A Place Apart
A Place Apart
At the height of The Troubles, Dervla Murphy bicycled to Northern Ireland to try to understand the situation by speaking to people on either side of the divide.
Despite her own family connections to the IRA, she travelled north largely unfettered by sectarian loyalties. Armed instead with an indefatigable curiosity, a fine ear for anecdote, an ability to stand her own at the bar and a penetrating intelligence, she navigated her way through horrifying situations, and sometimes found herself among people stiff with hate and grief. But equally, she discovered an unquenchable thirst for life and peace, a spirit that refused to die.
‘Genial, tolerant and affectionate. It seems incredible that such a foul oyster should produce such a pearl.’ - The Times
A Place Apart: Northern Ireland in the 1970s
With an afterword by: David Ramsbotham, former British Army Brigade Commander, Belfast
Format: 256pp demi pb
Extract from Chapter One
Fethard. 6 June
This morning I felt a mild pang as I said goodbye to Rachel. But it was soon counteracted by the joy of being again wheel-loose on Roz,* free and alone. We crossed the Knockmealdown Mountains on a narrow road with a spine of grass – no traffic for two hours. There was a stiff southerly breeze, a hot sun and a few wispy clouds high in the blue. New, through-the-looking-glass signposts made my destination seem more distant the farther I cycled. Perhaps some poetical County Council worker was so overcome by the glorious landscape that he got them muddled. The countryside was laden with June riches: foxgloves, forget-me-nots, loosestrife, Queen Anne’s Lace, honeysuckle, dog- roses, cow-parsley, mustard, may-blossom. Tall white bells and tiny white stars shone in the deep grass of the verges; bluebells were still thick in mixed woods of beech, pine, hazel and ash; boulder-strewn expanses of brilliant turf were scattered with minute pink flowers. One solitary rounded hillock was all covered in gorse, violently yellow against the blue, its nutty scent heavy on the warm air. Why do people leave Ireland for their holidays?
Then steeply down to the wide lushness of Tipperary. For miles, as I freewheeled, dense seven-foot fuchsia hedges rose on either side like walls draped in red velvet. On the plain I passed groups of venerable chestnut trees pinkly in flower, and an old grey handsome house with valerian bursting from every crack in its rough surrounding wall. The narrow road meandered between tangled hedges fifteen feet high – and long may they remain so! One can always stop by a gateway to look at the view.
I paused for a pint in Clonmel. The sleazy plastic Lounge Bar had a vomit-green carpet and purple curtains with canary blotches. How is it that the race bred in this lovely country has never developed a sense of visual beauty? Or aural, for that matter. Everywhere one has to endure the vile piped music of RTE-sponsored programmes. At present pseudo-risqué songs seem very popular. No witty lewdness – just awful sniggering vulgarity. This is sexual liberation in Ireland.
The next pint-pause was better. A dark little village pub with hard wooden seats, a dirty tiled floor and no plastic nonsense. Three men were drinking slowly at 3.30, looking as if they grew there and sounding preternaturally knowledgeable about horses and cynical about politicians. Referring to the death of a local TD one said – ‘They’ll put the wida back in because of he dyin’ on her.’
The publican remarked casually that his sister left for Lourdes yester- day. A lanky middle-aged man with a thin red face and small, very blue eyes looked impressed, as he was meant to do. ‘You’d want a fierce amounta cash goin’ out to them places these times. Th’oul pound’s worth nathin’ no more.’ English writers who report such turns of speech are sometimes wrongly accused of stage Irishry.
I steered the talk towards the Northern problem and the lanky man said vehemently, ‘God forbid ’twill ever come our way! ’Twould be a shame to lay a finger on a Protestant an’ they such decent people – the best we have. And the most o’ them is leadin’ wicked lonely lives these times, with not the half of what they were used to. And all the same they’re the ones that pays their bills and gives the employment. Terrible honest, so they are.’
The publican agreed, adding, ‘Sure we’d never have a civil war down here anyway. For who’d be fightin’ over what?’ But a sallow little man – standing in his socks beside sweaty Wellingtons – looked up from the Irish Press to say, ‘Have sinse, Larry! You could always raise a gang for fightin’ an’ burnin’ – even here an’ now.’ True, no doubt. Almost anywhere in the world a gang could be raised to do almost anything.
I am interested in this new mixture of shrewdness and faint con- descension in rural Irish attitudes towards the remnants of the Ascendancy. No more forelock pulling and no more resentment. People feel very secure when their community forms 95 per cent of the population. The average Protestant still has a far bigger farm than the average Catholic but it doesn’t matter now. Most Irish countrymen are not envious by nature if they have enough to keep going and they are not yet much troubled by socialism. It seems natural to them that the gentry, whatever their religion, should have bigger farms and better houses.
Ballymackey. 7 June
This evening I am asking myself why I have been so determined to go North? Partly, I suppose, because of the challenge to my philosophy of travel. (Only discovered I had one lately, when being interviewed by a fatuous television ‘personality’.) I’ve always found people trustworthy if you trust them and why shouldn’t this apply in the North? As well, there is the opportunity for once to do something genuinely brave. It’s quite a relief to be what I’m supposed to be, after years of feeling a phoney. Odd to fear the known rather than the unknown. Though in a way it’s more the unknown here, or at least the unpredictable and incomprehensible. One can accept fanaticism as part of the Meshed way of life, or murderous shifta as part of the Ethiopian way of life – but not sectarian assassinations as part of one’s own way of life. Of course there must still be many aspects of Northern Ireland to be enjoyed, apart from the horrors – or maybe they can’t be ‘apart from’ but anyway as well as. And I want to find them. We like now to take the attitude ‘They’re impossible’. But are they any more so than ourselves? Or are we just more subtle in our manifestations of intolerance? Yester- day as I crossed the mountains I remembered my patriotic ecstasy when I made a pilgrimage along that road, at the age of seventeen, to the Liam Lynch memorial. I seem a different person now. And Ireland seems a different country. It would need to be. I never realised then how close I was to the Treaty – born only ten years after it. And brought up in the shadow (and occasionally on the lap) of Dev, where everything seemed so black-and-white and tidy around the edges. Fed on fake history: all the Irish were heroes/saints/martyrs, all the English were robbers/murderers/tyrants. But happily that was counteracted by Eng. Lit. One can’t grow up on a country’s literature and hate that country. Maybe that’s part of the long-term answer to the Northern Problem: expose the Catholics to Eng. Lit. and the Protestants to Gaelic Lit. But no one would listen to me if I said so.
Cavan. 8 June
There was a strong tail wind and much cloud when I left Ballymackey at 6.30 a.m. Then heavy cold rain drenched me to the skin. At Egan’s Hotel in Birr a large pot of tea, a piled plate of home-made brown bread and lavish butter and marmalade were served beside a bright fire for thirty pence. A tubby, elderly priest reading the Irish Independent across the hearth thought me mad to be going North – ‘Keep away from Paisley’s lot, with your accent.’ It was impossible to get him to express any opinion about The Troubles, apart from his feeling that their location is best avoided. He was not being evasive, I think, just feeling bewildered and bored by it all.
I pedalled on towards Athlone through slashing rain across brown miles of harvested bog – looking like a child’s dream of a world made of chocolate. Beyond Athlone the sun came out and I was in Gold- smith country where one is more aware of the sky than of the green undulating, tree-fringed landscape. An immense melancholy sky – grey and black and silver today, shifting ever before the wind and often lowering to drench me again. Despite this being a main road there was little traffic. The visible locals were few and not very friendly. Many of the men looked moronic or sinister – sometimes both. A curious and unexpected impression. Doubtless they would prove to be neither if one got to know them. All afternoon I seem to feel an extraordinary brooding watchfulness over the landscape, a stillness and silence that was pensive rather than peaceful. And the little towns had a dispirited air about them. Stopping in Ballymahon, to picnic in an empty pub during heavy rain, my pint was pulled by a fourteen-year-old girl proud of her new dentures. ‘Ten of me own had to come out! The dentist thought mebbe I’d been eatin’ too many sweets, like.’ Her small brother came to sit beside me, sucking something puce and repulsive on the end of a stick.
As one goes farther north the farmhouses look more neglected, the cars more battered, the land poorer. Several small hand-painted signs were lurking in thick hedges where no motorist could possibly see them: ‘Danger! Cows Wandering On Road!’ So unlike the brisk ‘Cows Crossing’ of more with-it areas. Do these cows need the long acre? Or had it simply not occurred to anybody to eliminate the danger by mending a fence instead of painting a sign? Near here cows were being milked into buckets in the fields. My own part of Ireland was like this forty years ago.
In Granard the Mart was just closing. The pub – one of many – was full of foul-mouthed farmers, some very drunk. Pulling my pint, the young woman behind the bar called, ‘Mind yer langwidge, now! There’s a lady present!’ Whereupon a weather-beaten old man beside the door – holding a wad of bank-notes in one hand and a double whiskey in the other – replied swiftly, ‘I don’t see no lady here, on’y a tough woman in throusers!’
At 7.00 p.m. all Cavan’s B&Bs were full. I felt disinclined to go farther, after cycling 104 miles, so I am now in the allegedly posh Farnham Arms Hotel. And I am moved to wonder – would our tourist figures be declining even without The Troubles? Peeling paint everywhere, filthy smears on my bedroom wall, no bedside lamp, no hot water. Personally I don’t want hot water in June but many people paying £4.75 for a tiny room might expect it. The receptionist tells me that The Troubles have hit the tourist trade so hard nobody could be expected to keep up such a place. But at least they could keep it clean.
In the huge lounge-bar a sofa cushion has been ripped across, apparently with a knife. Its foam-rubber guts look like cold porridge. The only other drinkers this evening were two silent German anglers, gloomily considering their beer, and a talkative young mining engineer just home after two years in Canada. He pointed to an anti- contraceptive letter in his Irish Times. ‘Why are they still going on about it? If you ask me it’s all to take our attention off inflation.’ I know exactly how he feels. It’s hard to believe – especially after a period abroad – that in Ireland we are still arguing about legalising the sale of contraceptives. I remember arriving home from Baltistan last year and feeling that I’d come from the Third World to some dotty Fourth World consisting only of Ireland.
It seems strange to be keeping a diary about travels in Ireland. A vague little sadness follows like a cloud-shadow after the realisation that I have grown remote enough from my own country to look at it with something of the detachment I might feel in Asia or Africa. Is this what it is fashionable to call ‘loss of identity’? Can’t be helped, even if it is. And there are compensations. It’s a form of somewhat belated growing-up – being weaned from that Mother Ireland on whose not entirely infection-free milk so many of my generation were reared. A lot of Irish people are now going through this process. The Northern Troubles have forced us to reconsider our personal versions of nationalism. Ten years ago I wrote in a newspaper article that if a war were to break out for the purpose of uniting Ireland I would wish to take part. Now that attitude seems to me immoral. Or was I only pretending to myself, because such a conflict then seemed impossible? And are those in the Republic who now give verbal support to the Provos also pretending to themselves? It’s hard to gauge the extent to which the Provos can depend on voluntary Southern help. Involuntary help they can always obtain in a crisis, since we are not a race with a death-wish. Beyond a doubt an enormous majority in the Republic is anti-Provo and becoming more so every month. But how potentially violent is the small minority? How fanatical? Is the Fighting Irishman stage or real in 1977? And does Ireland’s weird national sex-life come into the picture anywhere? Even if one doesn’t accept a direct link between sexual frustration and aggression, Irish Christianity’s anti-sex complex must have very peculiar effects on some unfortunates.
When people in the Republic show sympathy for the Provos does it mean they condone their crimes? Or have they succeeded in mentally separating the crimes from the aims? Certainly some feel the aims justify the crimes. After one ghastly bombing in Belfast, a County Cork farmer remarked cheerfully to me, ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. We wouldn’t be free down here if your father or mine was all that squeamish’ – an argument which is hard to demolish without embarking on a detailed analysis of Irish history which few County Cork farmers would relish. Yet such people can be weaned off Mother Ireland only through education. They must be persuaded to look calmly at the Northern Protestants’ point of view, however much they may abhor what they see. Now they won’t admit it even exists, for which the Irish Government’s stance from 1932 until very recently is largely to blame. Given that stance, it’s surprising that so many of us have already outgrown the anti-Partition cult. But some have outgrown it merely because the North has become too hot to hold; not because they see that the Unionists have a point of view which is valid, however badly some Loyalists may have behaved in its defence.
In these northern counties of the Republic it seems that more people are willing to look at the Unionist viewpoint – though of course this is also the area where one finds the most active support for the Provos. But I am thinking now of those who are not extremists. At least they have some contact with the Northern Protestants, as individuals, in a way we don’t. South of the Dublin–Galway line there is little sense of personal involvement with Northern Ireland; it seems much further away than Britain, where so many people have lived and worked, or even than the USA. But beyond Athlone I noticed the North beginning to impinge, if only through complaints about the tourist trade; most of the Northerners who used to holiday in the Midlands or the West do so no longer. And as one moves nearer the border changes in attitude are marked. Instead of Northern Protestants being seen as an amorphous, objectionable mass, people tend to comment on the good qualities of the ‘nice’ ones and to see them as co-victims, with the Northern Catholics, of the ‘nasty’ extremists on both sides. Some Northern Catholics might consider that a too-charitable interpretation of history. But one doesn’t complain, nowadays, about an excess of charity. Though perhaps one should. Perhaps the only thing of real value – the only thing that can help to sort it all out – is a dogged concentration on the truth, however hard it may be to establish or uncomfortable to live with.