Saturday, 14 March 1998

For breakfast I had fresh eggs (you put 15p into a ceramic chicken bank and take a fresh egg, which they get from the farm that the hostel is on). I caught an 11.55 bus, McGeehan's Coach Company rather than the usual Bus Eireann. I got a lift, threw my pack into a farmer's trailer, rather than having to climb a big hill to get to 'The Rock,' the bus stop.

I paid 3 pounds to get to Donegal, and worried about how much the rest of my trip with McGeehan's (to Enniskillen) was going to cost me, since I only had 6.50 Irish left. We went north, then south again, then changed into a bigger coach and I went on toward Enniskillen. Just before we arrived I had to pay the rest of my ticket. 6 pounds. So I made it out of Ireland with all of 50p Irish to spare. (The 50p piece is 1978, my birth year, too, which I didn't notice 'til much later.)

And into 'The North.' I didn't notice the border, really; I just saw one green Telecom Eireann phone booth and the next one I saw was an old red British one. And the roads got a bit better, and the road signs changed colour and were only in English rather than Irish and English. We arrived in Enniskillen and I made my way to the Ulsterbus depot and got a ticket to Armagh, with British money that I've had sitting in my pack for nearly a month now.

More riding, and then in Armagh I squeezed into the car of a vet named Christa, and went with her and Diarmuid (the one email contact I have here) to 'Darkley House,' where a whole bunch of people are staying for the weekend. They have it organised specifically for loads of people to come stay, with a huge kitchen and bunks and all; it's actually a lot like a hostel except that the food is free (and very plentiful) and I don't worry about my valuables and it's more homey in general and I help out around The House.

'The Bus,' (they go in a big red bus to various towns and talk to people, hang out and have tea with folk, a warm place for tramps or clubbers or anyone late at night), was going to a town called Carrickmacross in 'The South', or the Republic. I originally was going to stay home and rest, but after Tea I got inspired to head out on The Bus.

So I crossed the border twice in he day and we got to Carrick around 10pm and stayed 'til 4.15am. I spent the evening with a crazy bunch of young, drunken, singing Celts. It was amazing; the people were so sincere, and (though a lot of them were in all sorts of Trouble) quite innocent, in their way. The Bus has never been to Carrick before and they didn't know what to expect; this crowd was a lot of teenagers. We stayed until the pubs let out, and then stayed longer until the clubs let out, and the crowd was varied and fascinating to me. Watching these boys about my age, with long hair in ponytails, singing and swaying and shouting and shaking The Bus, and I thought of ancient Celtic warriors and poets. We sang and I had a few great conversations (talking over the guitars and roaring folk I almost lost my voice) and we all drank tea and a few of them drank and smoked items which they had brought in on their own... sometimes it was like being in a rowdy bar, there on The Bus.

Eventually, the Gardai (police) told us that they would be at wanting to go home sometime. So we departed, and the six of us who had gone on The Bus, came back on The Bus. We got back around 5.15am, and hung out in the kitchen for a bit. I wrote for a while as the birds twittered outside at the morning.

Sunday, 15 March

Breakfast was an 'Ulster Fry'; it is probably the main reason that Northern Ireland once had the highest frequency of heart disease in Europe, before folk here started to be more health-conscious. Not something one should eat every day, but it was yummy and the conversation was hilarious; they sort of forgot that I was an outsider and freely talked about anything and everything, in a very rowdy-at-the-table Irish way.

We all had an arts and crafts session after that, making and painting green huge styrofoam shamrocks for the meeting they were having today, in which Diarmuid was to talk about St. Patrick's life etc. So we made them, then went down to Crossmaglen, a tough border town where they go most often. There we had a meeting in the community centre, in the midst of a lot of IRA graffiti and such; 'Cross' is a mostly Republican, Catholic town. Diarmuid spoke, in Irish; I picked up a few words, like 'agus' (and) and 'grá' (love). Some others I've seen or heard around a lot:
'slianta' is 'health,' or 'cheers.' (pronounced SLAHNtche)
'saoirse' is 'freedom' (pron. SEER-shuh)
'saochian' is 'peace' (pron. SEE-chen)
'flahuilicht' is this amazing sense of hospitality and welcome that I've been running into everywhere. (pronounced flaHOOlicht)

Next diarmuid spoke in english about Patrick's life. It was quite interesting; now I am determined to pick up a copy of Pat's Confessions, sounds like it'd be inspirational. Throughout the meeting we all had stew and tea and coffee and 'craic' — pronounced 'crack,' a general term for conversation and hanging out together, and when they say they're 'having good craic' and it sounds like 'having good crack' I have to smile.... Irish people sometimes have to watch their terminology while in the States. Just like I do here.

Then back to The House, where we had a bit more craic, until eventually a few of us headed to Armagh, to go to a pub called Henry Hoot's there. The pub is on the Catholic 'End' of town (most towns have a 'Cath' end and a 'Prod' End, and sometimes people who have been caught in the wrong End have run into Trouble... when I use capital letters, those are the words I have to be careful of). We sat and laughed like mad people for two hours, exchanging stories about long-johns and Americans and First Confession; this whole gang I've stumbled into are a bunch of nutters, and it's wonderful. They'd tease me and actually prod me to bring out my minicassette recorder for their stories: 'Are you putting this into your book? Are you going to write all this down? Oh don't publish this one... my name is Hans and I'm from Germany and I was wearing long-johns in the church kitchen and...' I'm not writing a book (as far as I know) and I'm not writing about their embarrassing stories and they know it, but it seems that they just want to share stories.

Monday, 16 March

In the morning, before he left to get his plane, I interviewed Diarmuid for a bit. Later I helped out the gang at The House a bit. They seem to expect it here; it's not really like being a guest, and more like being a temporary resident. When they say to 'make yourself at home,' they mean it fully: you can pick at whatever you want in the kitchen, etc., but you also chip in and take on the responsibilities of living here. Which I dig. There is always much to be done, and there are too many people staying here too often for them to treat everyone as guests incapable of helping themselves. So I wound up thoroughly dusting a good bit of The House, and it was fun....

Then I sat in my room (I'm the only one left now; I had a roommate over the weekend. There are two bunkbeds in here and two extra mattresses as well.) and wrote, mostly organising notes I have. On into the evening I read a bit and watched the news and talked over tea a bit with Val, a live-in volunteer here. Then I found myself in the shed painting styrofoam shamrocks green — repainting them a deeper green than yesterday, and on both sides. Meanwhile some went out to hunt down Chinese food, and Ian and I played Connect Four and talked about Ireland. The food arrived around 10pm, with no fortune cookies (they don't do those over here for take-away; only for nice posh Chinese restaurants) and no chopsticks.

Tuesday, 17 March

On The Bus we went to Newry, to be in the St. Paddy's Day Parade there. The ride there was good (like on all the other buses, I stared out the window). When we arrived, the parade feeling started to grow in me. I've never been in a parade before. Apparently today all the Prods in Belfast refused to take part in the one there ('how can we be in a parade in which the Irish tricolour will fly — the flag of a foreign country?' I paraphrase from one man), and guards were keeping close watch in Armagh, but the one in Newry seemed relatively innocent and happy. And I felt like a little girl, running alongside The Bus handing out balloons to little kids (and 'adults').

After the parade bit was over, we had tea and sandwiches in The Bus kitchen, and then headed into town to see the festivities in town. We had ice cream (it was like a full-on spring day today) and listened to a noise band of 17-year-olds and a brass band play songs from Riverdance, and then a Ceili band. They played and they had dances, folk and set and all, and as I watched I tried to learn them, but they seem rather complicated to me (even the ones that were supposed to be simple). Then back to The Bus, and more chat 'til we left.

Wednesday, 18 March

After food and chat, I peeled spuds; the Irish really do eat potatoes all the time. It's the main ingredient in about half their dishes; Pauline pointed out how cheap they are: a bag half my height would go for about 5 pounds. After peeling I headed over to the Shop. That's a secondhand-clothing shop they have in one of the garages, which they open on Wednesdays and staff by volunteers. Farmers and others come for miles to it. I priced things and served customers and put the kettle on a number of times.

A bit after 5pm, when the shop closed, we sat down to Tea — eight of us this time. The food was good (had those spuds) and plentiful, as usual. And after Tea I played pool with Val. I'm terrible at pool. Next I did some washing, two big loads — what hostels and the roads and mountainsides will do to you, I guess. I wrote and watched soccer (in ireland just as many call it soccer as call it football). Then I hung all the clothes up above the stove, where the most heat in The House is; it's common practice all over these isles to hang all drying clothing just under the kitchen's high ceiling. It feels to me a bit odd that my underwear is over someone's head while they are making their tea and toast, but oh well. I enjoyed the pulley system that moves the whole rack up and down.

Later on, Val and I sat in her flat and talked. Val's flat is a few small rooms just under the roof of The House, and itt has a kitchen and bath, just like the Bothwells have (only theirs is bigger). This is in addition to The House's zillions of guest rooms and the big kitchen and sitting room and front room. The House was built in 1720 for the local miller. He and his family had their rooms, and there were servants' quarters, along with a servants' staircase that has been taken out. The place is like a castle, with its stables (the numerous sheds and garages) and servant's quarters and 'posh rooms' and huge kitchen. They didn't have near enough money for it at all when they got it, but that all turned up and now even the mortgage is paid off.

Friday, 20 March

Early, early, at 7.15am I woke, and then left at 8 for the open-air market in Crossmaglen. Keith and I were the only ones who went, since it was only a small market. We spent the morning having tea with people or selling second-hand items or just chatting. It was fun, though not very active; folk reckon it's because everyone spent all their money over St. Paddy's Day and have none left now. Or they can't get out of bed now.

I took one break to visit the local Sinn Fein office. Actually I thought the place was closed, and I went over there to talk with a TV crew who were filming the storefront. The RAF helicopters that were circling above, and the army lookout tower right on the square where the market was. I did speak with the TV crew — they were from Germany, working on a news programme — but then I noticed that the shop / office was open, so I went in and had a look 'round and talked for a bit with the lady who was staffing it at the moment. We mostly talked about journalists, and how they handle journalists coming in; they check everyone out thoroughly before letting them get near them to talk. As we chatted, all around us were posters of snipers that said 'greetings from Crossmaglen,' or 'sniper at work,' or poems by Republicans, or sweatshirts saying Get Out Brits, or general written propaganda, etc. Cross is a very strongly Republican town, and all of South Armagh is sort of known as a 'hot spot' (though it's calmer in recent years).

One of the disconcerting events of the day was when a couple of soldiers with their big live guns (they looked like AK-47's, but I know very little) came and circled The Bus several times, with us in it. I was just standing in the middle of The Bus, and there they were, circling round and round, looking under The Bus for whatever, carefully inspecting each side of it, and even looking like they were going to open the back door and just pop in at one point. I know these guys were just doing their job, carefully checking out the big Bus, but the feeling I got was perhaps what it might feel like to be circled by sharks while on a small boat.

Later on Keith was telling me about back when he was in the water, no boat. I didn't want to ask him what he had done, but in punishment for something real or imagined, he was shot in both legs by the INLA (Irish Nationalist Liberation Army -- an offshoot of the IRA). His brother, meanwhile, was shot four times and left for dead just three years ago, by a Loyalist terrorist group. They both made it through, thank God.

There's nobody it doesn't touch. Much of the discussion around the dinner table is about trouble that someone's relative is courting, or rallies in Orange Halls, or pubs that various folk in the gang can't go into without getting their heads bashed in. All the younger men who wandered into The Bus this morning had some sort of involvement with paramilitary or, at least, sectarian fighting. Just got out of hospital, have to take care of some business, don't want to say what it is because it might get me locked up in a few years' time... And lining the block across the street from these conversations, there was a nice shop, a nice house, a nice house, a nice green barbed-wired tower, a nice house, a nice green barbed-wired barracks, a nice house.

We went to Carrick again on The Bus tonight, but the town was dead tonight. Again, maybe out of money and stamina after St. Paddy's. But it was quite a contrast to last weekend.

Saturday, 21 March

I said farewell to everyone at Darkley House and to South Armagh today, and joined up with a group of Maranatha people who are going around this week having meetings with church and political leaders involved in reconciling differences. We're staying at a convent in Belfast, and it's amazing here: they're already feeding us all too well, and I have my own room! My own bed without using my sleeping bag, my own sink and closet and desk; they even provide us with a kettle and biscuits! I am astounded, fully astounded. The team which I'm joining schmoozed with folk from all over the country at a buffet tonight, and afterward gave me an idea of what's going on this week.

Sunday, 22 March

After I woke I looked out the window at Belfast Bay below the convent. At 7.45am, we went down to the chapel for prayers, which was quite nice and peaceful and good. After prayers and a wonderful breakfast that the sisters prepared for us, we went to Mass at Clonard Monastery. Then we did what's almost unthinkable in Belfast: we went from mass to another service at the other End of town, this one at a Presbyterian church. Going from one side of Belfast to the other feels a sharper divide than going from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, or vice versa. The graffiti is everywhere, the slogans, the colours, the flags... the churches.

We left there and went down to Downpatrick, to meet with a lady named Nancy Gracey whose son was killed in a punishment shooting and who has been very much at the forefront of organisations against the paramilitaries here. We arrived at her house, and she wasn't there. We waited a bit 'til her grandson told us that she was 'at a thing,' and wouldn't be back this afternoon; evidently she had gotten days mixed up. So instead, we went to a small convent with a little chapel, back in Belfast, to pray for a half hour or so.

Then back home, where eventually a man named David Blakely and his wife arrived from the aeroport. He is a former Member of Parliament who is currently working as the Prime Minister's consultant in the Northern Ireland peace talks which are resuming tomorrow. He and Dennis (the head of the Maranatha group) had a conversation and a few of us just listened in; the discussion was a boon that I could never have expected, for my article. Dennis was actually mentioning things that are best left unpublished for the time being, about paramiliatry action (he has contacts in all sorts of places and really knows what's up), but David had some good, well thought-out responses that are also highly quotable.

We left after tea and toast for our next stop. Half of the group had gone to Limavady, and the other half of us stayed in Belfast and went a place called the Lamb of God Community, which was another good and interesting and cross-divide meeting.

Monday, 23 March

We got a 'lie-in' this morning; prayers weren't 'til 8am. Next we had a meeting with Joe Camplisson. I'm not sure what he does but he's been working on conflict resolution here and also in... Moldova! Of all places! So that was interesting to hear, and we talked a bit about Moldova afterward [Note: for those who don't know, I was in Moldova at the end of the Summer of '96, and usually no-one has even heard of the place, let alone worked there.]

We next went to St. Anne's cathedral. Every day they have 'prayers for the land' there for seven hours, so we took part in two hours of that. We had a light lunch down in the basement of the cathedral after 2pm, and then from there I went with a lady named Margaret who was kind enough to give me a ride to see a travel agent about booking my flight back to London. She gave me a bit of a Belfast tour on the way there. I had to book through a certain office (on the Queen's College campus) to get my student discount, and it was extremely crowded, but Maragaret was very patient for me. She took me back to the convent, where I wrote and waited for the rest of the team to arrive for Tea.

We went back to St. Anne's for a service there tonight. We got home around 10.45, had tea and cake, and then had to wait for the other half of the team to arrive, so that we could all have prayers together before bed. I spent the time talking with Peter for a bit, then writing.

Tuesday, 24 March

Prayers at 7.30, then breakfast, and after breakfast we actually had a little bit of free time, since two members had gone one way and two were doing something else while four of us were eventually heading out to see a lady a bit later on. I ran some errands and then we went to see a lady named Nell. Like the lady we were supposed to see on Sunday afternoon, she had forgotten about us. We saw her son and her neighbourhood, though: a tough Catholic 'estate' (read: housing development controlled by the 'bully boys' of a paramilitary group) area off Falls Road. Instead of visiting with her, then, we wandered around town to pick up some information for Andrew, and then went to visit someone else, in a very different neighbourhood. This one was a loyalist estate; the lady's house-cum-café was two doors down from a building for the RHC (Red Hand Commando) paramilitary organisation. All the curbs and post boxes were painted red blue and white in honour of the Union Jack, and a huge RHC mural was painted on one of the opposite walls. But the lady we talked to is clearly a person of peace, and has clearly had to be rather brave to be a person of peace in such a place.

Next we headed home, and when we got to the retreat centre on which the convent is placed, we drove straight into a funeral procession, coming out with a body. A motorcycle accident; the number of motoring accidents has been huge lately. Dennis doesn't believe that they're all accidents; he says that a lot of them are actually beatings that the families are too afraid to report, so they make up motoring accidents. A 'boy' in Ireland is anyone under the age of 40 really, but this really was a relatively young lad, high-school aged I think. It might have been a real accident; we don't know. After breakfast Dennis had shown us a list of 900 victims of punishment beatings over the last two years — only the reported ones; for each of those there were probably 2 or 3 who weren't reported. Augh. Awful.

Next we set out for... Darkley! Sure enough, back to Crossfire Trust and to all these people who now seem like old and familiar friends to me. After dinner we went to Crossmaglen again, and they talked about what a dangerous place it is and I really didn't even think to think about that while I was there before; soldiers were circling me then but it hadn't even occurred to me that I should be afraid to go into the town. It's known, all over the place, and near everyone is afraid to visit 'Cross' or even Darkley... but I felt completely safe all the time.

We wandered to another town for another meeting. We tried to sing, but it was positively the worst singing I've ever heard in all my life. I couldn't tell the tune to songs I didn't know, and I couldn't even keep a straight enough face to sing during the songs I did know. It was hilarious and I'm laughing now just thinking about it. Andrew gave me a chance to talk during the talk time, and I was able to tell these people why I'm here, and I found that I almost cried right in the middle of talking, when I got to the part about leaving in less than two days.

After the meeting several ladies attached themselves to me and talked my ear off and offered that I stay with them next time I'm here. We left around midnight, laughing at our singing abilities all the way home, and got home around 1am. There we had buns (muffins) and then prayers.

Wednesday, 25 March

We went in the morning to the so-called Peace Line, a 22-foot-high wall of cement and corrugated iron (they just took down the additional steel mesh and coils of barbed wire) which is meant to stop folk on either side of the divide from getting missiles of various sorts through people's roofs and windows on the other side. The peace line makes a mockery of peace, really; it's just another symbol of the division here. Everywhere I look, there's more division, or another kind of division. More than the Catholic / Protestant thing it seems to be just a desire to identify oneself in complete contrast with another. This might reach far back into history: my tribe is my tribe because it is not your tribe. Everyone all over the world defines themselves partly by contrasting with others, but this goes beyond just 'we are different,' to 'I am different from you, and have nothing but my difference from you, so that I will do all I can to push you away, even kill you...'

Some are different, though. We went next to St. Mark's cathedral, a Church of Ireland place which was the home church of C.S. Lewis, where he was baptised and spent his 'Jacksie' years, mostly before his mum died I think. There's a window that he and his brother put up in the church in memory of their parents. Anyway, the vicar there (I'm not sure if they call them vicars in the Church of Ireland, but oh well) is a proponent of other kinds of identification, other than the divisiveness. He loves to point out that one of Lewis's closest friends was Tolkien, a committed Catholic. I smiled as I heard it, since I've read as much Tolkien on this trip as I could fit into my luggage.

We had Eucharist there, and then had tea with Jim Campbell (this minister), then went to Lisburn to see if we could visit Andrew's mum. She wasn't in. So then we went on to Moira to visit a Presbyterian minister and his wife. His wife has quite a lot to talk about regarding her own bitterness toward the Church of Ireland. Division everywhere... this between Prod and Prod.

Then back to the convent, where we read in the Telegraph about the 'IRA splinter group' attack on the RUC station in Forkhill, in South Armagh again. When I first heard about that this morning during prayers tears actually came into my eyes, the thought of a whole town full of people being forced out of their homes because of a few rather big bombs that went off or were found. Dennis, with a bit of inside knowledge, is firmly convinced that the IRA is fully aware of and approving all these 'splinter group' or 'IRA deserter' attacks.... Later on in the same paper we noticed an article about a punishment beating that happened not far from here, to a family which the Maranatha group knows well. The mother wasn't afraid to report it, though they threatened that she and her daughter and son would be killed if she did; she said she wasn't going to bow to the bully boys at any cost.

We had Tea, and then went to Randalstown for our last evening meeting. That was big, and good. On the way to and from Randalstown, I shoved my tape recorder in Dennis's face and got him to talk, in the car, in hopes of using some of what he said... and that was a good chat. After the meeting, before we left, Marie (a lady I was talking with yesterday, who offered for me to stay at her place next time I'm here) gave me a gift of a handkerchief of Irish lace. These people are being way too nice to me!

Thursday, 26 March

At 6am — 6am! — someone knocked on my door to go to an early-morning Methodist prayer meeting. Voluntarily this time. We went back for our prayers in the chapel, then had breakfast. Over breakfast was a meeting with a man named David Hewitt, from the Parades Commission. He talked to us about the various marches that organisations (mostly the Orange Order) put on and some of the ramifications of that. After that the team met together, just us; we chatted and I took notes. TThen a communion service in which we all — Cath and Prod — were able to take part, which was very special.

Afterward, we ate lunch quickly and then all headed out for the aeroport. We went to the City Harbour one, and dropped six of us off, then to the International one, where Andrew and I both had our planes leaving. I hadn't realised that there were 2 aeroports and I almost booked my flight an hour earlier than I did, which wouldn't have been possible to work out, but I went with a 3.30pm flight instead. That was what I boarded. And on it I left ireland for I-don't-know-how-long, which was neither easy nor a happy thing to do. I'll be back!

On the tube in London, I noticed that my sight had been affected. Each telecom or other sort of tower seemed to be an army watchtower. Traffic lights on the tracks seemed to be security cameras, always watching. Men in dark green looked at first like soldiers. Grating or wire mesh of any sort made me think that there was an Orange Hall or a courthouse or even a pub on the Falls, behind the grating. The sound of any plane or helicopter I thought must be the RUC. Any graffiti looked at first glance to be a paramilitary slogan or acronym. These were my gut reactions to all these things, more than once along the line between Heathrow and Holborn. I was unconsciously imposing upon the outskirts of London the mindset of anyone who lives in Belfast, of always watching, always wondering where the next threat comes from. But the people we met are some of the most peaceful I've ever come across, and things will change. They have to. I was glad to be able to see some of the change first-hand.

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