'The Troubles' (1975-1980): A Personal Memoir

Address to the Torch Club, Lansdowne Woods of Virginia, November 16, 2021

Torch Club

LANSDOWNE WOODS of VIRIGNIA

November 16, 2021

‘The Troubles’: A Personal Memoir


‘The Troubles’ refers to the period of civil strife in Irish History that began in 1968 and lasted for 31 years up to the 1999 Good Friday Agreement, though challenges to political tranquility have arisen from Brexit. From 1975-1980 I lived in Northern Ireland where I was a senior University Professor.  From 1976 I was also Director of the Institute of Continuing Education based at Magee College, the University’s campus in Londonderry, now Derry as it has legally reverted to the city’s Irish name.  

Let me say at the outset that I met my Welsh wife Ann there in 1978.  We have many happy memories of an intense social life, quite apart from the grim reality of the Troubles. Before that, I had met the Queen and Prince Philip in 1977 on the occasion of her Jubilee, and at the large formal lunch I was surprised to watch her Majesty putting on her lipstick before addressing the nation on TV. A phalanx of international press cameramen were watching, no doubt hoping to catch her assassination on film. 

I was fortunate to meet outstandingly courageous men and women: 2 Nobel Peace Prize winners, Mairead Corrigan and John Hume. Holding Mairead’s Nobel Peace Prize medal for a while was really ‘cool.’ Then there was Paddy Doherty, a fervent advocate for a United Ireland, who organized the Bogside, a Catholic community in Derry in the face of police attacks and was subsequently dubbed King of the Bogside.  And Tim Gee, a senior civil servant based in Belfast who became our friend summed up his life by saying that in Northern Ireland he had laid down his liver for his country. He was not joking.


AN OVERVIEW OF THE CONTEXT

With that introduction, let me first offer a mere glimpse of the social and political context of NI at the time, and then I’ll describe my own experiences in terms of three topics - identity, language, and civil strife. I will not get into detail of my academic life, except where it impinges on these topics.

It is difficult to underestimate the immense social, psychological and political impact of the violence that marked the Troubles on the 1.5 million citizens of Northern Ireland, especially when there were many unspeakable atrocities. Three examples: In 1971, the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) placed a bomb in McGurks Bar in Belfast which killed 13 adults, two children and wounded seventeen others. In 1976, gunmen from the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) stopped a minibus carrying textile workers home in rural County Armagh. Eleven Protestant workmen were lined up and shot. A Catholic workman was unharmed.  Nor was the army immune: in 1979 at Warrenpoint 18 soldiers were killed in a single ambush.

Before 1968, prisons were being closed as there was decreasing demand. Over the 31 years, the prison population exploded to over 3,000 men and women. 3,500 people lost their lives, including several judges, many policemen, soldiers and civilians, the British Ambassador to Ireland, and Lord Mountbatten, Prince Philip’s uncle. The catalogue of death and destruction reached British cities as well, with both the IRA and UVF responsible for appalling atrocities. Moreover, recent inquiries reveal extraordinarily monstrous behavior by British intelligence.

The last 600 hundred years in the history of Ireland is that of a fractured oppressed colonial society mired in conflict over culture, race and religion. A classic example of that society is this: During the Irish famine, Ireland was a net exporter of food with a monthly value of 100,000 pounds sterling, grain, butter, ham etc.  However, the terms ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ describe a culture and a politics as much as religious belief.  During the Troubles these two sides might better described as the Nationalists, those who want a united Ireland (largely Catholic by faith and Loyalists who want to stay within the United Kingdom (largely Protestants of different stripes). These are not names for political parties. That quarrel is the core political issue, after the partition of Ireland in 1920.

Yet if the political issue is over the unification of Ireland, the socio-cultural factor that dominates Northern Ireland is Myth. For Nationalist and Loyalists each live in a set of myths about the other which are astonishing in their historical complexity but which generate and foster inter-community hatred. Though a myth may be persuasive to an individual, a myth is a is a false belief.  When I used to hear such a myth asserted by someone from one side or the other, I always wanted to reply: and do you believe in Santa Claus too?

We wean children off belief in Santa Claus precisely because we know that human beings should hold beliefs that are true, not mythical. But myths are characteristically unshakeable: a man saddled with anti-Semitic prejudice is not often persuaded by truth or reason, comfortable as he is, living with the myth. For communities in Northern Ireland their myths are enhanced by songs, poems, slogans, and celebratory parades, in which the pulpit often plays a part. 

Irish unification and myth have shaped history over the years. Ireland was forced into union with Britain in 1800 sparking demands thereafter for a reversal, for Irish Home Rule. Such debates were solved after WW1 by a partition of the country, though merely saying that is to ignore a vast and complex history. Northern Ireland was then created as a constitutional entity in 1920 incorporating six of the 32 Irish counties in the Irish Province of Ulster although 3 remaining Ulster’s counties were not included. The population comprised 1 million Protestants and half a million Catholics. Thereafter it was governed by its own Parliament on the Westminster model, based at Stormont near Belfast, and along with England Scotland and Wales became part of the United Kingdom. It had a Governor-General, the Queens representative, and Northern Ireland people could elect representatives both to their own Parliament at Stormont in Belfast and to the Parliament at Westminster.

Thereafter discriminatory laws imposed on the Catholic minority were persistent and wide-ranging and the source of constant complaints and angry rhetoric. After the turmoil of WW2 in the 1960s such organizations as the Derry Citizens Action Committee began to work for non-violent change. However, Dr. King’s assassination set alight Civil Rights Movements all over Europe. In Northern Ireland protest marches became the framework for all the Catholic minority discontents as second-class citizens: gerrymandering, job discrimination, allocation of public housing, voting limited to householders in local elections and the alleviation of dreadful poverty and unemployment.  

Such civil rights protests and marches in mid 1968 were viewed as an assault on Protestant dominance. Marches were banned or limited but such orders were often defied. Regular police along with the para-military police force known as the B Specials, sought to subdue all such protests with force. By October 1968 the Stormont Government had either lost control of its police force or was implicated in its brutality, or both. Indeed it was in turmoil. Three moderate Prime Ministers were ousted in succession as proposals to respond to the minority grievances were thwarted.  Loyalist/Protestant sentiment proved rock solid intransigent and became increasingly violent as the Democratic Unionist Party under a firebrand cleric Ian Paisley began to dominate Protestant politics. 

Worldwide attention began to focus on this turmoil, especially when a student protest march across the Province was ambushed at Burntollet Bridge by B Specials and Ulster Volunteers. That was immediately followed by a police riot, where armed regular constables attacked people living in the Bogside in Derry for three days, breaking into homes and in one case killing a distinguished member of the Catholic community with apparent impunity. This was the Battle of the Bogside Riots spread rapidly to Belfast where intensive inter-community warfare began, with rows of Catholic homes burnt out. 

It is worth noting that in Derry, under Paddy Doherty’s direction, the Bogside community had no armaments:  only petrol bombs were used to repel the police. Young children even helped in community defense. After the Battle of the Bogside, with the police writ no longer running in that community, a wall read: “You are now entering Free Derry.” The situation got so out of hand by the last months of 1968 that the Stormont Government asked for British troops to act as a peacekeeping force, and  by mid-1969 some 1,500 Catholic families had been forced out of their homes.

The Stormont Government’s response to this lawlessness was confused and tragic.  Manifestly it was one-sided in failing to curtail its police and the Loyalist volunteers who initiated the violence.  In 1971 the Government began to intern men and women identified as sympathizers with the nationalist cause, regarding them as enemies of the NI constitution, a policy that could not have been handled more badly. However in Derry during 1969 a splinter group of the old IRA in Derry developed a determined strategy of violence to answer violence. This group was the Provisional IRA (the Provos) which moved rapidly to a broad-based strategy of assassination and bombing financed by Irish-Americans and Colonel Gaddafi. Initially the Provos had just sought to defend Catholic homes in Belfast as well as Derry in response to the first domestic terrorist group of the time, the Loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force which had been active in terrorism since 1966.

1972 was a terrible year. More than 500 people were killed, half of them civilians; hundreds of buildings were bombed, and barricades and walls were established between communities all across the Province, some by Government, some by inhabitants. The Heath Government in Westminster intervened and abolished the Stormont Parliament and imposed direct rule from London. A negotiated settlement in 1973 collapsed, though some police reforms were instituted. With direct rule British troops arrived in force, reaching 27,000 at its peak. Its peacekeeping role had evaporated as the Army became part of the policing system, with soldiers now targets for the IRA. On January 30, 1972, Bloody Sunday, soldiers from the elite Parachute Regiment shot and killed 13 unarmed civilians in Derry, behavior quite incomprehensible to the protestors. The subsequent enquiry by the Lord Chief Justice whitewashed the massacre, further inflaming nationalist sentiment and increasing support for the Provisional IRA.  

What then was the situation in 1975?  ‘Serious but not hopeless,’ said the British, used to being able to contain colonial uprisings.

‘Hopeless but not serious,’ said the Irish, used to 600 years of British oppression.

I turned on the local radio news one morning shortly after I arrived in 1975 to hear that a Loyalist had burst into a home in Catholic Belfast and shot and killed the father in front of his wife and children. As he left the house he was heard to say: “Oh Christ, I’m in the wrong house.”  Such is the unspeakable and horrific depravity of the human spirit when caught in a maelstrom of violence.  As de Tocqueville told us: People respond with depraved violence to what they see as usurped and oppressive power, for oppressive power can only be sustained through violence.  Calamity, ruin, tragedy, devastation and widespread misfortune follow.

IDENTITY

Now to three items: Identity, Language and Civil Strife as I experienced them.

Identity first. Identity for Loyalists and Nationalists implies that mythical history is neither forgotten nor forgiven. Curbstones in a specific district were painted either red, white and blue as I discovered driving around the city of Derry. They would be or orange and green in Nationalist areas. Houses and front doors were sometimes the same and flags of identity were a commonplace. Being driven through the town of Ballymena on my way to the interview for the job, the car slowed down past the garage door of a house on which was scrawled in white paint: ‘Remember 1690.’  

1690?  What on earth? Ah yes, remembering my history, the Battle of the Boyne where the Protestant William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James II of England and was promptly made King by the mercantile lobby in London deeply opposed to James’ claims for absolute monarchy. 331 years on and in the Protestant/Nationalist community in Derry there were several huge end of terrace wall paintings of King Billy. Notice King Billy strangling James II. Loyalists too proclaimed their violent identity. Yet if communities yelled their identity from their streets, identity was also apparent in physiognomy. Protestant acquaintances told me that ‘you can tell them by their eyes,’ the blue eyes and dark hair typical of the Irish as opposed to the ginger-blond freckled countenance of the Scots-Irish. 

         However the main characteristic of identity for anyone in Northern Ireland was contained in the question “where did you go to school?” for community identity was instilled in children through separate though publicly supported schooling. School children rarely encountered any child from the other community. Maintained schools were predominantly Catholic, staffed in part by such clergy as Christian Brothers or Sisters of Mercy. The State Schools served children from Protestant Communities. Two interesting factors here: First, surely a school had to help children deal with the civil strife within which they lived? Not at all: in Belfast I visited a Catholic high school and asked the Principal, a nun, how the school helped the students cope with the mayhem: “Och,” she said, “I won’t have any talk about that in my school, professor, the children come here to get away from it.” In fact children began to take it all for granted, itself a tragedy.

Second, I played a minor role in the attempt to create integrated schools to foster mutual understanding, with projects financed by British Quaker charities. The idea was to get teachers together from the different school systems and promote understanding between them as a basis for a school curriculum of cultural studies.  I thus conducted a seminar with a mixed group of teachers and I talked in my airy English way about the virtues of tolerance, but was stopped short by the question from a Protestant teacher: “Tell me, sir, what’s so good about tolerance?” I still think about that question.  

To promote cross-cultural discussion I convened and chaired a meeting with what in Derry would be called ‘two lovely people’,  in this case the Protestant Bishop of Derry and the Cardinal Archbishop from Armagh. They spent two affable hours together, but I could see there was no serious intent to promote integrated schools.  Schools after all were the vehicles for maintaining allegiance to their faiths.

The only group I taught who were completely oblivious to this cultural divide were nurses. They were my favorite group to teach.  I had negotiated with their professional organization a year-long program for 12 nurse students training to be tutors of nurses. These men and women spent their working lives in hospitals with victims of violence, tending to hideous injuries, often having to work non-stop with a blitz of victims after a bombing or a mass shooting. They were a wild bunch, not afraid of hard work, on sabbatical in Derry, all good friends and, boy, did they know how to party! Their dominant identity was as nurses, not loyalists or nationalists, unlike the clergy.

But Identity took other odd forms.The University was no oasis. In my first year, I unguardedly said in the faculty lounge that I thought the least important thing about me was that I was English at which an Irish colleague erupted in anger, “That’s just the trouble with you fucking English!” In the Senior Common Room Bar, a right-wing Protestant lecturer in Linguistics told an Irish ex-Jesuit philosophy professor in my hearing that, if civil war broke out “I will kill you, because you are my friend.” Even friendship could not overcome identity.

The University welcomed all students and indeed had a good contingent from south of the border.  The Chancellor of the University was an honorary position, held when I was first there by the elderly Duke of Abercorn, a close family friend of the Royal Family; his Duchess was the Queen Mother’s quaintly known Mistress of the Bedchamber.  (My wife Ann was introduced to this dignitary in the VIP Ladies lavatory.) The Duke’s role was to preside at Commencement ceremonies. I overheard him remark to the Vice-Chancellor (equivalent to a University President) after one such occasion: “Not so many of them this year, eh Bill?” This aristocrat could not see students as students, they had to be either Catholics or Protestants. His assumption was that ‘not so many’ Catholics or Irish was a good thing.

How could he tell one from the other in a graduation ceremony?  By their surnames of course, for a name confirmed identity. Murphy, Kelly, Gallagher, almost any name beginning with O’ as in O’Reilly, contrasted with Campbell, Stewart, Murray, Ross and so on.  Yet that was not a 100% guide.  A good friend of ours and a moderate Protestant/Loyalist was Adrian Kennedy. Perhaps his moderation came from the fact that he had played rugby for Ireland.


LANGUAGE

If identity was kept very much alive through graffiti, recognizable in physiognomy, and entrenched by distinctive schooling, what of language? Early on I gave a ride to an elderly man who talked to me non-stop, occasionally tugging at my jacket sleeve, and I smiled and nodded as I drove, because I could not understand a single word of what he was saying in his North Antrim dialect, though it was definitely English, not Gaelic or Irish.  When finally a few miles on, he gave my arm a severe jolt, I realized I had long since driven past his destination but he got out with a cheerful wave.  Understanding what people said, I realized, might be difficult: understanding what they meant by what they said had to be learnt, and in Northern Ireland that could be difficult. One or two words of Irish origin were often used in conversation, notably craic, meaning a good time, so ‘let’s have some craic’, or ‘that was great craic’.  Others needed interpretation -  ‘When Hardy comes to Hardy’, for instance.

More seriously language was a tool of oppression, for the Stormont Government suppressed the Irish language completely within its jurisdiction, and that was a continuing source of protest. An Irish student of mine was told that his check to the University for tuition, written in Irish, was unacceptable. My appeal on his behalf failed. Ireland of course accepted cheques in English.

One of my responsibilities was to read out the list of successful Masters’ degree graduates at a commencement.  One year, I noticed that the name of a student I had taught as Sean McMahon listed on the official document I was reading from as John McMahon. I called out his name from the platform as Sean, and he came up to me afterwards with tears in his eyes to thank me for using his real name. Why was this? Since 1920, officials registering the birth of a child were legally obliged to use the anglicized version if the chosen name was Irish. So Seamus was written on a birth certificate as James, Sean as John, Siobhan for Janet and so on.  Oppression of language thus included the rule that even a parent’s choice of name for a child could be legally ignored.

         But language in Northern Ireland was also awash in profanity at all levels of society. I was involved with a government-funded workshop for 14-year-old disaffected youth run by Paddy Doherty. Most of the boys used only one word beginning with an F to use as verb, noun and adjective. So Paddy employed a communications teacher who was 90% deaf-mute, forcing the boys to find ways to use descriptive not profane language.  I picked up two bad habits in Northern Ireland. First I learnt to drink alcohol heavily, you know, four or five pints of Guinness at lunch before going into a committee meeting. I am loath also to admit I also picked up the profanity habit, so shortly after we moved from Derry to an English university, I soon became known there as the professor who swears. I got over it.  I did not want to upset the delicate sensibilities of the English.

CIVIL STRIFE

Life went on, of course. Women mowed their lawns. They went about their business often under the interested gaze of such regiments as the Black Watch Regiment but after 1973 soldiers avoided women as three of them were lured to a party and killed there by the IRA. For the IRA the continuing threat was explicit. ‘We have only to be lucky once: you have to be lucky all the time.’ So, how did Civil Strife affect us? 

The main effect on my psychology in the first three months there was that I woke up nearly every morning terrified, my muscles frozen, unable to move, convinced that someone was holding a pistol to the back of my head.  Goodness knows individual terrors those civilians in the front lines lived through. I was also more seriously frightened one night driving home across the mountain from Belfast Airport to Derry. I was suddenly unable to get my car lights down from full beam. I knew that if I encountered an army checkpoint, they’d shoot my lights out, and probably me, no questions asked.

We had some initial IRA luck at Magee. A car bomb was left outside a Nissen hut in the grounds where police were meeting with community leaders. Only the detonator went off. That left me sick to my stomach for several days as it would have probably killed all the 25-30 folk inside and wrecked our mission into the bargain. One July morning in 1980 my secretary showed a journalist from the local paper into my office. He handed me a letter sent to the paper threatening to ‘eradicate those elements at Magee providing clandestine intelligence to the British war machine’, i.e. the Army. After discussions with University administrators I wrote a detailed response denying any such thing, but then we thought that if the Army weren’t hacking into our computers they weren’t doing their job.

Nothing followed that letter. Sadly, however, a year or so after Ann and I left, however, a small car bomb in his car killed a student in front of the college, and the two policemen who investigated it set off a booby trap bomb and were also killed. A former President of the Student Union from my time was later arrested and convicted. Several years later we learnt that one IRA cell in Derry had discussed the assassination of a member of the faculty who was Ann’s brother-in-law John, but he was given ‘the benefit of the doubt.’ 

The problem one encountered with soldiers was that the Army was composed of young men, often in the military because of their inability to do much else. ‘Don’t shoot us: we only work here’ was one motto. They were also rightly frightened of the dangers they faced. When my mother came to stay, she opened the front door one morning and a fully-armed soldier fell back into the house. He was much more frightened than she was, but he might well have reacted badly.

One Sunday morning Ann and I sent the children down the street to the main road near the river to buy a newspaper and some candy. While they were away, there was the familiar sound of gunfire quite close which terrified us, and outside the church two hundred yards away an off-duty policeman had been shot and killed with his young daughter holding his hand. Thankfully, the children returned unaware of the shooting. Yet one simply got used to noise of explosions, burnt-out shops and gunfire. Protests continued of course. We went downtown to Derry frequently: One Saturday afternoon to the dry cleaners, as I recall. He was hurriedly boarding up his shop as along the street to our right was the street leading to the Bogside where we saw a large protest group gathering: A typical weekend occurrence.  On our left up a side street waited a very heavily armed military unit with two ‘pigs” those six-wheeled Saracen vehicles much like tanks. Not keen to be caught between the two Ann and I hi-tailed it home to bed and a few martinis. Although I was clearly English (my car had English decals) I never felt to be a target, though I was always on the qui vive for some random act, such as the bombing of a building. I struggled to show independence from each side, solicitous for both, but that was an invidious position and insecure stance. I avoided contact with the police as far as was possible.

We had a gateway program for adult students to enter undergraduate study, which included many men and women released from prison after serving 8 out of 15 years for terrorism. I got government support to double the recruitment to 40 students a year which was seen as very important as Derry had a long tradition of learning. Through teaching, however, I also gained some insight in talking with individuals about their lives, even as terrorists. I supervised a student who was the self-styled PR Officer of the Irish National Liberation Army, and he happily told me detail of the disciplines of the terrorist organizations. 

We had one ex-IRA student who was on crutches. He’d been knee-capped. Knee-capping was the regular punishment for any member who broke the rules. I learnt of three ways your knees can receive a bullet, which yields a hierarchy of damage reflecting the severity of the punishment. It is too gross to explain. When sentenced, your best friend was the man ordered to carry out the punishment. If a death sentence was pronounced in the IRA, usually for informers, a priest was fetched along at gun-point to give last rites. How inhuman? Or was it?


CONCLUSION

One of my colleagues remarked at the time that we were living in the West’s future. That was prophetic. My NI experience leaves me deeply concerned about this country, my adopted nation. So much of what goes on in the social and political firmament here nowadays is eerily similar to the conditions which preceded those 31 terribly troubled years. In a very recent poll here, 39% of members of one political party think that violence is needed, and two-thirds of them think voting should be limited. As I reflect on the human injury and despair in the time of the Troubles in Northern Ireland what do I make of that? Yet if we try to learn from history are we always doomed to repeat it?