In 1991 I had the pleasure of being in Ireland for a week. After a brief stay in Dublin, I wanted nothing more than to visit the home of WB Yeats in Sligo, far in the northwest. The only problem with this was that the easiest way to get there was to take a short-cut across the border to Northern Ireland. I asked around if this was a good idea or not. “Oh, no worries about that!” was all anyone could tell me. So I went off on my journey through green expanses and more delicately hued time to Sligo.
When I approached the border, there were cones across it at a small Gardai (police) station just on the Republic side. Not knowing the procedure, I thought I’d just stop and see what was up. Just then, a truckload of soldiers from the Republic pulled up so I asked them instead. “Oh, haven’t heard?” was the response “The border’s closed. Was an attack on it last night.”
As I weighed what it would take to go around, another truck pulled up and conferred with the first. A solider started moving the cones and said “Well, apparently it’s open now. We’re at the whim on the English here.” As if there was no fate worse.
I drove the little Ford slowly up, and soon saw a large concrete bunker in front of the road where the road deviated sharply to the left at a wall. Standing in front of that wall was a British solidier with a H&K G3 machine gun. As I approached he didn’t exactly point it at me, but I saw his hand move over the trigger so that to take me out required only one quick movement. There was also a sign up that said, “We apologize for the delays. Please do not blame us, blame the terrorists.”
I wanted to take a picture of it, but quickly thought better of bringing up a camera. The soldier looked at my US passports and Republic car registration and understood the score. He waved me on through the sharp left, which I saw was followed by a sharp right as you went past a tower build of concrete with very thick glass and some small slits where guns could be pointed out. I was very glad to see the back of that monstrosity.
Gradually, local traffic joined us and the road seemed like any other. Then, in a flash of red, the Mercedes ahead slammed on the brakes and I nearly hit them. It was a random check on the road, and a sea of green British soldiers stood glumly all around. First, they dealt with the family in the Mercedes before coming back to me. I knew the drill at this point so I had the passport ready, and I was waved on ahead, yet again.
I looked over at the whole family standing around the Mercedes, and saw the soldiers literally ripping the thing up looking for contraband. The family sat on a blanket in the grass by the side, with the mother and kids obviously used to making themselves comfortable through a long wait. They even had a picnic lunch ready for just such an occasion. Clearly, just as tourists from the US were routinely waved on, they were routinely subjected to a complete search.
In a red flash, I became more angry than I perhaps ever will be again. After all, I am an American who has been taught that this sort of thing is wrong over and over again. Yet here these people were, their only crime that they lived in Ulster, being subjected to humiliation and delay as a part of daily life. They were clearly used to it. That was what galled me more than anything else.
When I got to Enniskillen, there was a carpark on the edge of town that I was directed to. As I walked into town, I noticed that cars cannot be left without someone in them, and so each car you saw had a older woman knitting in the back or something. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that this came from a carbomb that went off just a few years earlier, killing dozens — including a 3 year old girl named Marie Wilson. When the BBC shoved a camera into the face of Gordon Wilson, her father, on that night, he had the presence of mind to say “I have no idea what grievances these people brought to this town, but I hope that they can bury their disagreement with my daughter.” This is part of the reason my daughter’s middle name is Marie.
As I walked through the town, I couldn’t help but notice that it simply looked English, and not Irish. It was laid out more formally, with more muted colors and a few other things. Also, it was the only town in Ireland that we saw where strangers didn’t say “Hello”. It would have been easy to conclude that this was because it was English, if I wasn’t so tuned into the “Troubles” already.
After a lovely English curry in a pub, I found a store that sold Beleek pottery for a great price. I offered the woman there what kind of money she’d prefer, since I had no English pounds. I offered US dollars or Irish pounds at whatever rate made the most sense. She said she’d take Irish pounds at par, which was an even better deal, and added, “I’ll be so glad when this nation has one currency.” I knew to say nothing when standing in a verbal minefield, but I was shocked at how open she was.
After I left, I had a lovely time in Sligo and we went on to stay the night in a little town called Tobercurry. They were abuzz about some US company possibly locating a factory there, and many people asked us if we had anything to do with the location scouting. They needed jobs (this was back before the times of the Celtic Tiger). So I found a lot of people interested in talking to Americans at the main pub in town. We had a grand time as always. At one point, I was asked where I came from.
“I came via Enniskillen,” I said as quietly as I could, so the subject of Ulster could politely drop if that’s what was called for.
“You went through the North? What in God’s name were you doing there?” was the response. Another chap joined in “I used to drive a lorry there, what a nightmare that was trying to make schedule when you’re stuck at the border for literally days!” Yet another one added “Yes, but you have to admit they have a few things good there. They’ve got a better dole for one.” And they all chatted up the North for sometime – not as a problem, but as if it were the other side of the moon at times.
What struck me most about the experience in the end was not how horrible it all seemed to us who are used to living in the land of freedom, but how well people had learned to adjust to living in the company of terror. They had even learned to ignore it as much as they possibly could. But since this experience I have been absolutely obsessed about peace in Northern Ireland, and I tell this story every chance I get.
My people came from Ulster, some time so long ago that the specifics are lost in the spring mist. The most recent government gives me hope that one day they will see their situation as I do. Some day they will no longer casually accept intrusions, but learn to be more angry with them than they are at a small slight from the other ethnic group. To Enniskillin, God willin’.