounded like there is a real concern about the direction the PSNI is taking. The police have a big hand in what kind of future Northern Irish society will be having. And there is a delicate balance to be maintained -- to keep the officers who have been trained yet also to introduce new ideas and new blood into the operation. "Who decides what is a good policeman? Should we throw out 7,000 policemen and start again? Can we do that without losing continuity?" To say nothing of the effects of 7,000 men losing the best-paid jobs in Northern Ireland. They would not go softly into that good night....
The problem with policing, as I understand it, is that it is time to stop basing community safety on punishment of offenders and start basing it on rewards to those who add to the community's safety qualifications and obligations. "Negotiations break down for the same reasons that marriages break down. They feel that the other side isn't delivering. But our side needs to deliver as well. The elections will force us to take responsibility; some sense that the agreements must be delivered up. But even without elections, we must make efforts to deliver up on the agreement." Okay.
"If we can't get the Good Friday Agreement to work, there's little chance for a united Ireland to work. It provides for a practical program for Unionists and Nationalists to work together. If you believe in good community relations, you have to work at it every day." The joint resolution spells a lot of this out. "It's like a horse race. They all start out the same. Some bits move forward faster than others."
I think I get it. He is a politician who believes that the political process can work via give and take. I wish we Americans could be that way -- that American politicians still participated in a give and take situation. Right now, the US political emphasis is all on take; on rapid escalation of the diplomatic process. "Give it to us or else we'll ruin your reputation, cause your plane to crash and/or poison your cat!"
Incidentally, I read in the papers this morning that the birth rate in Northern Ireland is falling noticeably. Also that there are many more births out of wedlock.
Back on topic: "Unlike in the United States, we have one policing service for the whole country -- with an 18-member board that goes across the entire political spectrum except Sinn Fein, who opted out. Its mere presence is astounding. And Sinn Fein should be in there too.
"Trade unions, on the other hand, have been staying completely out of politics in favor of maintaining their influence on the shop floor. However, they were able to assert great influence on the shop floor toward approving the Good Friday Agreement."
Noon: Time for our guided tour of the Stormount. "No photography whatsoever." Okay. That ugly statue on the landing won't find a place in my family album. Lots of chandeliers here -- five in the lobby alone. Marble parquet floors. Italian Travertine. "The octagonal patterns on the floor are reflected in the octagonal patterns in the ceiling. The chandelier above us used to belong to Kaiser Wilhelm. It weighs one-third of a ton and is priceless." Ugly. Impressive but ugly. The rest of the building is merely an ugly office building with an ugly lightwell down the middle of it.
Why don't I like this building? Because in 1932 they shoulda done better than a cheap imitation of 1732. Next we went to the Senate chambers. Much better. "This is the equivalent of the House of Lords." Nice room. I liked it. "This building was a gift to Northern Ireland from Britain." Aha! Its sordid nature wasn't Irish bad taste. It was English.
Next we went to the Assembly room. "They had a fire here in 1998. The smoke alarm had been taken out. When the fire trucks were finally alerted, they couldn't get in because the gates were locked. They cut down the gates only to find that the water had been cut off. They didn't reach the fire for 24 hours. The rest of the building, being marble, didn't burn but these rooms were completely demolished. It took $17 million to rebuild them." Lots and lots of inlaid walnut, gold leaf and blue velvet decorated the new room. Quite nice.
"This Assembly is modelled on the British House of Commons. The blue theme is supposed to be a neutral color."
"When will the Assembly meet next?" I asked.
"No one knows. Assembly representatives have their offices here but its all vague when they will meet, until the election. Perhaps by Christmas. The Assembly members are getting in interim salary because they can neither go back to their old jobs nor participate in this government. One 83-year-old member can't even retire!"
Imagine if our Congress was put on indefinite hold while elections were postponed indefinitely. "That's George Bush's dream!" As we were driving away down the one-mile ceremonial approach, the Stormount, at the tip of a rise of hill, was a highly impressive pile of stone -- all sound and furry -- signifying nothing.
The stoplights in Belfast turn yellow before they turn green as well as before they turn red. We're driving along playing "The fighting Men of Crossmaglen" at full blast. I been to Crossmaglen! And didn't even know I was in some famous battleground. Next time I go someplace, I'm gonna read up on it first!
Chapter 4: Getting ready to go home
1:30 pm: Mini-nervous breakdown, frenzied snatching of food, drive-by assault on the ATM, zip into a dollar store to score another evil T-shirt for Joe, hit the bathrooms and do a mad dash across Falls Road traffic, run upstairs and here we are at Relatives for Justice. We listened to tales of the RUC's collusion with the UFF in a conference room with plastic flowers on the table. The Irish love flowers and want them even if they are plastic.
"Brian Nelson (a British Special Forces bad guy) infiltrated the UVA, stocked them with weapons and pointed out assassination targets. He was seen in South Africa with a major weapons manufacturer and scored a steady stream of weapons for the UVA, who were killing Catholics right and left," the RFJ rep was telling the group as Ashley and me snuck in late.
"The police and military were aware of the plot to kill Pat Finucane and they did nothing. The state had infiltrated the UDA and the UDF. Indirectly, the state has killed 365 people including 75 children. The British government has had an essential role in fueling and sustaining the Northern Ireland conflict." The RFJ also provide counseling to the families as well as the pursuit of justice by bringing criminals like Brian Nelson into the courts.
"Our position is that police involved in serious collusion should not be allowed to continue to serve in the PSNI -- which is basically just a new name for the RUC. Nothing's changed. They've just introduced a newer, more lethal plastic bullet." In 1996 at Drumcree, a Unionist area, there was a five-day standoff. The Loyalists burned, looted and closed down the airport -- yet with all that wreckage and collusion, the RUC fired only 500 bullets. "But when there was a march in our own community at that time, 5,600 plastic bullets were fired within 24 hours." People were killed, blinded and maimed for life.
"It's all about them not wanting to lose power. As part of the resolution, we need to deal with this. The British Army is still in South Armagh. The shoot-to-kill order still stands." The RFJ guy passed the plastic bullet around. It was hard as a rock, had both ends enlarged, was approximately four inches long and one-and three-fourths inches in diameter -- and was ugly, ugly, ugly.
"Brian Nelson was charged with 20-odd murders. At trial they cut a deal that he would serve time -- at a relaxed prison condition -- if he didn't have to take the stand. He served three years (out on weekends by the way) and was relocated to Florida in a witness protection program -- with full pay."
Apparently the Thatcher government sponsored murders here. "It was similar to arming the Contra death squads in Nicaragua. They removed people who could potentially articulate political arguments. We had many political assassinations. We refer to this as `the technology of political control.' They tried to get rid of the people who were making atrocities like Bloody Sunday known -- thus destroying the British image as peace-keepers."
The British did a lot of things to protect their image. "This is why the plastic bullet was invented. It causes internal injury but without blood. It appears to be an instrument of humane crowd control. It is not." Seniors and bystanders were also injured and intimidated into not reporting their wounds. "Thomas's 76-year-old mother was gravely injured while inside her own home. And many victims of broken bones, etc. were not treated in hospital because they were afraid that they would be arrested; meaning that many of these atrocities would not be reported."
Further, many of the drug dealers and thugs in the area were coerced to go in and do killings for the Brits. "Everybody in the country knows who does these killings -- but there is no way to bring them to justice. Loyalists also kill the children and mothers of suspected Republicans as a threat." Yuck!
At one killing where a woman's body was riddled with bullets, there were three different witnesses to the Loyalist murders. "When the witnesses made their statements, the RUC intimidated them -- whereas IRA members would be tortured until they made false confessions. 15,000 Republicans went to jail to serve 100,000 years worth of sentences."
The official British policy here, in Cyprus and in Malta was to instigate terrorism against dissidents. In 1985, the Thatcher government signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. For it to succeed, there needed to be a period of stability. Loyalist political activity all but ceased. Obviously the Brits told the Loyalists to chill. And they did.
"Before plastic bullets were invented, the British troops loaded their shotguns with D batteries." The RFJ website is http://www.relativesforjustice.com/ by the way.
2:30 pm: I buy a "no-collusion" T-shirt, run across the street, get some orange juice and run back in time to meet with a trade unionist. "We are the sister union to the SEIU." I love the SEIU! "I was truly amazed by how organized American unions were -- regarding politics, equality, socio-economics, environmental issues, inclusion of young people. Goals, timetables, monitors of progress. Those are the basic day-to-day issues that we also will be fighting for."
Northern Ireland unions need to bring in industry, deal with the police, enlighten the media. "But there are tremendous mindsets that need to be changed, especially among Loyalists, before that can happen. I get involved in broader stuff and the smaller stuff as well, moving these things up the political agenda."
It turns out that this man was a health union rep, representing the nurses at the Royal Hospital. Blair was at that time making a bid to privatize hospitals a la George Bush. "We have 35,000 members here. They all struck in the 1980s when Thatcher tried to privatize. We are 50% unionized in the public sector, 40% in the private sector." That's a powerful force. 35,000 angry nurses? Go you!
"Our union is taking a very serious look to see if basic human rights to health, housing, etc. are actually being met." And if they are not? Unions are one our bulwarks against the erosion of these rights.
Other advice? "Go see a hurling match before you leave Ireland." He also noted that his son was killed during The Troubles. Almost everyone has a friend or relative killed in The Troubles.
At the next table, someone pulled out a box of cigarettes that read in large print, "Smoking causes a slow and painful death." Everyone smokes in Northern Ireland.
"I myself can't get a job," the union rep continued. "I tried to organize my jobsite and a week later it closed down. 600 employees thrown out of work and they all blamed it on me -- because I tried to organize and also because I had been `interred'. We found out later that it closed because the banks had foreclosed!"
3:30 pm: Off to the Sinn Fein office. "Oh Ashley, let's just go home," I whined. It was still 85 degrees and all the places we go to are even hotter. Back in the van.
We stopped in front of the Public Library. Inside, it looked just like the one in Berkeley! I love libraries. This one had internet access too. Nice old building. On the outside, it looked like it was built by what's-his-name Carnegie. At the Sinn Fein office: You had to be buzzed in through a door made of what looked like bulletproof glass and then buzzed in through another fire door. Plus in every office there was a TV screen that monitored the front of the building. Still. Even though the Loyalists had limited their attacks in the past few years to lone Catholics and school children, Sinn Fein still took no chances.
"Our elections were cancelled by Britain," said the Sinn Fein rep. "That only happens in a dictatorship. It's unconscienceable. Some political commentators say it is the fault of the Nationalists and Republicans but the Unionists have brought continued pressure on the British to not implement the Good Friday Agreement." Same story as we heard from the MLA but the Sinn Fein rep got to it right off the bat.
"The main protagonist in this is Britain -- and they are still making every effort to roll back human rights. It's deja vu -- the same issues we marched for in the 1960s. And these entitlements are being brought forward for all the people of Northern Ireland, not just the Nationalists."
Where to go from here? "We are still having meetings on the highest levels to implement the Good Friday Agreement. We need to move on these elections. The Agreement was a democratic mandate. Both the Falls Road and the Shankill Road need to benefit here -- not just the British. The ball is in Blair's court. Sinn Fein sticks by this agreement. Things have to happen on the ground. The days of second-class citizenship are over. The Loyalists have been in power so long, they want to roll things back. This cannot happen."
"The British government has a long history around the world for breaking covenants so they can move when they want and they can move the goal posts when they want to." Sounds familiar. Didn't we fight the Revolutionary War over this?
"The DUP is hypocritical. Paisley had been sitting with Sinn Fein regularly until the Assembly was suspended. He works with us now on various committees. To say that he won't work with Sinn Fein is hypocritical."
The DUP will potentially come out ahead because they have not pushed the Agreement. "They should have championed it from Day One. It would have moved forward and Trimble would not now be in trouble. If the threat to the Agreement grows, the international community will notice."
The rep is in favor of political dialogue. "You can't give up. It's like going down a river and hitting the rapids. That's not the time to bail out. You must use the political process." Tell that to the neo-cons! "People are getting disaffected. What's the point of the peace process if the UVF are still killing people?"
Why is Sinn Fein opposing nationalists joining the police? "It is about the political allegiance of the police force. They have to be answerable to the community they represent. The days of supremacy are over. The philosophy of the PSNI has not changed, despite the new uniforms. They have not changed their mindsets. It is a force now, not a service. We have major difficulties with their relationship with the community they are meant to serve." For too many years the community has been treated like dirt.
"We have been waiting on a proper police service since partition. The quicker we have an accountable police service, the sooner we can move forward." And this model is necessary to set an example throughout the world -- not the kind of force that is now being used to subdue people throughout the world.
The rep talked about the Patten Commission who went out and listened to community complaints about the police force. They came up with progressive suggestions on how to reform the force. The Brits sent their findings and recommendations. "We have to move back to Patten and beyond." To purge some of the hard-liner RUC bigots. "Our community is crying out for proper policing. The drug pushers are there and very, very active. And the community doesn't trust the police either. Six months ago the police discovered there was a threat to my life. They just told me about it last week."
"During The Troubles, the police gave photos of me and my family to the Loyalists," said Thomas. That's scary.
"Our people are very stretched," said the rep, "but we are hoping our message will be heard and the fear reduced. The British have let the Unionists down continually yet the Unionists still listen to them. Without the link with Britain, the Unionists would actually be more powerful. Sinn Fein is ready for the elections. They are the most organized party in Northern Ireland."
The rep then started talking about Stormount. "I have trouble with Stormount," said Thomas. "We've all had trouble with Stormount for the last 70 years." After the interview, the rep joked with Ashley -- one of the few presenters on the tour to do so. I was appropriately grateful. Most people don't talk that much with her or recognize how extraordinary it is that a 16-year-old girl is willing to sit through so many hours' and days' worth of lectures and interviews regarding The Troubles.
"If you take my T-shirts and food home with you, I can check my e-mail," I asked Ashley. The internet cafe across the street from Culturlann has a special rate for kids. That means that, in order to check my e-mail, I had to spend an hour and a half listening to video games and 10-year-olds practicing their F-words such as "F*ck" and "Fart". Children are the same the world over. Then I walked home to St. James Road.
When I got home, Ashley had that gleam in her eye. It was time to dish! Fine with me. I'd been far too serious for far too long. "If I never see the inside of a van again," she said, "it will be fine with me!" Okay. So what happened after you left me off? "There I was, trying to get out of the van and Sam was waving his butt in my face! It was so funny. He couldn't get the damn van door open and...then when I went to sit next to Sean, he visibly flinched. Mom, they got this guy thing going. They see us coming and they positively start to huddle." I laughed. Four guys and us. At least we weren't all still stuffed into the Vauxhall. "Sometimes I'll be talking to Sam," I said, "and he'll get this look on his face like he can't bear to hear another word from me and I'll just shut my mouth mid-sentence and walk away and he'll look so relieved, I just gotta laugh." "And when you start asking all those questions, they all just look at me like, she's your mother. You shut her up."
"In all fairness to the guys, I do go out of my way to avoid them whenever possible." "Remember when Joe tried to ditch me when I was a kid? He couldn't. These guys try to ditch me and they can't. I learned from The Master. These guys aren't even a challenge!"
"But they're nice."
"But they're funny." Yeah. Tomorrow is our last real day. The cemetery tour. The Ardoyne. Michael Moore. Sunday will be the bus trip to Dublin. And the trip will be over, that will be that, no more summer nights hanging out in the working-class section of Belfast. No more tearing down the streets with crazy driver Thomas and Big Dog Sam with his head hanging out the window and.... I wonder if Cezar's son will have learned to walk...or how Mary's holiday in Sardinia will turn out....
10:30 pm: Sally said, "Did you see Bernadette MacAlisky speak at Culturlann tonight?"
"What? Bernadette Devlin MacAlisky? I missed her? I was at Culturlann! In the bloody same building. The boys were there. Why didn't they tell me! I can't believe I missed her!" I was all crestfallen. I had been 50 feet away from a living legend; Bernadette Devlin who started the whole civil rights movement in Belfast and who was a member of parliament at age 18! Rats.
But when we got home, Mary gave me one of her famous two-hour lectures on the real story on Bernadette and I felt better. Sort of. Mary knows so much about The Troubles. Suddenly I felt like the veriest kindergartner. A total fake. How dare I even open my mouth around the people we talk to. I vaguely heard about The Troubles. They lived them.
"Then who's-his-name started the whats-it movement and XXX came in with this-or-that...." I didn't know any of this stuff.
"Let me tell you about Bernadette MacAlisky," said Mary. "She's basically in it for Number One. We've made 30 years of progress here. We've got respect, we're heading for democracy but to tell you the truth, I'm not sure it was worth one single death, one single murder."
Mary is the person I will miss the most when we go home. "So the ceasefire comes out and I go to this talk and MacAlisky is hinting that the Falls Road people are fools to be celebrating the Good Friday Agreement. I stood up and went off on her!" I can just see Mary doing that too.
"I told her that no matter what she thought, if the majority voted for it, then you have to accept. That's the political process. You work together, you mediate. You compromise. And if she wanted to go back to the tragic deaths on the Falls Road, it was up to her. But it's time to put the past away and move on." Now I didn't feel so bad about missing Bernadette Devlin.
Now Ashley and I are working on our T-shirts, getting them ready for the big anti-collusion march on Sunday -- which we will miss. But at least we can wear our shirts tomorrow and advertize it. "Stop collusion! Don't shoot to kill! Tell the truth now!" our T-shirts cry.
August 9, 2003: Another really hot day. But lots of exciting stuff to do. "Ashley," I said, "I really ought to try to be nicer to the boys on the tour today."
"Uh huh." Not quite awake is she. "Do you have to open the blinds?" I should get up and walk around the bog meadows. Mary says there's an 80-year-old man who lives in an old stone cottage out there without heat or electricity. "He's one of the healthiest people I've ever met," said she. That reminds me. Yesterday when we were going to Stormount, we drove through miles of luxury neighborhoods on our way.
"You can bet that The Troubles never even touched this area," said Thomas. "They might as well have been happening on another planet." Mary says the same. "The British never negotiated seriously until someone bombed the Canary Wharf, in the London financial district. It was then and only then -- after the rest of Europe began to avoid banking with Britain -- that the Brits began to negotiate seriously." What a shame that the powers that be only respond to violence and fear of losing money. The Brits had basically ignored the peaceful pleas for human rights and even the unilateral ceasefire, the non-violent marches and the hunger strikes.
Sally says the bus to Dublin leaves at noon tomorrow. Then 18 hours of camping out at the Dublin airport, 15 hours in the air, two hours shuffling from SFO to our little home and voila! Our vacation will be over.
"34 years ago today, we were all woken up at 4 o'clock in the morning and the armored cars arrived and took away thousands of people all over Northern Ireland and interned them on the Maidstone ship. The internment started on August 9, 1971 and didn't end until November 19, 1975." You're kidding. Interned without trial or anything?
"Armored cars and tanks and guns came to take away our sons but as the song said, 'Every man will stand behind the men behind the wire. Not for them a judge or jury not indeed a crime at all. Being Irish means we're guilty so we're guilty one and all.' It was easy to write all these songs because there was so much to write about." Then Mary changed subjects.
"You know the Titanic was built in the Belfast shipyards; Catholics and Unionists working on it together. But the Unionists hated the Catholics and beat them and threw them overboard. Catholic bodies were fished out of the water for weeks. Then the Unionists wrote on the walls of the ship, 'Even God couldn't sink this.' And because of this, the Titanic was cursed before it even left the dock."
There's a legend that, "When grass grows over the shipyard, then Ireland will be free." The grass is growing there now. The shipyards, the source of all the Unionist jobs, is all but closed down now.
"That's like what happened to Bethlehem Steel," said Sean. "100,000 people used to work there. They made the steel for the Civil War and the Empire State Building. Now it's all closed up. You drive past it -- and drive and drive and drive -- It's really big -- but it's all just empty." Mary changed subject again. "Coney Island got its name from the Irish word for rabbit. When the immigrants settled there, it was covered with rabbits. My father went to America in 1924. The Black and Tans were after him. He didn't come back until 1939. He married a Belfast woman and had two children. When she died of TB, he came back here, married my mother and had 14 more here. I was the eighth."
There is going to be a street party today on St. James Road. "The street has been cordoned off. Bouncy castle. Flags. Bingo."
Mary told us a little rundown on Irish genealogy next. "It is very hard to understand the Scots dialect. The North Autrin Coast is only 12 miles away from Scotland -- and I can't hardly understand them." Like Irish English is all that easy to understand! Sometimes I pick up one word in three when Thomas is talking.
"Some of the Italians in Sardinia speak Catalon from when the Spanish fishing fleets landed there. Me Da looked like Al Pachino. My granny was as black as night in the hair. I'm red-haired but some of my brothers are Black Irish. When we'd come home from school, we'd tell me Ma, 'Teacher says that we've got the soft brown velvet eyes -- we don't have the black eyes of the O'Donnells.' The true Irish color is dark brown hair and strong blue Nordic eyes left over from the Vikings. The bony faces came from the planters, the invaders, the usurpers, the imported labor and the deported criminals too." One only has to take an instant's look into Mary's "soft brown velvet" eyes to completely understand what her teacher had been referring to.
"The invaders took the best of the land and the Catholics got the bogs. The Protestants are lighter skinned, with high cheekbones. They came from the Dutch planters." Ireland was a real melting pot. I had no idea. "My nieces and nephews all have the classic blue eyes and brown hair." Go figure.
Thomas came to pick us up. "Guess what, Thomas! Today is our last full day with you and we have vowed to not get lost and to even be nice to you guys." Thomas was overjoyed. Sam and Sean gave us the report on Bernadette Devlin. "She talked about the difference between fear and terror. The latter you feel way down to your very bones. True terror is humiliating. She felt true terror on Bloody Sunday. She didn't support the Provos -- the provisional IRA, the main armed resistance. She thought they had sold out." Has factionalism reared its ugly head?
Somehow we ended up at a sports uniform store. "33 pounds for a soccer jersey? Get out of town!" But Ashley was animate. Now she has a jersey advertizing Arnotts Department Store. 33 pounds! Yikes.
I asked Eugene for the Devlin report. "Devlin said that she did not support either Sinn Fein or the IRA. In order to make it plain and clear, she didn't support the Agreement either -- and she never had. End of story. But she did have the grace to blast the British administration -- who are the real terrorists." She got that part right.
The jersey store had a TV mounted on the wall. "That's a hurling match," Thomas told us as various gentlemen armed with a cross between a hockey stick and a baseball bat tried to kill each other. They hit the ball down the field, kicked it, threw it. "The Clash of the Ash they call it -- the sticks are made of ash wood," said Thomas. "You'd be surprised how many people don't get injured." I'm surprised. Looks like a gang war to me.
"You gonna wear your new jersey, Ashley?" asked Cezar.
"Can't. It doesn't match my pants." Of course.
11 am: The cemetery tour. "But we already toured the cemetery with Mary." "That was the Milltown cemetery. This is the City Cemetery, on the other side of Falls Road."
The tour guide said, "The cholera epidemic filled up all the graveyards so that in 1866, the Belfast corporation bought up 100 acres and opened up this one. They bought more land for it in 1912. It is a classic Victorian cemetery where we are now, then an Edwardian section opened up later, when society began to resent the cost of elaborate funerary sculpture. Then, after World War I, when so many died, they started resenting any elaborate tombstones. A Jewish section was opened in 1893. There are 5,000 children buried in the infants' section." Geez.
"Unionists are at the bottom of the cemetery." The City Cemetery is perched on the side of a hill. "Here are buried the members of Belfast's world of finance and power. As you tour these graves, you begin to see the history of Unionism." "At Milltown Cemetery, you will see a different story, but here you see wealth and power. Milltown is the opposite -- the dispossessed. The differences between the two constitute the history of this city whether we like it or not." The City Cemetery is classical and Protestant. In Milltown, it is baroque -- and sometimes slightly absurd. "Over here you see angels on the tombstones. Over there you see The Virgin."
The City Cemetery suffers a double negative. "When I was growing up," said the tour guide, a writer/historian who only gave the tours during the West Belfast Festival, "Every kid in West Belfast knew that the devil resided here. The Catholics don't come here because it's not their space. The Protestants don't come here because it's smack in the middle of West Belfast."
The first grave he showed us was of the Ashcroft family. No comment! "William Ashcroft was a vaudeville man. His wife divorced him when she caught him with a cross-dresser. He ended up in an insane asylum. He owned the Alhambra Theater which ran the early talkies." Then we passed a Clinton family grave. Here I am, getting my fresh air, exercise and civics lessons in the graveyard.
"The wars represented in this graveyard are the Indian, Crimean, Anglo-Mauri, World War I and World War II." And they still haven't learned. Next we passed a Unionist suffragette's grave. Margaret Byers, 1832 to 1912. "She founded Victoria College for Women. This is rare. Mostly the women -- from the rich and powerful to the prostitutes -- are not so honored." One tomb said, "Here lies the wife of..." It didn't even give a name.
The next grave had an angel presiding over someone who died at the battle of the Soumnne -- the very first time that tanks were used in formation. "The roses in this cemetery have grown here for many years. Many rare species have been preserved here, having died out elsewhere." And there are lots of blackberries too. Delicious.
"If your stomach starts hurting, don't blame me," said Ashley after watching me gobble down several handfuls. Hey. Lunch was a while ago. The cigarette box littering the foot of an obelisk tombstone read, "Smoking kills. It also causes impotence." It was at this point that Ashley started seeing the ghosts of murdered women and children and I started reconsidering taking the rest of the tour.
"The Protestants emphasized their adherence to performing public duty. The Catholics, a dispossessed class, don't have that. Instead they mention saints and the Holy Family." William Wills, late governor of Belfast Gaol -- "Good and true in all the relations of life. Mark the perfect man and behold the upright." 12 June 1902.
"A broken headstone might indicate vandals but actually it's used to denote either a family linage come to an end or else a sudden death."
"Can we go now?" Guess who said that? "Eeeeeuuuuu! That statue looks like a pregnant ring-wraith!" Just as Ashley was muttering those uplifting words, a TV camera crew came up and asked her for an interview. "I think all this is very educational," she said.
"Tell them about the ghosts! Tell them about the ghosts!" I couldn't help saying. Ashley gave me a dirty look. Then it was my turn to be interviewed. "I think cemeteries are interesting because you can see people's attitudes toward death. Some tombstones give hopeful messages like 'She's gone to a better world.' Others offer more tragic views of death. 'Stolen in her prime.' It give us a broader view of death, the universal leveler."
The Gazette person liked that answer. "That was a good one. Save that." Back on the Falls Road, Ashley shopped for an international phone card. And Magnum ice cream bars. Just then two APCs pull up in front of us and blocked off the road. What new hell is this? My T-shirt isn't that incendiary, is it? "What's the matter, Officer?" I managed to croak out.
"They're having a guider race on the hill there."
"Go carts." Cool! Now the Silver Bullet was racing the Viper. "50 pence on the Viper!" I cried.
"I'll take the silver one," answered Cezar. The Viper was purple. These were serious machines. Six feet long. Bicycle wheels. I'm going to clean Cezar's clock!
There was a parked car in the Viper's lane. "Okay, lads, let's go," said the ref. Ten burley men picked up the car, a new model Ford Mondeo, and moved it on to the sidewalk. Score!
The go-carts were pushed at the beginning but soon rolled down the hill on their own, slamming into a big blue foam barrier at the bottom. I owe Cezar 50 pence. Back at Culturlann for lunch, they gave me my scones that I had forgotten to take with me last night.
When we got back to Culturlann, Eugene was taking up a collection for Thomas. I gave 20 quid. Ashley was animate. "I ain't giving him nothing."
"Why not?" "Because he yelled at me."
"What could he do to redeem himself in your eyes?" I asked. Ashley got that mad gleam in her eye but wouldn't pursue that line of questioning any further. "Well, think about it," I said.
I've missed four good festival plays this week: Ordinary Lives, Black Taxis, Samuel Beckett's End Game and Workin' Weemen. Plus a whole bunch of musical events from Dolores Black to Ska. Oh well. Can't do it all. Now I'm standing in front of one of several off-track bookie joints, waiting for Thomas to take us off to the Ardoyne. "Eastwood Bookmakers. Your best Bet." Thomas, as usual, is running on Irish Time: A half hour late. Almost to the minute. Four generations of women just strolled by me. The youngest was two years old. The oldest looked about 50.
3:30 pm: Now we are at the Ardoyne district, standing in front of a mural that says, "Arkansas 1957, Ardoyne 2001: Everyone has the right to live free from sectarian harassment. It's Black and White!" On one side is a drawing of the Little Rock school integration with whites taunting Ellie Akford. On the other side it shows the police in full riot gear terrorizing a little girl, Erin Kienan.
"These houses were built by the mill owners in the 1800s. The yards are so big because the people who moved here were farmers before they worked in the mills and were used to growing their own vegetables," said our guide, a young mother whose children had been spit on and abused for the recent crime of walking to school. We stopped at a memorial. "100 Ardoyne residents were killed during The Troubles," said the community rep who had joined us in the tour. First we stopped at Holy Cross Church, a massive old brick structure over a century old. A short history of the area came next. "Ardoyne is a small Nationalist area in North Belfast. 8,000 people, high unemployment, massive social needs. 3,000 children, high disability, high infant mortality. Reliance on cigarettes, drink, tranquilizers. After the ceasefire, people finally had time to think about what had happened to them. Every household has had someone murdered in their family. The result? Chemical dependance increased greatly."
As we stood there, a helicopter flew overhead. The three women we talked to anxiously looked up. The Loyalist-affiliated Apprentice Boys had just marched through the area the day before and people were still rather edgy.
"In the late 1990s, the UVF and those gangs started feuding and Loyalists got displaced from Protestant areas. They were pushed into Catholic areas and hated it. The whole environment drastically changed. Two young paramilitaries were out erecting British flags at the same time Catholic school was getting out and they attacked a cab driver who was wearing a Celtics shirt."
Suddenly 300 armed Loyalists appeared in the area of the school children. The RUC blocked the roads and wouldn't let the parents in to get their children. "Up until then, we had co-existed peacefully. Now it was worse than any time during the Hunger Strike." It was a horrible year after that.
"There were ten days left for school and no one knew what to do. We tried to get the Loyalists to talk about how to have the children safe when school started again in September."
A Loyalist leader guaranteed the children's safety walking up Ardoyne Road to school. "When the parents and children walked there, Saracen armored trucks blocked off everyone but them. They walked through a tunnel. On the other side were hundreds of evil adults spitting and swearing at the young children. Bricks and fire crackers were thrown. The parents and children were terrified. By some miracle, they managed to reach the school."
Finally a convoy of Black Taxis were radioed and the children escaped from the school through the back." The police had botched it -- or had made other plans.
The next day, some parents chose to walk the gauntlet again. "But on the second day the security was massive. Land Rovers and Saracens were wall-to-wall, flanked by the 'Robocops' in full riot gear. Nobody was attacked."
Parents then thought things were alright. But the third day was when they threw the bomb. The parents and children got three-fourths of the way up the road and it was very quiet. Then there was a huge explosion.
"Some people ran back, mommies were squealing, children were terrified. The priests tried to get the children into the school. Children ages three to eleven. It was terrifying."
This attack spurred the community on to create a forum. "Everyone seemed to allow this to happen to these children." The RUC beat the Nationalists back into their houses with clubs and water hoses when the Orange Order marched through the Ardoyne that July. Yet they let the Unionists spit at children. The attacks were purely anti-Catholic -- but that does not give you the right to attack children. They were all wee girls."
The Loyalists also went into other girls' schools, shot them up and attacked the teachers. "But they left the boys' schools alone because they knew the boys would fight back. And it was all caused by the feud between the UDF and the UDA." As a result of what happened, the school was given money for buses and security equipment. "No child walks to school by herself. They used to walk to school on their own. Just this January we had a bomb attached to the school gates." Through all this, Ardoyne parents have tried not to react. It's been hard. I have great respect for these parents. "We want the world to see what the Loyalists are like and that we are not like them. This is a human rights issue." People came from all over the world to offer support.
On November 25, 2002, the Loyalists finally "suspended" their demonstrations. "The police would stop us and we had to stand out in the freezing rain while we waited for the Loyalists to get their demonstrations together. One day they said the Loyalists had snipers on the roof. But we got tired of it and took our children to school anyway. Teachers and parents got death threats.
It was a terrible time. "Children were having nightmares and were wetting their beds. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children actually came out on the side of the Loyalists! The RUC is also being sued for failure to protect the children. The teachers' unions also turned their backs." How could anyone do this to little kids?
"We told the world that this had nothing to do with Orangemen. This had to do with little children's right to go to school." It's been the third year and the children still can't safely walk to school. "The protesters started personalizing their threats as well. 'We know where your husband works.' We knew the people in the other community until the bad element moved in. Now you cannot talk to them either on a community level or a personal level."
5:30 pm: "Anyone have any extra tickets?" Fat chance. There are 300 people at least standing in the que waiting to get in to see Michael Moore tonight. But I gotta give it a try anyway. I walked up and down the line.
"Hey," some guy finally said. "My mate couldn't make it. Want my ticket?" Oh God yes. Score! Score! I'm in! No cemetery wall for me! God damn!
"Michael Moore is a real hero in America," I told the stranger next to me. Seeing Michael Moore in Belfast of all places. On my last day here. Karmic Reward!!!!
"My name is Donnie Morrison..." Oh goodie. He's that excellent poet who spoke at The Rock on Thursday. "Without further ado..." Mike comes on stage. Standing ovation!
"Now I'd like to finish what I started to say at the Oscars..." Yaay! Mike's daughter graduated college and he asked her where she wanted to go. "You can go anywhere in the world for your graduation present. Chose a place."
"Belfast!" she said. "And Derry."
Mike then introduced Gerry Adams. "Back in the time when there was an actual law against having Gerry Adams' voice heard on the BBC, I thought I'd make a show with Gerry Adams' voice played by Charleton Heston or Mickey Mouse." Burst of enthusiastic applause for Gerry.
"When I was in London, they took me to a football game. It made American fans look mild. They were all singing. All the time. Together. On key too! We're all, 'What the f*ck is this?'"
At a press conference earlier, the BBC asked Mike for his solution to the problems in Northern Ireland. "We just get some priests with garden hoses going through the Protestant areas saying, 'I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost' and that would be that. Plus Catholics have more sex than Protestants and get more days off!" Big laugh from the audience on that one. "Everyone should be allowed to practice their own religions without getting punked on.
"The American public is actually a very progressive liberal people. They believe in labor unions, pro-choice, etc. They just don't have any leadership. The American public did not vote for Bush and do not like him. They rallied behind Bush after 9-11 even though he ran away at first -- first to Louisiana then to Nebraska."
Once the Iraq war started, "You didn't want to say anything that might hurt their soldier children who are over there." But the economy is in the sink and most Americans plan to vote Bush out in 2004.
"When people hear the truth, that people were lied to again and again and again -- that's how good the Bush White House is that they can put these lies over -- they do not appreciate being lied to." You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time.... "I can't walk down the street in America without people vying to shake my hand." They know they were lied to. Halliburton, the so-called WMD mobile labs blowing up helium balloons -- that the WMDs were just weapons of mass balloonery.
They also work on our fears. "Osama bin Ladin is the big monster. We heard this day after day. Osama bin Ladin is everywhere." Now one Congressman calls him "Osama bin Forgotten."
"You can't scare the world's largest superpower with one man as a replacement for the Soviet Union. So you gotta get a bigger enemy. So the Bush administration came up with the Axis of Evil." They wanted to start with Iraq but North Korea kept fouling it up.
Mike then read from his new book, "Dude! Where is my Country?"
"The War on Terror? How can you declare war on a noun!" Your chance in America of dying in a terrorist attack is one million to zero. In 2001, it was one in 150,000. It was one in 5,000 to die in a car accident. "But no incredible programs were revealed on CNN against car accidents. No! A mass psychosis has overtaken the country." We gave up our liberties just because someone gave us an orange alert. "There have been model airplane alerts. Al Qaeda may be setting forrest fires they told us. 'Lions, tigers, bears!' Everybody run for your lives!' What happened to our bullshit radar? Their plan is to rule the world. It sounds like a movie script. Ashcroft, Bush, etc. have seized the moment. And now they have to sell it to us." Well maybe that's not exactly what he said but I was writing as fast as I could.
"In 9-11, they found a product they could sell to the country. Osama. He did it. We'll protect you. All you have to do is give us all your money and all your rights and shut up." The right wing has to keep the people distracted by war. "Bush plans to run his entire campaign with 'I won you a war. And another war. And another war.' As for Osama, they always define him as an Arab. Not as the multi-millionaire that he is. How come they never say, 'Watch out for multi-millionaires!' Why don't we round up all the multimillionaires and deport them?"
Mike was on a roll. The Irish audience was starting to catch on as well. "What do you call the doubling of homelessness and joblessness in the last two years but acts of terror? Fear is the only thing we truly need to fear. The right wing believes in something. They're up at the crack of dawn trying to figure out how to screw people. The left needs to get their act together. My hope is that things will get so bad that Americans will vote for anybody other than Bush. 85% of American young adults do not know where Iraq or Israel are but 11% couldn't find America on a globe either."
As to the Northern Ireland question, he came at it from the point of view of basic human decency. "Everyone should have rights. The peace process should not be slowed down or reversed just because we have an idiot in the White House. The lesson of history is that sooner or later the unjust will have to fall."
Mike then asked a very important question. "What will happen to the other side if there are equal rights for everyone?" The other side usually doesn't rise up in rebellion! Women when given the vote didn't rise up and overthrow the government. Justice is always a good thing. "Human beings are good at our core. Perhaps a hand will be extended instead. We must get rid of fear.
"The BBC litany that the IRA must give up their arms is bullshit. What are we asking for here? An election? How scary! 'Mike, before you go on tonight, you must denounce the IRA.' So we offered two free U2 tickets to anyone who would bring in their guns. We even called the RUC offices!"
The ultimate evil is state terrorism. Britain, shut the f*ck up. Put down your guns. Leave this island. Let the people have free and open elections. "With majority rule also comes minority rights. Full and absolute and protected rights. And we have to give up these show trials of the Columbia Three." They were Irishmen who went to Columbia and were jailed for some totally made-up reason, saying they were IRA terrorists. Actually I think they were just human rights workers or union reps or something totally upright and praiseworthy.
"Think about the people of England and Scotland and Wales. They knew that the Iraqi war was shit. And if you recognize lies all the way over in Iraq, then they should recognize lies here as well."
I even asked a question. "If we don't get rid of George Bush soon, we Americans will be going through what the people of Belfast went through fifteen years ago. We must dump him. The future of our country depends on it. So. How can we evict him? You have to be elected to live in the White House. It's a violation of his lease, the United States Constitution, for him to live there without being elected." Mike's answer was that it was very unlikely that the current Congress would evict -- or even impeach -- Bush. I also threw in a plug for Dennis Kucinich for President. Moore mentioned Wesley Clark...and Dean.
Mike went to Palestine during the First Intefada in 1988. He described it as "one of the most despicable living situations there is." Belfasters, knowing what it is like to be under siege for wanting equality, support the Palestinian freedom movement too.
At the end of his talk, Mike got a standing ovation. They also gave him a statuette. "Here I am, receiving the Belfast Academy Award!"10 pm: I'm tired. I'm worn out. I'm dreading the big trip home. I'm falling asleep over a copy of "The Nation" that Sean gave me. I'm going to sleep now.
August 10, 2003: I couldn't sleep at all last night. What's with that? So many things have happened in the past few weeks that they keep running through my head. "Thomas said he would eat his hat if you got a ticket to see Michael Moore," said Ashley. I dreamed I was trying to sneak free meals at Culturlann. Thomas, eat your hat! But so what if I got to see Michael Moore? So what if I missed a few hours sleep or got pissed off at the boys? Have I, by going on this trip, helped to make the world a better place? I surely hope so but how can I tell.
"Wanna hear something funny?" asked Ashley.
"You were snoring last night."
Shite. I never snore. That just means one thing. "I guess when Cezar hit me yesterday, he broke my nose."
"Cezar hit you? What? When?"
"I was trapped in the back seat of the Vauxhall yesterday, in front of Holy Cross, and he was trying to get me out. The lever on top of the seat was stuck and my leg was trapped and I was using my head to push against the seat." I was one unhappy traveler. "Then Cezar hit up on the lever with all his force, trying to get it to work and his hand slid over the lever and punched me full in the face." Both he and I were so surprised and upset. I've never been punched in the face before. Cezar felt even worse about it than I did. "Pop had a broken nose and he used to snore," I added. Shite. I'm really glad I came -- but now I'm ready to go home.
Breakfast with Mary -- she's got a definite opinion on everything! "Moore should have mentioned the show trials in Free Ireland as well as the Columbia show trials. What about the sentencing of Mickey McKevitt. Where was he when we were dying in the streets? Has he ever been to Ireland before?"
Sean said, "No, he's a good guy. He's been over dealing with American troubles."
"I just get so mad at these movie stars that suddenly think they can run the government. That Arnold Schwartzenegger..."
"Mary," I asked, "what would I need to do if I were to come and live in Belfast? How easy would that be?"
"First of all, you wouldn't qualify for social security here. And you'd have to live here a long while before you would qualify for the medical."
"What about housing?"
"For that you would have to either have lots of money or else get really lucky."
"Not many of them around. Maybe you could work as a bag boy at one of the shops."
"What about at McDonald's?"
"Those jobs are all taken up. They want the young ones. Everyone wants to hire the young ones these days."
"What about friends? Would I be able to make friends easily?"
"Oh aye. Join committees, get to know your neighbors. It's the same as in the States." I could work on the Bog Meadows. Moving to Belfast was do-able. All I had to do was win the lottery.
"What about the weather?"
"It gets freezing cold here in the winter. The sun doesn't rise until 8:30 am and it's dark by 4:30."
"But you could go off to Sardinia at Christmas time..."
"I would never leave here at Christmas. Everybody throws their heart and soul into it here. We start on December 1 and continue to January 6." At this moment, Thomas arrived to take us to the bus stop. Mary and Thomas got into a heated discussion of IRA politics that I could just barely follow. One thing about the discussion I could understand however because it was like what had happened in the United States.
"When the bomb went off, they had Mickey McKevitt's photo out on the tellie immediately," said Mary. "Which leads me to think that they knew about the plot beforehand and did nothing." That's what happened with 9-11! All those coinciences about who was or who wasn't where when the towers blew up? All that footage about the pet goat? Then the word "collusion" became understandable to me.
Mary, Thomas and Sean drove us to the bus station after I had taken pictures of them all standing out in front of Mary's house, next to a Black Taxi that was conveniently parked nearby. "What do they do when the taxis break down?" I asked.
"They have a garage they take them to." So that's how they kept the taxis running during all of The Troubles and keep them running now. Some of those taxis are genuine antiques!
The boys then let us off at the bus station and went off to join the big march against collusion. Once at the station, I did as I had been instructed. "Two tickets to Dublin please. One adult and one 15-year-old." 15-year-olds got to travel half-price.
"Got any identification?" asked the lady behind the counter. I handed her Ashley's passport. "This child is 16-going-on-17. Lying to me are you?" Gulp. I'd been busted.
Trying to appeal to her Irishness, I added, "The people up on Falls Road told me to say that." See. I'm one of you. Wrong answer! The lady behind the counter was a Unionist!
"So they teach you to lie up on the Falls Road do they."
"I thought I'd give it a try," I said, face red with embarrassment, having truly let the home team down.
The bus was packed. We drove down the freeway, past Bog Meadows. "Good bye, Belfast."2:55 pm: The bus zipped us into Dublin quick as a wink! "We stop first at the Dublin Airport," said the bus driver. Perfect.
"Watch the luggage, Ashley. I'm going to see if we can score an earlier flight."
"There are 15 people on stand-by before you," said the British Midland representative. Oh well. It would have been nice to zip over to England and take a quick tour of Stonehenge. That would have been ideal. Sigh.
"I just want to get home!" said Ashley. "I just want to buy a phone card and call all my friends!" She has hopes. She has goals. She has aspirations.
4:20 pm: We got on standby! "The good news is that you are the last ones to go standby. The bad news is that the flight is delayed one hour." I called Sally. "How did the collusion protest go?"
"And nobody got arrested? Or shot?"
"No, no, no. It's all fine. And George will be coming to the farewell dinner tonight."
"Tell him that Ashley will be so sorry to have missed him." Ashley is elbowing me and whispering, "No I won't! No I won't! He was mean!" but I know she didn't mean it. Now we are munching on genuine Irish potato chips. Bye bye, Dublin. Maybe we'll have time to check out Stonehenge between now and tomorrow morning. "They put me in Seat 3D," noted Ashley. We're flying business class."
10:30 pm: "MO-TH-ERRRR," exclaimed Ashley. "We go this way." Lost in Heathrow Airport. That place is big. With really long tunnels connecting this part from that part from the other part. 100 pounds of luggage. 100 miles of walkways and causeways and escalators. The travel experience. "There's more adventure getting there than being there," commented Ashley. All too true.
"Where's the tourist information desk?" I asked again and again. When in doubt, ask everyone in sight.
"Go down this hall, down the escalator, over that overpass, turn right, turn left, then go straight ahead." With all this luggage? You must be kidding. But more adventure was yet to come. We reserved a room at the Adelphi Hotel over by Hyde Park and took the tube to Cromwell Road. It was 104 degrees in London. The tube was worse, say 120 degrees. I only passed out once.
For years I have read Regency romance novels -- back in the day before there was graphic sex on every page -- and now we were right in the middle of where the "ton" used to take their tea. Old-fashioned London. What a pleasant surprise! And so much nicer than spending the night at the Dublin Airport. Tomorrow we take the tube back to Heathrow. 3.70 pounds each way.
August 11, 2003, 7 am: I'm too tired to even begin to think of witty ways to describe our day. London headlines: "106! Hottest day ever recorded!" Great. We arrived in London on history's hottest day.
I walked around the area last night -- we're across the street from Harrods department store -- and ran into two Irish drunks camping out in front of an old stone church and singing "By the factory wall, beside the old canal..."
"Got any change fer a loaf o' bread," they asked me sincerely. Sincerely I answered no.
"I left my purse back at the hotel. Sorry." They looked crestfallen because they obviously needed a pint. I looked crestfallen because I had missed a chance to do good deeds and accumulate merit. But it worked out well. At the next corner some idiot driving on the wrong side of the road missed me by half an inch; I jumped back and dropped my hotel room keycard; which I didn't discover until I had gotten back to the hotel. I then pounded on the door for ten minutes until Ashley finished her shower and could let me in, grabbed a pound note, ran back to the church, gave it to the two drunks and went off to look for my key.
"You are a lady," said the one drunk. "And I -- I am a scholar," said the other.
Back at the hotel on Cromwell Road -- no air conditioning. I actually took a cold bath. First time in my life! And we sweltered through the night as well. First time in my life that I slept without a nightgown. The hotel forgot to give us a wake-up call but it was okay. Both of us were still awake from the night before. "I only slept a half-hour," I told Ashley. "And even then I dreamed about starving kittens." Now we are back on the tube, wending our way to Heathrow.
"The first thing I am going to do when I get back is have Mia over, make pancakes and watch 'Old Faithful'! I'm going home today! I'm going home today!" So much for being impressed with the glories of London. But after all, London gave us Tony Blair, the faked Niger uranium dossiers and aid for George's dirty little war.
"Old Faithful" refers to Ashley's favorite movie, "Remember the Titans". She and Mia know the whole thing by heart. There are 300 people in front of us waiting to go through the check-in line and twice that many waiting to go through the security point. We came three hours early. We needed every minute. I hate Heathrow. Heathrow is a freaking human sea.
11 am: "Charles Taylor will be leaving Liberia to seek exile in Nigeria today." My last chance at the BBC. I used to think they were so much better than American news. Not any more. "NATO peace keepers have just arrived in Afghanistan." What the hell is NATO doing in Afghanistan? Then they showed the streets of downtown Kabul -- wall to wall tanks. Oh goody. More and more I am convinced that Spaceship Earth is being driven by lunatics who absolutely failed Drivers' Education and are without a clue how close they are to crashing us all into a brick wall.
Now to the important things. "What movies are you showing on the plane?"
"We have Chicago, lots of Harry Potter, lots of Lord of the Rings, Finding Nemo, A Mighty Wind, Adam Sandler, Jack Nicholson, George Clooney, Edward Norton, Francis McDormand and William H. Macy." Heaven. 11 hours of free movies.
4 pm, London time: "What are you watching now?"
"The Two Towers." Ashley has gone through The Thornberries and X-Men 2. I've finished Frieda (Yay! Thumbs up!), dinner and two snacks and City of God, a Brazilian movie (intense!) Am starting Gangs of New York and wishing someone else could get up and go to the bathroom for me so I wouldn't miss a second of free cinema! Let's hear it for Virgin Airways. The man next to me went through The Secretary and Harry Potter. We compared notes. I hope my ears hold out.
What to watch next? 25 hours? About Schmidt? We just got crushed tomato, bacon and cheese bruschetta. Schmidt's daughter is getting married. Ed Norton just got beat up. Sandra Bullock is longing for that English actor dude. Chicago. Welcome to Collinwood. The Hours. So many movies. So little time. How about the first half-hour of each one?
August 12, 2003: "I just flew in from Vancouver," said a middle-aged man at the new SFO Bay Area Rapid Transit station. "Can you tell me how to get to Oakland?" Damned if I know. The new BART-to-the-airport extension had just opened. It was amazing.
When we arrived at SFO, a 747 flight from Amsterdam and one from Hong Kong had just arrived also and they had dumped over a thousand passengers onto the US Customs agents. It took us two hours to clear customs and that was without any luggage examination whatsoever. "Got any meat or fruit in your backpack?" asked a customs agent.
Ashley glared at the guy. "No." Most US Customs agents are just wonderful. This guy was not. Ashley took 11 hours of jet lag and years of teenage attitude out on him.
"In the future, Ashley, please be nice to customs agents! To avoid landing both of us in jail!"
"Well, the guy was a jerk."
"Well, next time kiss his booty." We spent 20 more minutes sorting through a football-field-sized room full of luggage. "Where is the BART station," I asked a guard.
"Take the elevator to the third floor." We did. There was the station! Right there. Not three miles down a concourse but right there in the terminal building. I love you, BART! We transferred at Colma and transferred again at MacArthur and were at our home station in no time.
Ashley grabbed her luggage and ran on ahead. "I have my key, Mom. I'll see you there!" I hauled my suitcase-on-wheels the five blocks to my house in the heat -- yes, global warming was global -- and staggered home. When I got there, Ashley and Mia were happily skipping off to Walgreens to buy pancake mix. I collapsed into a cold bath, fed Slim the cat and got ready to endure the rigors of time change.
6 pm in the Bay Area, 3 am in Belfast: Was the trip worth it? I don't know. Ask me after I've slept for a week! Did I learn anything? Absolutely! I learned that the world is too small a place to allow the margin of error that we blithely accept from world leaders who have been blindsided by cruelty and greed.
August 13, 2003: Played computer solitaire until 3 am last night. Dreading going back to work. The house is a mess. There are bills to pay. Yep, the vacation is over.