First-Hand Stories from the Troubles

My editor would have killed me, if I still had one of those. I attended a roundtable discussion among a republican, a unionist and a British Army soldier who fought during the Troubles and didn’t get anyone’s names.

I was a guest of the Agnes Scott College group visiting Belfast and Derry earlier last week at the session and didn’t want to intrude. I was more interested in what they had to say than who they were. And they said a lot.

The Roots of Riots

At least two of the participants were from lower socio-economic classes, the disaffected more prone to do what’s necessary instead of what might be necessarily right. The British soldier, who did two tours in the North before quitting, was a council house kid who dropped out of school at 16 and apprenticed with a butcher’s for a year, because the local mine was closed.

So the British Army was a step up, despite the misogyny, the beatings and the “you’re not paid to think” mentality. “We were given no Irish history—we were ignorant of the situation,” the former soldier said. “The Army doesn’t do complicated. It was black and white to them that the republicans were the enemy.”

They were taught that anyone is a possible suspect, even children who could grow up and become IRA soldiers. In open areas, they were taught to surround themselves with women and children to deter potential snipers.

He eventually came to realize, “We were part of the problem.” He left the army in 1996, got his qualifications, an education, settled in the North and started a dialog with former combatants.

Hey, hey, mister union man

The unionist also came from a working-class Protestant background and was indoctrinated into the unionist cause by an uncle who was a staunch supporter of Ian Paisley. He joined the youth wing of the UDF, a paramilitary organization, and later volunteered to be a gunman in 1981. He admits to being involved in murders, attempted murders and armed robberies and pled guilty to murder after being arrested. He was given four life sentences and imprisoned for 16 years until after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 that, for the most part, ended the armed conflict.

About five years into his sentence, “I began to see Paisley as part of the problem.” While still in prison, he began to work for peace, and he still does. Spotting a trend here?

Getting to the heart of the conflict

The nationalist joined the IRA as a teen-ager after seeing how the British Army treated residents in the Short Strand area of East Belfast, an island of Catholicism in a deep sea of Protestants. The Short Strand backs up to the Lagan River.

Basically, he saw an occupying army come in and take over houses, schools, hospitals, sports grounds and parish halls, turning them into fortresses. “Soldiers are not trained to keep the peace, they are trained to kill,” he said.

Like the soldier, the former IRA man said that everyone was treated as a threat. Teen-agers were targeted, forced against walls, searched and questioned. And if they gave the soldiers any “cheek” they were taken in for interrogation that lasted four hours or more.

He got arrested in 1973 and spent most of the next 26 years in prison, also being freed after the Good Friday Agreement. At first, those arrested were treated as political prisoners, which afforded them certain rights. But in 1976, the UK withdrew political status and started treating them as criminals, including taking away the right to silence and allowing torture, the nationalist said. At one point, he says 85% of people appearing in court were convicted by their own statements, most of which were obtained through torture.

The situation resulted in the hunger strikes in 1980-81, in which 10 men died. Although the government never did return political status to the prisoners, the hunger strike did shine a harsh light on the worst practices.
“Troubles” doesn’t adequately explain the circumstances that caused more than 3,600 people to be killed over a 30-year period. “I refer to it as the Conflict,” the republican said. “Trouble is what you have with a neighbor or when kids are fighting. It doesn’t capture the depth and gravity of what was happening here.”

Gunner Doing Better than Namesake Team

Don’t mind that cute kid … look at that gorgeous cat! Nine weeks into this adventure, and it appears that our cat Gunner has settled in nicely with our carer, Nancy.

That’s her granddaughter, who Nancy says is quite taken with Gunner. And that’s one of Gunner’s favorite positions, on top of the couch where she can survey the scene without appearing too interested.

Nancy says Gunner is very active at about 4 in the morning and following afternoon nap, which is when she was playful at home. She might have been playful at 4 a.m., too, but we keep our bedroom door shut. Nancy also says Gunner is getting along well with her old cat, Malachi.

We miss many things about Decatur, but we miss Gunner most. I left my black shaving kit on our bed the other day and thought it was the cat when I passed our room later.

It’s apparent that our beloved cat is doing much better than our not-so-beloved-these-days Premier League team Arsenal. Blown out of the Champions’ League, pretty much out of the Premier League race this year, but still in the FA Cup, which is football’s equivalent  of a Miss Congeniality prize.

A World Away, But Close to Home

We were so glad to welcome family friend Carina Gold to Belfast last week. OK, she didn’t stay with us or anything. She’s a freshman (woman?) at Agnes Scott College, just two blocks from our home in Decatur.

Marilynn and Carina’s mom, Katy, went to school together in Lawrence, KS, from elementary school through high school, and Katy attended our wedding. I’d only met Carina once before she came to visit the campus last spring, but we’ve gotten to know her much better in the short time she’s been in Atlanta.

An interest in the North

Freshpeople at Agnes Scott, a female undergraduate liberal arts college, go on trips during their first year, and Carina’s trip is mainly to Belfast and Derry with another two dozen young women led by professor Christine Cozzens. Christine has an interest in Northern Ireland, so of course Marilynn knows her. In fact, Christine hosted a speaker last fall that Marilynn brought to town as part of Ireland’s world-wide commemoration of the centenary of the Easter Rising last year.

We met Carina at her hotel, a short walk from our flat, and went next door to The Botanic Inn, a 150-year-old pub better known as The Bot. We’ve been coming to The Bot since Marilynn first hauled me to the island 17 years ago now because it’s where Stewart Parker drank. Except she recently remembered (from rereading her own book on Parker), that his preferred watering hole (across the street) was The Eglantine Inn, better known as The Egg. But tradition is tradition, and even Declan has spent many a day at The Bot, so The Bot remains our favorite local.

Friends of friends

We ran into Christine at The Bot, and she invited us to a talk by Northern Irish writer Anne Devlin that evening and the nationalist/unionist/British Army roundtable the next morning. We had to decline the reading because Marilynn had book proofs to look over, but I agreed to attend the roundtable.

As we were chatting with Carina at the hotel, Marilynn noticed Anne waiting in the lobby, so she went over and struck up a conversation. Marilynn says she met Anne at the Stewart Parker conference in 2008. She’s also met Anne’s son Connal Parr, who’s a researcher at Northumbria University and who wrote about Stewart (thus referencing Marilynn) in his forthcoming book. It’s a small world here, where academia and culture mix liberally.

I’ll never forget the first time I came to Ireland with Marilynn. She ran into someone outside Christ Church Dublin that she had attended Oxford with. Later, in Belfast, someone was yelling her name in the street, an acquaintance from the Institute for Irish Studies who saw us walking past.

In Ireland, it’s not six degrees of separation. It’s more like three.

About the photo: Declan and Carina at The Bot. A later photo series will feature Declan in the vicinity of tasty brews in some of our favorite watering holes.

A Grand Day Out to Newtownards

We were told at semester start that Declan didn’t need a PE kit at Lagan, given he was just there for the semester. But he came home last Monday and announced that he was being picked to play in Thursday’s football match and did need a kit—immediately.

Declan in his Lagan College football kit.
Declan in his football kit.

Unlike the school uniform, which could be purchased in at least three places in Belfast, there was only one outlet for the PE kit, 12 miles east of Belfast in Newtownards (pronounced Newton-ards). A quick search of bus routes showed that it would take 75 minutes and two busses to get to Newtownards, then the same amount of time and busses to get back.

So I asked a family friend, Eileen, if she would kindly drive me. Eileen had been instrumental in hooking Declan up with a local academy football team, even driving him to the first practice, so she was happy to help.

Detour to Ikea

We set a plan for Wednesday, but on Tuesday night, the third of six Ikea bowls we purchased in early January failed, so I asked if we could go to Ikea, too. Eileen invited another family friend, Joanna, so we set off on Wednesday morning, first to Ikea. The Ikea customer service rep was happy to replace the bowls while Eileen and Joanna shopped the scratch-and-dent furniture and purchased a few items.

The route to Newtownards took us past the Stormont Estate, where the Northern Ireland Assembly meets, so we took a quick detour to see Stormont and Stormont Castle.

Upon arrival in Newtownards, we quickly bought the kit and had a quick meal at Haptik, a local coffee shop. I had one of the weirdest-sounding but greatest-tasting brunch dishes—waffles and maple syrup topped by a fried egg, with bacon pieces sprinkled around the plate. It also had sesame seeds sprinkled on top. I did everything but lick the plate afterward.

Garden center? No shit.

Eileen warned me in advance there would be a garden shop involved, but fortunately not the manure she had previously mentioned. Walkers Seeds & Paints is also in the city centre, but we drove there because Eileen sensed there was a big shopping trip ahead. She wasn’t kidding.

What a great, old-fashioned store, full of things a gardener needs as well as many things a gardener didn’t know he needed until seeing them. Oh yeah, and paint, too. I saw nearly two dozen varieties of seed potatoes and hadn’t realized before there were so many. I knew the Irish liked their potatoes, but two dozen kinds?

Half a day after we started, we arrived back in Belfast, lighter of wallet but fuller in friendship. And that’s the best part of a grand day out.

P.S. Declan did play in the match, and his team won.

Meeting a US Ambassador (Kinda) Certainly a First

Being married to a Fulbright Scholar has perks beyond living for six months in Belfast. We were part of a group at a reception Monday night for the US ambassador to what’s officially known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Pretty cool, huh?

Officially, Lewis Lukens is the chargé d’affaires-ai, a hoity-toity term that Wikipedia says means interim until Trump’s nominee is approved. But hey, he has the same privileges and immunities as the ambassador, so that’s good enough for me.

Hanger-on-spouse or trailing husband?

Of course, other than a brief handshake and a quick “nice to meet you” I spent all of my time talking to other people and figuring out what their connections were. But I did meet two other Fulbright Scholars, learning more about them, and spent time with the husband of the Fulbright Scholar who lives across the courtyard from us. At these events, he calls himself the trailing husband, while I prefer hanger-on spouse.

The Fulbright Scholars were guests of the host, Consul General Dan Lawton and his wife, Paula. Declan was specifically invited because the Lawtons have teen-aged children, so the kids could hang out while the adults mingled. Declan got his own tour of the mansion (yes, counsul generals live in mansions) and munched pizza upstairs.

Paula is also a Stewart Parker fan, and we’d already met her and Dan when they attended the staged reading of Parker’s play “Pentecost” last month at the Linen Hall Library. She has been recommending Marilynn’s book to people, which has greatly endeared her to us.

Where’s the Guinness?

OK, it was much like any other reception I’d ever been to, but with a few twists thrown in. For example, there was no Guinness but there was Budweiser. We’ve been to events at the Irish counsel in Atlanta, and there’s always Guinness. And with apologies to Marilynn’s cousin who works for InBev, yes, Budweiser is getting popular over here, although I cannot imagine why.

After initial pours behind the bar, the gregarious bartender made the rounds offering refills. I finally had to cut myself off. And the wait staff was among the most pleasant I’d ever met.

The ambassador’s staff photographer from London also was on hand. He had actually been in Atlanta for a religious studies conference and commented that it was weird seeing a downtown skyscraper that looked derelict, with boarded-up windows. Marilynn and I independently thought about the Westin-Peachtree, which had several boarded-up windows for a couple of years after the 2008 Atlanta tornado.

About the photo: I’m not the kinda guy to take selfies with the chargé d’affaires (although others were), so while chatting up the photog I asked about getting a reception photo for the post. They’ll be on Flickr, he said, but I’m still waiting, so I stole this one from when Lukens visited the RAF Museum.

NI Political Situation Clear as Mud

Talk about muddy waters. Thursday’s special election in Northern Ireland raised more questions than answers about power-sharing and a potential border poll.

The unionist DUP wound up with 28 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly versus 27 seats for the republican Sinn Fein. Fewer than 1,200 votes separated the parties.

But looking beyond the main parties, to those that lean one way or another, it’s pretty much of a tie. The main parties have three weeks to form a new power-sharing government, which remains very much in doubt as the leaders of both parties remain entrenched in rhetoric.

Failure to form a new government could mean the return of direct rule from London, which I’m not sure anyone wants. The election was historic in that unionists will not have an overall majority should the new government be formed, the first time in 100 years.

Election differences to US

This was a special election triggered in January by the deputy first minister from Sinn Fein resigning and the party not appointing a new minister. After a short election period, which saw greater Belfast blanketed with election placards affixed with zip ties to utility poles, nearly two-thirds of voters turned out. In the last US election, which was regularly scheduled and much expected, only 55% of eligible voters turned out. I think that speaks volumes about participation in the political process.

I’ll point you to a previous column about the political situation in Northern Ireland for the reasons behind the special election, but I wanted to point out the differences between the election systems.

Regardless of your political position, I think you would agree that many US voters wished they had had more choice among candidates, that neither Democrats nor Republicans truly represent their feelings. But in a two-party, winner-take-all system, voting for a third-party candidate is like whizzing in the wind.

In Northern Ireland, fractional votes count. In other words, you don’t just vote for a single candidate. You rank the candidates according to your preferences. In some cases, the fourth or fifth choice could swing an assembly seat one way or the other, which happened in this case. Some voters we talked to take great delight in listing their most-despised candidates 12th and 13th out of a field of 13.

To me, that seems like a much better way for the electorate to be heard.

Now for the border question

Beyond the power-sharing question, political pundits also are talking about the potential for a poll on whether Northern Ireland remains in the UK in the wake of Brexit. The divorce of Great Britain from the European Union means the border between Great Britain and the EU will become the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The island is accustomed to free movement of people and goods. The only way you know you’ve passed from one country to another is whether the signs are also in Irish and whether the speed limit signs are in kilometers or miles per hour.

No one is talking about a hard border and immigration checks, but Brexit and the nationalist gains in this election bring up larger issues about where Northern Ireland believes it belongs in the world order.

And if no government is formed in three weeks, yet another snap election is possible. So stay tuned.

Remember the Venues Less-Visited

In the two months we’ve lived in Belfast. I’ve walked past the historic Palm House in Botanic Gardens at least a dozen times. I know how cool it is to walk among the tropical plants and marvel at the architecture of the steel and glass structure. You can see for yourself what an impressive structure it is.

But I’m always on my way to somewhere else, either the PEC (gym) to work out or a shop along Botanic Avenue, the garden being a popular, tree-lined cut-through when it’s open during daylight hours.

Declan and I made a point to go by there on Sunday after we visited the Ulster Museum, also located within the gardens. But the Palm House closes at 4, so we missed it.

Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda. Haven’t.

We have notched many “firsts” during our extended stay in Belfast, including visiting Belfast Castle and Cave Hill, attending a pantomime performance at the Grand Opera House, as well as events at Ulster Hall and the Linen Hall Library. But in the search for the new and the wow, we’ve lost touch with the familiar-but-still-impressive.

At a former job, I sat among the managers and heard them talking about flying in such-and-such job candidate, putting him/her up in a hotel, arranging dinners, etc., when I knew there were qualified, in-house candidates who were getting the short shrift. But the new and shiny has the power to grab and hold our attention much more than the familiar.

I’ve lived in in-town Atlanta for nearly 25 years, most of that within four miles of Zoo Atlanta and the former Cyclorama. For many of those year, we’ve been members of the zoo. And for the last four years, Marilynn, Declan and I have been Zoo Atlanta volunteers who were able to get into Cyclorama for free.

How many times did I go before the big Civil War canvas was rolled up and carted to the Atlanta History Center? Exactly zero. Marilynn and Declan saw it on the very last day it was open.

I was born in central Florida and still have relatives there, but I’ve never been to see the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs. Declan has never smelled the sour mash fermenting at the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, despite the fact we get to Murfreesboro fairly regularly, and it was a favored destination when friends or relatives visited Fayetteville. And I’ve still never been to Tims Ford State Park in middle Tennessee, near where I grew up.

More on the Palm House

The two wings of the Palm House were completed in 1840 for the sum of 1,400 pounds. Each is 65 feet long, 20 feet wide and 20 feet tall. The central dome rises to 46 feet and was constructed in 1852 and ties the wings together perfectly.

One wing houses more temperate plants in a cooler controlled climate, while the other contains tropical plants in a heated environment. The central dome houses a range of both temperate and tropical plants, with tall trees that tower over visitors.

Like the Ulster Museum, the Palm House is free to visit. And the very next time my feet take me past the Palm House, I’m pushing the door open and walking in. I promise.