A Memoir of Conflict
Copyright 2020 by Lance Mason
work recounts a
visit I made to the Irish Republic and to Ulster in 1970 as the
Troubles, ignited anew in 1969, were building toward Bloody Sunday
and the years of turmoil to follow. I had met two young Irish lads in
a London pub a few months before, and went to Ireland to fulfill a
promise I had made to them, and one to my mother to visit the home of
her long-dead parents. The memories persist.
there must be trouble, let it be
in my day, that my child may have peace. -- Thomas
It is a cool, clear Irish morning in early
as I sprint across the Belfast tarmac, desperate to catch my flight
back to London and then to the States. I'm the last to board the
small British Airways turboprop, and damned lucky to be allowed on at
all in this, the Year of our Lord 1970. It’s a dangerous time
to be in Ireland, the “Troubles” growing more heinous by
the day, so perhaps the government wants as few extraneous foreigners
around as they can manage.
This adventure began ten days ago, when I
my thumb at the exit from Dun Laoghaire harbor,
on the south edge of
Dublin. Or two days earlier than that, when I stepped from the London
train at Holyhead, Wales, to catch the ferry across the Irish Sea. Or
perhaps it began three months before when I met two 18-year-old Irish
lads over beers in a London pub, and listened to their stories of
Catholic persecutions, of the Ulster Constabulary, and of Bernadette
Devlin and the IRA. With a nudge from history, maybe it really
started in the 1880s when my maternal grandparents disembarked from
Ballina, County Mayo, for Philadelphia, America. But no matter the
background, these memories must begin with Liam and Danny.
I'd landed in the UK in June and was
for a couple days before heading for the boat train to Oostend,
Holland. The Victory Arms public house stood a few yards from Mrs.
Leech's Bed & Breakfast in Ealing, London W5, and I'd stopped
for a drink. Two young fellows were chatting quietly at a table in
the back and we struck up a conversation. They picked me as a Yank
from my clothes and accent, and I heard the Irish in their own bright
vowels and chant-like speech. Neither of them tall, Danny was lean
but not boney, with pale skin, sable eyes and hair, and features that
looked stretched onto his face, while Liam, blue-eyed and pink-faced,
was a bit thicker, with hair like dead grass. After intro beers and
banter, they described for me, in their eager, colloquial grammar,
the Bogside, that Catholic ghetto of Londonderry, Northern Ireland
where they lived.
Conflicts arising from the British presence
Ireland, known as the Troubles, began hundreds of years ago, with the
12th-century Norman invasion, followed by various English, Welsh, and
Scots incursions, including Cromwell and the Roundheads’
terrors in the 17th Century. It took a further 300 years of
British “suppression of the natives” before an Irish
victory in the War of Independence, 1919-21, led to the founding of
the Republic. But six counties—the northeast province of
Ulster—would remain under British rule as Northern
Ireland. The subsequent truce was adequate if not
with spells of Protestant-Catholic violence in Ulster through the
1940s and 50s, and the Irish Republican Army mounting a guerrilla war
against established British and Protestant control there. IRA
militants also conducted a campaign of terror in England, aimed at
forcing a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, but leading to
ever more violent confrontations in 1968 and 1969. With no commitment
from the political and police powers to a nonviolent solution, the
Troubles in Ulster would continue to snowball and, sixteen months
after my visit, would coalesce in the events of Bloody Sunday, 30
January, 1972, when twenty-eight unarmed Civil Rights protestors were
shot, fourteen fatally, by British paratroopers in the Bogside, Liam
and Danny’s home.
But in that Ealing pub in June, 1970, as
are prone to do, they wanted to talk proudly of Irish perseverance,
of their willingness to battle for what they believed was right, and
of whom they knew who would do the same. One of those, revered by
them and the world outside Ulster, was one of the most important
women in the Western world at the time.
“D’ja know Bernadette Devlin, then?”
Liam asked me.
“A bright lad like him?” said Danny,
scoffing at his friend. “’Course he knows her, ya idjit.
They’d posed the question with excitement,
expecting I actually knew her, but knew of her. I asked myself if I
did. I'd heard the name but couldn't place it. Beachtown kids from
California didn't have much reason to study the news coming out of
Northern Ireland, but the lads clued me up.
In 1969, Devlin, an ardent civil rights
activist in a
well-publicized battleground of state-sponsored, sectarian
repression, had become the youngest woman ever elected to the British
Parliament, once the governing body of the greatest empire in
history. She would go on to lead a militant, productive public life,
including an assassination attempt on her and her husband in which
she was shot fourteen times but survived. However, of singular
importance in our small, smoky pub was that her boyfriend at the time
was a mate of Liam’s brother.
Now, three months later, it wasn’t true
only reason to visit Ireland was to interview Danny and Liam on the
heroics of Bernadette Devlin. No, I had another rendezvous with
Ireland. My mother's parents had emigrated from here to the US
(though, as per family lore, my grandmother met resistance at Ellis
Island for being cross-eyed), so it would have been anathema for me,
raised as an Irish Catholic in post-WWII America, not to pay a visit
My first step in that visit, after a
crossing the Irish Sea, was to thumb a ride out of Dun Loaghaire and
through Dublin to the curiously named village of Moate. I found a
hostelry on the main road with the genuine B-movie name of Mrs. O'Grady's Hotel. Mrs O'Grady, about sixty, asked if I was hungry. I said I was.
"Would you like some tea, then?" she asked.
Tea? I thought.
I was anticipating a
substantial meal, and she was offering me tea? "Sure," I
said, "thank you."
"Why don't you go to the garage over the
she said, "and have a chat with Paddy or Thomas while I prepare
And so I did. Thomas was out on a job, but
in. He was Mrs. O’s age, dressed in olive-drab overalls and a
machinist’s cap, with round, wire-rim spectacles frosted with
age, but his conversation was vivid and inquisitive. Twenty minutes
later Mrs. O waved me back to the hotel where, laid out on the dining
table, were plates of eggs, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, and toast, and
a pot of tea. Moderately baffled but pleased, I realized that
"teatime," the British expression I'd heard growing up in
America, actually referred to a meaningful afternoon feed.
As I left Mrs. O'Grady's the next morning,
middle-aged gent in a grey Morris Minor gave me a lift. He was
headed, as I was, toward Connemara and the West Coast, and as he was
a Catholic monsignor, I could not escape saying the rosary with him
as we drove in the mild rain. The prayers were, I suppose, cheap
That was how the trip unfolded east-to-west
the island and up by the coastal routes through Castlebar, Ballina,
and up to Donegal—pleasant, a bit wet in spots, but
trouble-free. It was often a long wait between rides, including one
in Sligo on the back of a hay wagon, but worth the trip, as the
weather cleared and Ireland showed me the best it had to offer.
Donegal presented pristine seascapes and sculpted green hills known
as the Bloody Foreland, with its hewn-stone fences and film-set farms
and towns. I spent a night in Dunfanaghy overlooking Sheephaven Bay,
and in the morning walked the shore of Broad Water, a complex of
channels, coves, and bays. The tide was running—out, as it
happened—and it heaved and rolled through the narrows like the
wild tongue of a dragon. It was a striking landscape to absorb before
heading to Londonderry and the war that defined it.
Via American Express and post
had exchanged letters with Liam. "You must come," they had
told me at The Victory Arms. "You must come see us, right
enough." His letters pressed this home. To fulfill my promise, I
continued hitching rides, but now, as I drew nearer the
Republic-Ulster border, I grew more anxious about what I would
encounter. Residents of "the South" had advised against my
going. Asking drivers who picked me up what they thought about the
Troubles got me answers that were anything but equivocal.
"Ireland is one country. It has always been
and always will. The British must leave. They must get out."
That was from a local Republican businessman behind the wheel of a
Rover 4-door sedan on the road to Donegal.
"Northern Ireland is British. It has always
been, and that's how it'll stay." That was from an Ulsterman who
gave me a lift in his sky-blue Vauxhall Victor, with his wife and two
kids, winding our way to Londonderry.
His wife agreed. "That's true, right
From the Letterkenny road, I crossed over
Foyle into Derry town and the province of Ulster. A sandbagged
British machine-gun bunker guarded the bridge's entry, with
tin-hatted troopers of the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment,
patrolling its length, rifles at the ready. The gates
city under siege—that was the feeling in Derry, and the
conflicts of 1969 and early 1970 were as raw as flayed skin. It was
the West’s most publicized and contentious urban revolt in
modern times. These soldiers were prepared to be attacked, and they
would be, before the month was out, with rocks thrown by local boys,
and with bombs and bullets from the IRA.
As we crossed the bridge into the city, a
war was everywhere visible. British armored cars flanked army
outposts. Armed British soldiers guarded rooftops and roadways. There
was little social intercourse in the streets, as passersby just kept
on passing. Shoppers didn't linger on the footpaths, striding into
the grocer's or the butcher's, or with a purpose on their errands and
back to home. The weather was clear, but the sun seemed
must come, they had told me, and now I was there.
I left a message at the number Liam had
given me, and
he rang back with a location to meet. I arrived at The Wheatsheaf pub
off Foyle Street in the late afternoon and found Liam sitting alone
at a table near the fireplace, which remained unlit due to the fine
weather. I got a drink and sat down. His pint of beer was barely
touched, and the few months since we met had certainly aged him. I
had spent that time circling most of Europe, venturing as far as
Istanbul, the length of Yugoslavia, and up to Bremerhaven, and had a
few stories to tell, but Liam's expression and demeanor didn't invite
"Sorry to say Danny couldn't come along. He
sends his regards."
"Is he working?" I asked. They had been
looking for laborers' jobs when I met them in London.
"No," said Liam, "but he's not well."
And so Danny's story came out.
The boys had indeed been chasing work back
but that hadn't been their main reason for being in England. While
Belfast was recognized as Ulster's "first city," Derry was
the urban stronghold of the province's Catholic life, and it was
there that sectarian conflicts were most extreme and British
vengeance most severe. The lads were trying to escape the grim
conditions borne by Catholics in Derry, and London had given them the
comfort of distance to show their contained bravado in that Ealing
pub, and their admiration of rebel heroes like Bernadette Devlin and
her public protests for rights and respect long denied Catholics in
Ulster. This oppression ranged from segregated housing,
discriminatory employment, and denial of voting rights to police bias
and obstacles to schooling and healthcare. London had been
"great craic" for Liam and Danny, but their
return to Derry brought reality home in a bundle. Nothing had changed
for them here, and this led to a loss of hope and consequent
depression, most severely for Danny.
"The wee fella tried to top himself a
Tuesday." Danny had attempted suicide two weeks prior, after his
brother Peter had been shot and severely wounded by the Royal Ulster
Constabulary at a protest against wrongful arrests.
"Meths." Danny had drunk methylated
spirits, a poisonous form of alcohol. "He was in hospital for
the week, and now home with his ma. Doing poorly."
Liam had a family, and so did Danny, but
were especially reliant on one another. From adolescence on, a boy's
peers evolve into his primary source of values, biases, and judgment,
and if that role of "best mate" settles on one, rather than
on a group, that one lad becomes the center of the other boy's world.
That's what Liam and Danny were to each other. Now Liam had almost
lost his center, and he was sad and lonely and frightened.
This was the state of the war, thousands of
girls like Liam and Danny across Northern Ireland who had family
members killed, maimed, or injured following acts of revolution.
Britain was the might, the enforcer with whom the Protestants had
allied to prosecute their interests in the status quo, to remain part
of the UK. If peace or a truce was not possible, then the persecution
and surrender of Catholic campaigners was their aim. Parallel with
that was the segregation and discrimination that resulted. Yet this
was never so simple as a war of two sides, but rather up to a dozen
or more factions lined up in opposition along the political and
confrontational battle-line that divided Ulster.
On the Catholic side of the line were the
party Sinn Féin, The Northern Ireland Civil Rights
Association, the Campaign for Social Justice, the Democratic
Citizens' Action Committee, the IRA, the Provisional IRA, the
Official IRA, and several more "interest groups," both
political and those bent on violence. Arrayed against them were the
political, military, and paramilitary elements of pro-British, or
"Unionist," intentions, including the Ulster Unionist
Party, the Ulster Democratic Party, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the
Ulster Freedom Fighters, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the British
Army, the Ulster Protestant League, the Ulster Defense Association,
and a dozen more of varying size and duration.
In the most basic of impolite descriptions,
complex of conflicting forces was a cluster-fuck, a kaleidoscope not
of promise but of the ongoing possibilities of disorder, mayhem, and
"What's it like in America, then?" Liam was
asking me if young men in America could expect a fairer shake from
the society around them. Was the US a better place? Was man's
inhumanity to man part of the currency of American life, or was it a
haven for good jobs, good schools, and good government for all, like
the patriotic songs and movies portrayed it?
The true answer, or at least one of them,
depends on the color of your skin, a fact that, as a
of 1950-60s America, I had come with difficulty to recognize. Yet
Liam's question was almost rhetorical because, when not overshadowed
by strife in the Bogside, America was the daily focus of Irish media:
Mohammed Ali, the Vietnam War, the Cambodia bombings, political
marches, racial protests. Still, Liam was looking for the promise of
a better life, somewhere, sometime, and millions of his countrymen
and -women had chased that dream to America. He wanted a way out, an
escape, but I sensed he wouldn't leave without Danny.
"We'll take a bit of a walk, shall we?" he
said, quickly draining the rest of his beer. As we exited the pub, he
said, "Where are you stayin’, then?" I described the
location of my B&B, not far off Foyle Street. He simply nodded
the footpath, and we set off into the Bogside. On the one hand, it
seemed like a village because most people we passed, young or old,
exchanged greetings with Liam. On the other hand, there was hardly a
direction to look without seeing a British soldier, a burnt-out
storefront, or rocks and broken bottles from the last
Liam talked as we walked. "When we were
we heard the stories of the IRA and the Prods, 1916’s Easter
Risin’ against the Brits, of the Black & Tans—Churchill
was a hated man—of the big war and the promise of a republic,
and of better times and better government. But nothin's changed,
really, nothin’ for us." We turned left off Custom House
Street into Waterloo Place, finding more scars on the streets and the
In August, 1969, what became known as the
the Bogside erupted here, beginning with clashes between the Catholic
residents and Protestant marchers, escalating to violence from
Republican militants against the Ulster paramilitaries and the
police. Though the British Army intervened, rioting continued here
and across Northern Ireland, with several deaths resulting. Liam
walked me back to my B&B on Castle Street.
While the Irish were famous for their
and resilience, the inescapable conditions for Catholics in Derry
bore down on Liam, as they had on Danny, and I had no solutions to
offer them. Liam, in his youth's wisdom, did not expect or ask for
any. Instead, in his Irish bent toward hospitality, he became my tour
"Ya need to get up to the Giant’s
Causeway, doncha know. Tremendous. You mustn't miss it, now that yer
here, see?" He explained what and where it was, and why I should
go there rather than trying to cope with his and Danny's—and
The Giant's Causeway is at the very top of
Island, in County Antrim. I did go up, and Liam was right. It's not
to be missed, a complex and seemingly endless collection of black and
red basalt cliffs rising from the North Sea and extending for
hundreds of meters along the shore. Since that time, I've had the
good fortune to visit more than fifty countries, and have yet to see
anything to compare to the Giant’s Causeway. The entire
rockscape is a mineral miracle, with numerous small peninsulas
stretching into the rolling surf, some for ten meters, and some for a
By some geometric wonder, the basalt
into square, hexagonal, and octagonal columns two feet across, from a
few inches tall near the water's edge, to 100 feet high along the
precipitous cliffs. One wants to believe they grew this way, as trees
grow, orderly over time, but no. With no witnesses to tell the tale,
Nature cast these columns by some geologic cataclysm of terrible
power and volcanic heat, and left them there, on the Northern Ireland
coast, for us to marvel at. Permanent, rigid, and
I thought, like the conflicts of Ireland.
My Irish excursion is nearing its end. From
Giant’s Causeway I hitch down through Antrim to Belfast,
sleeping rough for a couple of days. My thoughts of Liam and
Danny's—and Ulster's—war remain with me, and will for
years to come, along with memories of other war-scarred scenes from
Croatia, Vietnam, and Belchite, a town in Aragon whose bombed-out
ruins are preserved as a dread reminder of Spain’s Civil War.
At Belfast Airport, I clamber aboard the plane, trying to shrug off
my feelings of Liam's distress.
Decades later, I'll still be trying. There
something multidimensional about the tragedies that wars bring to
children. The fate of Liam and Danny and thousands more young
Irishmen and -women was not a political problem, not a Republican or
Unionist problem, not even an Irish problem. It was a human problem,
caused by the worst outbreaks of human vice and fear and ignorance,
an infection of the human condition that can only be contained by the
committed efforts of wise and compassionate people.
Ireland today, it seems, has found its way
something like daylight, and a massive story it is, with insightful
minds and hearts on both sides of the divide using agreed goals and
mutual respect to wind down the friction. In the end, it all boils
down to that—to respect. All wars, all ethnic and skin-color
conflicts, are rooted in a lack of respect, and that’s a human
problem. Human harmony flows from respect, and it has to come from
people. Money can’t buy it, laws can’t enforce it, and
history can’t deny it. Somehow, Northern Ireland’s people
dug into their stores of human experience and found enough belief in
each other to close the wounds of centuries, and they did it for the
likes of Liam and Danny.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Lance's story list and biography
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