Stories from the North
Our Irish Tour of the North, January-February 2004                                 back
The Truth Closes In
The Irish and British governments are on the defensive right now on a number of fronts The Cory Report by a Canadian judge won't be released by the British government, probably because it implicates them in the murder of Pat Finucane, a human rights lawyer who worked for the unification of Ireland.  The Barron Inquiry is still taking place.  It is supposed to get to the bottom of the 1974 bombings in Dublin and Monaghan by loyalist paramilitaries, acts that the Irish government should have prevented.  The Hutton Report is front page news: its job is to determine if Tony Blair "sexed up" (inflated) a report about Iraq's military capability that was used to justify British involvement in the war.  And finally, there is the Saville Inquiry.  It has held more than four hundred meetings in the last six years, investigating the 1972 "Bloody Sunday" murders of fourteen Derry civil rights protestors by British soldiers.

The Pitstop Ploughshares
We're not yet in the North, but in Dublin.  Today we're outside of the Leinster building, home to the Daíl and the Séanad, Ireland's two houses of parliament.  Standing on the street in a "protest zone" is a lone figure.  His name is Roddy Collum and he is a member of "U.S. Out of Shannon."  He tells us that he is here today because the Dáil is in session, even if there are only a few TDs in the hall. Shannon airport, in the west of Ireland, has been the target of Irish anti-war activists (the country is full of them).  In violation of Irish law and decades of neutrality, U.S. military planes and troops have used Shannon as a stopover point, a pit stop on their way to Iraq.  On February 3 of last year, five members of the Dublin Catholic Worker disarmed a U.S. warplane and built a makeshift memorial to the Iraqi children killed by the U.S. war.  They were arrested and are awaiting trial.  The five have been supported by South Africa's Bishop Desmond Tutu, and the current president of the United States Josiah Bartlet (aka Martin Sheen of the West Wing) has "pardoned" them.  They are known as the "Pitstop Ploughshares." 

Inside the grand Dublin building is Seamus Brennan, government Minister of Transportation.  He is explaining his tough stance against the bus drivers' union while we are there.  Brennan is the same man who defended the re-fueling of U.S. warplanes at Shannon as "good business."

Michael and Che
In the National Museum of Ireland, there is a large room with a display about the 1916 Easter Rising.  Photos, flags, and lots of original rifles and pistols used in the unsuccessful but inspiring rebellion against British domination.  In one glass case is Michael Collins' military uniform.  It looks small, I think to myself, which is exactly the first thought I had when I saw Che Guevara's red jacket hanging in a glass case in Santa Clara, the one he wore in the world-famous photograph. 

Kilmainham Gaol
Although this is the fourth time I have been to Ireland, it is the first time to Kilmainham Jail.  I guess I thought it would be like visiting a U.S. Civil War battleground site, or something equally remote.  But it is not.  The jail is cold.  It is not "cleaned up" for public consumption.  The cells are just as the last inhabitants left them.  There are small signs where famous Irish patriots were held, some twice, some just before being executed: Pearse, Plunkett, Clarke.  Outside in the prison yard, we learn that under our feet are hundreds of buried men, women, and children.  Well, not buried exactly.  After they died, the cobblestones were dug up by other prisoners; the bodies dumped and covered with quicklime.  It is hard to describe the feeling of standing there.  We also see the exact spot where nationalists known as the "Invincibles" were hanged after killing Lord Cavendish in 1882.  We see the exact spot trade union leader and socialist James Connolly was propped up and tied to a chair so he could be executed for his participation in the Easter Rising.  This jail tour could be described as morbid, but it is moving as well.  It is not remote.

My Kind of Politicians
Arthur Morgan, Davy Hyland, and Pat McGinn are my kind of elected officials.  Arthur and Davy did time in prison as part of the republican struggle. All three represent Sinn Féin,  Arthur in the south, Davy and Pat in the north.  All were influenced by Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers who ran for and won seats in the British Parliament or local offices.  Arthur says he was struck by the irony of Irish leader Charles Haughey bringing a teapot to Margaret Thatcher while the hunger strikers starved.  Davy, who counts James Connolly as his inspiration, was convicted by the testimony of a "supergrass," one of the anonymous informers used the British government to target activists against whom there was no real evidence. 

Outside of the hotel where we meet them is a mountain, and on top of the mountain is a British spy tower.  As we leave the hotel, the tower is covered by  a heavy fog.  Northern Ireland's "normalization" is like the tower, Pat tells us.  You can't always see it, but the British presence is still there.

The Busiest Helicopter Port in Europe
Bessbrook is a town built by Quakers.  That's why there are no pubs here.  The town used to have a flax factory, but local production of linen interfered with British mainland businesses and Bessbrook Mills was put out of business.  The abandoned factory is now part of a complex that holds the British Army, including what our guide Pat McGinn says is the busiest helicopter port in Europe.  It's where British soldiers were trained for the war in Iraq. 

Our bus stops outside the compound, at the entrance of Deramore Road.  You can stay on the bus or walk with me, Pat says as the doors open.  Everyone follows him.  As we walk down the road, British soldiers are just barely visible, behind a fence, inside a guard station.  A military helicopter flies over us as we walk to the end of the road, to Pat's old neighborhood. Along the side of the road we notice the spikes connected to a wire that the soldier in the booth can pull in order to blow the tires on an unauthorized vehicle.  The security camera swings our way.

The Big Tree
Patrick has a touch of the poet.  As we leave the British army post we enter the area known as Camlough ("crooked lake").  The center of town was for many years the site of a large tree.  The tree was planted by a man who had to escape to America, Pat tells us. Druids slept in trees for wisdom, he says (druid is Celtic for oak and truth).The tree was frequently topped by a Tri-Colour, the Irish flag. 

For decades it has been illegal to fly this flag in the north.  Loyalists would try to take the flag down, so nationalists would be grease the trunk and cut certain branches so no one else could climb it.  Pat saw British soldiers once try to snatch the flag from a helicopter.  The biggest rogues have the biggest cemetery headstones, Pat says, but the republican volunteers have trees planted at their graves.

Pat was a friend of Ray McCreesh, one of the ten 1981 H-Block republican prisoners who died on hunger strike.  Pat and Ray used to hang out near the big tree.  After Ray died, his funeral procession wound its way through the town, and you could hear the rustling of the leaves.

St. Brigid and the Hangover Cure
Brigid's Cloth is a traditional cure for headaches and hangovers.  Put a piece of cloth on the sill outside your window, just before midnight on January 31st, the eve of the Feast of St. Brigid.  During the night, St. Brigid will cross over your house and bless the cloth.  The next day you can use it to cure what ails you.  St. Brigid's cloth is usually tacked above the fireplace mantle, or pinned to a girl's dress.  One of St. Brigid's most famous miracles was the time she turned barrels of water into beer for unexpected guests.  Before she was a saint, Brigid was honored as a pagan goddess.

Niall and Máire
My hosts for a night live on the border.  Niall works for a contractor, digging construction sites.  For more than twenty years Máire worked at a thread mill, which moved to Mexico.  Now she works in a local shop and takes care of her children, including Siobhán whose room is full of Britney Spears and Shakira posters.  She asks me what New York is like.  Niall takes one of their three sons out early in the morning to apply for a "safety pass," a kind of occupational safety test that will allow him to run a digging machine like his father does.  Is this a family of Fenian revolutionaries?  Well, yes and no.  They are people whose family has been engaged in the struggle for generations, and they know which side they are on.

Slievebeigh Mountain
The mountain known as Slievebeigh (or Sliabh Beagh in the Irish) is in southwest Ulster and it crosses three Counties in the north (the King of the Fairies lived there, our guide tells us.  This from an IRA man). It was also the land of Irish Chieftain Hugh O'Neill who united other chiefs against the English government in 1595 and led the "nine years war."

At the Bogside Inn
From 1969 to 1972, British forces and RUC police could not enter the Bogside neighborhood in Derry.  The Battle of the Bogside began in August, 1969 when local people objected to a loyalist march through the town center.  As usual, police went after the Catholics.  But barricades went up to keep the cops out for the better part of three years.

The Bogside Inn, the local pub on Westland Street in Derry, is a wealth of that important period's history.  There's a stained-glass window at the bar.  It's a "memorial" to Nelson's Pillar, the granite column that rose above O'Connell Street in Dublin for more than 150 years until the IRA blew it up in 1973. The Bogside Inn's window marks the Pillar's demise, right down to the minute: 12:03 am.  The Inn is a frequent site for political fundraising events.  When we arrive, a banner in the club reads "Free Mumia Abu Jamal From Racist U.S. Law."

Seventy Days on Hunger Strike
Lawrence McKeown meets us at An Culturlann, the West Belfast cultural center, to show us the film "H 3" which he co-wrote.  It's about the 1981 hunger strike in the H Blocks section of Long Kesh prison.  The movie does not try to capture the entire story of the republican struggle at that time, just a piece.  That's what makes it a powerful film. Bobby Sands is not the main focus here, Sean Scullion is. Sean was one of the blanket protest leaders whose job it was to choose the next hunger strikers after Bobby was gone.  The brutal prison guards in the movie are played by actual former republican H Block prisoners.  The prisoners in the film, however, were played by younger actors. In the studio where the filming took place, a sign read COLD HUNGRY SCARED. Lawrence is quiet and unassuming.  We have to find out from others that he had spent over fours years "on the blanket" and had been on hunger strike for seventy days until he slipped into a coma and a priest convinced his mother to have him force-fed.

Singing at the Gasyard
They are a cross between the Indigo Girls and the Spice Girls.  The Shambelles (a nice play on words) sing to the packed house at the Bloody Sunday fundraiser in Derry. Almost everyone there is younger than our American crowd.  The group receives huge support from the local folks but some of our contingent seems disturbed.  What are these young women doing, singing pop music at a republican event dressed in belly shirts and tight jeans?  After their set the Shambelles leave the stage but not the club.  Instead they blend into the audience, singing along with the traditional militant performers, alternately pumping their fists or step dancing.  Who are they?  They are the next generation.

Bloody Sunday
They were marching for civil rights, for the right to be treated as first-class citizens.  But they were met with deadly force from the same people who should have been protecting them from sectarian attacks.  The time is Sunday March 7, 1965; the place Selma, Alabama. 

The time is January 30, 1972; the place is Derry in the north of Ireland. As we retrace the footsteps of those who marched down Derry's Rossville Street, where fourteen men were killed by British troops thirty-two years ago, I think of the "other" Bloody Sunday, the march from Selma over the Edmund Pettis Bridge that was met with fierce police violence. The thought forces me to remember that the struggle for freedom and justice is universal.