Under Siege
A Memoir of Conflict

Lance Mason

© Copyright 2020 by Lance Mason

Gunman and children.

This 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.

If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace. -- Thomas Paine


It is a cool, clear Irish morning in early September 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 stuck out 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 knocking around 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 in 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 in 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 seamless, 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 young men 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. Who wouldn’t?”
They’d posed the question with excitement, not 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 that my 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 "home".
My first step in that visit, after a monster storm 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 road," she said, "and have a chat with Paddy or Thomas while I prepare it?"
And so I did. Thomas was out on a job, but Paddy was 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, a 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 accident insurance.
That was how the trip unfolded east-to-west across 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 restante, I 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 so, 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 enough."
From the Letterkenny road, I crossed over the River 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 of a 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 state of 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 wasted. You 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 lighthearted conversation.
"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 in June, 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 fortnight 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 the boys 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 boys and 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 political 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, this complex of conflicting forces was a cluster-fuck, a kaleidoscope not of promise but of the ongoing possibilities of disorder, mayhem, and death.
"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, was That depends on the color of your skin, a fact that, as a product 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 up 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 Catholic-Protestant clash.
Liam talked as we walked. "When we were nippers, 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 buildings.
In August, 1969, what became known as the Battle of 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 gallows humor 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 guide.
"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 Ireland's—"troubles."
The Giant's Causeway is at the very top of the 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 hundred.
By some geometric wonder, the basalt crystallized 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 immovable, I thought, like the conflicts of Ireland.
My Irish excursion is nearing its end. From the 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 is 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 to 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.

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