Blurred lines of violence, loyalty, and love in Northern Ireland
The trouble with the Troubles and what it's got to do with Game of Thrones.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
—Yeats, Easter, 1916
On one side: Shankill Road, home to Protestant unionists and loyalists who want to remain in the United Kingdom. On the other: Falls Road, home to Catholic nationalists and republicans who want a united Ireland. (If you’re confused about the terminology: loyalists and republicans are seen to be more willing to bear arms in pursuit of their political aims.)
That metal cage covering a house’s backyard? It’s meant to ward off the occasional Molotov cocktail.
I’ve been keeping an eye on news coming out of Northern Ireland since I visited Belfast at the turn of 2018 and wrote about its persistent politics of identity—Memory Wars (Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2018)—most visible to outsiders via a cottage industry of Troubles-themed tours, many led by former paramilitary men.
In April, it had the world’s attention again when Lyra McKee, a young journalist, was accidentally shot in the head by a splinter republican group called the Real IRA during a riot in Londonderry/Derry (depending on where your sympathies lie; or “Stroke City”, as one Belfast resident I met called it). It was a reminder that enmities from the thirty-year conflict, which claimed over 3,600 lives, are deep-rooted and alive.
An important part of McKee’s work dealt with how young people in Northern Ireland are living with the trauma of the Troubles, even if they never experienced it firsthand. In an old piece circulated widely after her death, Suicide Among the Ceasefire Babies, she wrote:
Jonny, Mick, and I were members of the generation nicknamed the Ceasefire Babies—those of us too young to remember the worst of the terror. We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, spared from the horrors of war. But still, the aftereffects of those horrors seemed to follow us.
The Troubles’ survivors would taunt us: How much had we really seen, compared to them? Yet of the 3,709 people who lost their lives to suicide between 1999 and 2014, 676 of them—nearly a fifth—were younger than 25.
She also left behind a tragic and wonderful thing: The Lost Boys, a book of nonfiction about the unresolved disappearance of children and young people during the conflict, to be published by Faber next year.
It’s tempting to blame the paramilitary attacks on Brexit, but this piece—Paramilitaries Are Surging Again in Northern Ireland by Dan Haverty—notes that they have been on the rise since at least 2007, spurred by rising unemployment, drug addiction, and mental illness. Brexit simply provides a convenient raison d’être:
Northern Ireland voted by a majority to remain in the EU in 2016, and republicans have since crafted a narrative that fits neatly into their reading of Irish history: The British government is dictating the future of Northern Ireland against the will of its people, and the only way to reclaim national self-determination is to leave the United Kingdom and unify with the Republic of Ireland in the south. “Brexit has forced the IRA to refocus and has underlined how Ireland remains partitioned,” said one New IRA member in an interview with London’s Sunday Times. “It would be remiss of us not to capitalize on the opportunity.”
For more context, read How a ‘No-Deal’ Brexit Could Open a Path to Irish Unity by Benjamin Mueller and Why the idea of a United Ireland is back in play by David McWilliams, who writes about Northern Ireland’s demographics and economics as propelling factors for unrest. I was also delighted by his anecdote of how he came to be an expert on Northern Ireland:
Being best man is always tricky; being best man at a northern-southern union during the Troubles posed a new set of challenges. At 3pm on the dot, the groom and I stood at the altar waiting for the bride. The entire right-hand side of the church was full: punctual northerners. It is understood everywhere that brides are usually late, but congregations are supposed to turn up on time. As we looked down from the elevated altar, almost every pew on the left, the Dubliners’ side, was empty. The southerners had, almost to a man and woman, observed the great Irish ritual of the swift one before the big do. This was in the days before mobile phones. I had to barrel down the road in the minister’s shiny red Vauxhall to shoo Dubliners into the church. The bridesmaid couldn’t stop laughing at these Dubliners, their casual attitudes to time and ritual; then, reader, she married me.
Okay, so what’s Game of Thrones got to do with the Troubles?
It’s all in this wonderful travel essay, What I Learned on My Vacation to Westeros by Mark O’Connell, published a few days before Lyra Mckee’s death:
“I’m very glad ‘Game of Thrones’ came here,” he said. The bus was slaloming along a narrow road, the glistening expanse of the Irish Sea to our starboard side. “Before ‘Game of Thrones,’ my country was known for two things: the Titanic and the Troubles. The international perception was riots, bombs going off, blood in the streets. None of this was great for tourism.” Brian made a joke then about how the paramilitaries on both sides had handed in their weapons, and the “Game of Thrones” tour operators had swords now, and it struck me that there was something strange, and even wonderful, about the way in which real violence had been replaced by fantasy violence.
I only wish I’d been imaginative enough to pitch such a story. I’d been on one of those tours—a lot of the series was filmed in Northern Ireland, and Belfast’s Titanic Studios was its home. But I’d spent most of the tour thinking, regrettably unproductively, how silly I felt to be dressing up in faux-medieval cloaks and wielding fake swords, but didn’t want to be the spoilsport when everyone was doing it and having fun.
One of the places we visited was the Gothic ruins of Inch Abbey, from the twelfth century, in County Down. It was here that Robb Stark’s bannermen rallied to him after they emerged victorious in the Battle of the Whispering Wood. And that’s me, looking away, when someone offered to take a photo. I was thinking: I don’t really want to be caught in this get-up, but… 😆 Don’t take yourself too seriously, right?
Self-defeating self-regard excepted, however, the tour was good fun—guided, as they usually are, by a woolly extra from the show—though you’d really have to be a hardcore film buff to care about the minutiae of what was shot where. My literary or cinematic pilgrimages are usually driven by a simple desire to cloak myself in the vibes of a place that has given me a world that let me imagine so deeply; I don’t need to know exactly where my favourite scenes happened or how the place was transformed. I want to hold on to a little mystery so I can continue to imagine—another world, another time, all the invisible layers of the place.
And it goes without saying that one of my favourite parts of the tour was meeting the show’s “direwolves”—and their owners, the Mulhalls, who also worked on the show in some capacity; it’s a total family enterprise. A mind-boggling bit of trivia for you, as told by Mulhall Sr.: “Seven years ago, the dogs cost 1,000 pounds each. Now, they’re insured for one million pounds each.” 😮
Direwolves were once real; the ones on the show are Northern Inuit Dogs, a crossbreed of huskies and German shepherds. These two here are Summer and Greywind; real names: Odin and Thor. One Mulhall Jr. here is apparently too good-looking to be cast as an extra on GoT. That’s what his very hirsute father said. Mulhall Sr. is an extra on the series.
Mark O’Connell also mentions a Game of Thrones tapestry, 263 feet in length, made by the linen weavers of Belfast. I saw it at the Ulster Museum too, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “tapestry”, with the heft the word implies. A peek:
All that said about the violence, Northern Ireland is considered safe to visit. I’d even put together a detailed Belfast guide, if you want to experience a city in transition with a rich history and culture. And here’s an Instagram highlight on Stroke City.
While we’re on the subject, here are a couple of bashful soundbites on what the Troubles did to the pursuit of love, which turned up serendipitously in interviews I did with two men in Belfast. I won’t identify them here, because though we spoke on the record, I didn’t get their express permission to share the recording. (Also, I am mortified by my voice/laugh! Please excuse!)
Man #1: Early thirties, Catholic, unionist
So, sectarianism is less important for my generation. But at the same time, I have been rejected in my romantic pursuits, twice for being Catholic and once for being a unionist. (Laughs.) So, it hasn’t gone away completely yet. But we’re getting there.
Man #2: Late forties, “secular Protestant”, neither unionist nor nationalist
You know, I mean I still know people—by and large, they would be older—but I have a very good friend who’s a former loyalist prisoner. He’d be well known for being a womaniser: lots of girlfriends, he’s been married several times. But he’s very proud of the fact that he’s never had a physical relationship with a Catholic woman. You know, all his women would have to be Protestants… He would be fifteen years older than me. It’s funny, he’s proud of the fact that he has never been with “the other”, you know? Not everyone can be that choosy is the other issue. (Laughs.) He’s in a lovely position and he seems to have some degree of charm within his own community, you know?
I’ve read a lot of books about the Troubles (it was such a tricky thing to write about as an outsider, and I didn’t want to risk getting it wrong), and Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe is probably the best book out there on the subject right now. Unlike the other accounts, there’s a propelling spinal narrative here—the intertwined destinies of two women caught up in forces beyond their control—that holds up all the convoluted and contested history. One is Jean McConville, a young widow and mother of ten children, who was disappeared in 1972; the other is Dolores Price, a charismatic poster girl of the I.R.A. It reads like a murder-mystery novel, but is tragically, real life. I couldn’t put it down and read it all in two days. If you want a taster from the author, read The Last Testament of a Former I.R.A. Terrorist. But I’d recommend just picking up the book. I don’t think you have to have a prior interest or knowledge in the Troubles to find it book riveting, illuminating, and moving.
In particular, I was struck by how former paramilitaries have tried to come to terms, in peacetime, with what they had done and the people they had killed—especially in the face of former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’ continuous denial that he was ever in the IRA, even as his old comrades know better, and nobody really believes him anyway. On Brendan Hughes, a former IRA officer who once thought of Gerry Adams as a brother, Keefe writes:
One burden of command, in any armed conflict, is that the senior officer is obliged to make choices that may get subordinates killed. Hughes was traumatised by the orders he had given to send young volunteers—and innocent civilians—to their deaths. He replayed these events on a loop in his head. On Bloody Friday, he told Mackers, he had been the man on the ground. But it was Adams who was calling the shots. ‘Gerry was the man who made the decisions,’ he said.
By denying that he had ever played a role in the conflict, Adams was, in effect, absolving himself of any moral responsibility for catastrophes like Bloody Friday—and, in the process, disowning his one-time subordinates, like Brendan Hughes. ‘I’m disgusted with the whole thing,’ Hughes said. ‘It means that people like myself… have to carry the responsibility of all those deaths.’ If all that carnage had at least succeeded in forcing the British out of Ireland, then Hughes might be able to justify, to himself, the actions he had taken. But he felt robbed of any such rational for absolution. ‘As everything has turned out,’ he said, ‘not one death was worth it.’
‘I mean, there’s things that you can say and things you can’t say,’ he reflected. ‘I’m not going to stand up on a platform and say I was involved in the shooting of a soldier or involved in the planning of operations in England. But I’m certainly not going to stand up and deny it. And to hear people who I would have died for, and almost did on a few occasions, stand up and deny the part in history that he has played—the part in the war that he has played, the part in the war that he directed—and deny it is totally disgusting and a disgrace to all the people who have died.’
Writers among you may also find Keefe’s interview with Longform, on his process of writing the book, illuminating; I did. I would also recommend The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream.
It’s worth reading. Will make you less naive about the Troubles 😆
Lastly, a playlist cobbled together from overheard music to live gigs to word-of-mouth recommendations (literally, a stranger I met wrote me a list) during my trip to Northern Ireland.
Being able to take you with me, every step of the way, means a great deal. So please sign up if you would like to receive more letters like this in your inbox and to support my writing and curiosity. Thank you! ❤️
Something else I wrote recently
Soon, their inner rhythm takes hold. A man drops to the ground. He shudders and writhes, upending the bamboo floorboards, scattering his leaf whisk so violently it turns into confetti. Other men embrace him as if to absorb his energy, or perhaps to steady him; they anoint him with their bouquets. Then, he stops still; the exposed soles of his feet, turned up, look strangely vulnerable.
A story I love
The Ghost of Capablanca by Brin-Jonathan Butler:
While pawns are the most vulnerable piece on the chessboard, they are also the only piece capable of transforming into something entirely new, provided they make the perilous journey across the board. [..]
“We admire la lucha [‘the struggle’] as much on the chessboard as we do in the boxing ring. Our lives here have always been a struggle, and approaching that struggle with the courage of a boxer or the cunning and intelligence of a chess player is something that commands our respect. The same rules apply in a boxing ring or on the chessboard or growing up in our crazy system: resolver. Many places around the world are confronted with the same thing. They just don’t have our sense of style.”
The places we make & the places that make us
Every great bar is a breath of paradise, and the best ones know, in their gleaming surfaces, what Proust meant when he said that the true paradises are the paradises we have lost.
—Andrew O’Hagan, A Love Letter to Drinking in Bars
Something to tickle your funny bone
OK, I don’t know if you can call this a love letter, exactly. But the affectionate condescension made me laugh, a little guiltily, as much as the sincere and full love it professes struck deep. It’s a declaration that belongs totally to another era. More at letterslive.com, which I came across while looking for things to do for an upcoming trip to England. What can I say? I’m a sucker for epistolary romance.
Life stranger than fiction, kindling thoughts, glimpses of horror & beauty
The curious, very English, world of barristers’ clerks: one of the last surviving professions of Dickensian London. #
“I’m Stephanie,” the billboard reads. “I was raped by a guy like this in a place like that. I told the club and the police, but no one did anything. So I painted this billboard.” #
“Incels” are going under the knife to reshape their faces, and their dating prospects. #
To get pregnant, Palestinian women whose partners are locked up in Israeli prisons smuggle out semen hidden in candy wrappers. #
Young girls in El Salvador commit suicide to escape the cycle of violence. #
Next time you travel, check the bonafides of your wildlife “sanctuary”. #
Read this for the next time you see “truffle” on the menu, and be rightly suspicious. #
It’s Craig Mod’s thing to take long walks in Japan and unplug himself from technology, experimenting with new ways of documenting, and he wrote another essay about it. #
Some words to live by
He had become so caught up in building sentences that he had almost forgotten the barbaric days when thinking was like a splash of colour landing on a page.
—Edward St. Aubyn, Mother’s Milk