In Love With Cathleen ni Houlihan

An IRA-led tour of Troubles-torn Derry, Northern Ireland

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By David G. Allan

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2002 on the website David’s column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here:

DERRY, Northern Ireland — “We’re just in a lull right now. Every generation has a quiet period. But the IRA will rise again,” explains Sean, a 70-something, self-described ex-hippie looking like Karl Marx with his long hair parted across his head and stroking a Father Christmas beard. We were standing in a pub just outside the old city walls of this factioned city while he talked of the Troubles, the euphemistic term for the sectarian violence between Loyalist Protestants and Irish Nationalist Catholics.

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It’s easy to get into a political discussion here in the North, where neighborhoods paint their alliance on their curbs and the Troubles are a recent memory. Outside the pub’s front window where Sean and I stood you can see “IRA” spraypainted on a few of the shop gates. Only a few blocks away in an infamous Catholic neighborhood called the Bogside stands a Bloody Sunday memorial and political murals are splashed across the sides of homes. Even the name of this city is political. Catholics call it Derry. Protestants call it by its British-given full name, Londonderry. Simply referring to the city puts you on one side or the other (politically correct news announcers call it “Derry-Londonderry,” all in one breath).

While I discussed the Troubles with Sean, Kate was chatting it up with John (not his real name) who was more interested in criticizing President Bush than talking about local politics. But at the end of the night he made us promise to meet him the next day so he could give us a tour of the city walls and the Bogside. The next afternoon we were outside the pub, but John wasn’t. The publican said to try a pub across the street and there were John and Sean, both with only a vague recollection of the night before. After apologizing and quickly downing his Guinness, John took us on our impromptu tour.

Just outside the old Derry city walls is Rossville Street, ground zero for most of the violence that has plagued this border town. We stopped at the Bloody Sunday monument and John pointed to different spots where gunmen and protestors were when the 13 protestors (among 20,000, all unarmed) were shot and killed by British troops on January 30, 1972. It was like being at Gettysburg with one of the soldiers. To this day no soldier or officer has been found responsible for the deaths on Bloody Sunday nor has faced trial, and the resentment lingers. An information plaque in front of the monument reads, “A debt of justice and truth is still owed the victims, the bereaved and the people of Derry…The British military, British judiciary, and the British government and the Stormont regime — all must accept responsibility for Bloody Sunday and its consequences.”

We walked across the street to a coiffured grassy median and a huge granite letter ‘H’ with the names of the ten hunger strikers who died in a Belfast prison in 1981. The most famous was Bobby Sands who was the first to die, not long after he was actually elected into office while in jail. John explained, suddenly angry, that the deaths of the hunger strikers were directly caused by Margaret Thatcher’s (“f****ing b****”) broken promises made to the prisoners. Beyond the hunger strikers memorial is a white-washed wall announcing “Welcome to Free Derry” and across the street are large murals showing a murdered victim on Bloody Sunday, another of a 14-year-old school girl who was killed by the police, and Bernadette Devlin, a Catholic civil rights leader who was shot by British troops eight times. She’s still alive today.

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John’s explanations and pointing to places where people were shot and mobs pushed into riot gear, gave the area a surreal Dealy Plaza feel. It seems so quiet now; how could that horror have taken place right where I’m leisurely walking? Then our guide pointed up toward the city’s wall above us to a tower surrounded by barbed wire. Cameras and microphones, he said. They monitor everyone who comes down here. They are listening to our conversation, he said. We squinted up at the tower. I stopped asking about the Irish Republican Army. Kate noticed police sitting up on a wall watching us from outside their armored car.

Walking up on the city wall, where Catholics were not allowed to go for a decade during the Troubles, John stopped at an area from which police indiscriminately shot protestors. It was an excellent view of the battlefield below. Kate asked him about the word “volunteer,” the title given to all members of the IRA, wondering if there are ranks within the Army. “Everyone is a volunteer. There are no official ranks,” he said. “We used to have officers,” he added, stopping to correct himself, a smile cracking over his face. “Sorry, I mean, the IRA used to have officers.” He chuckled at his mistaken confession. His secret out, John later told tales of close calls with car bombs, raids into the Protestant neighborhood, and how he had to go “on holiday” in America for a time because of what was happening around these old walls. At this point we were probably out of range of the microphones because admitting you are in the IRA can result in immediate imprisonment. That is why, even though it is common knowledge that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was a high-ranking “volunteer” he can never admit that fact publicly.

An official tour group passed us as we walked atop the Derry walls. John was giving us a history lesson about the rift between Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 that established a separate Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. All I heard from the organized tour guide was a snippet that went, “…and the IRA was responsible for the deaths of…” Clearly we were on a different tour.

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Although violence in Northern Ireland hasn’t made international news of late, it has not ceased. The day we left Belfast there had been shots aimed at man in a Protestant neighborhood believed to be IRA-fueled, and a mob had attacked police vehicles (which look like armored bank trucks) from a high-rise rooftop in response to what they felt were unfair tactics by police searching apartments in the building. The night we were out with John and Sean a high-ranking Loyalist was killed in a smaller town, Republicans were suspected. And more recently Sinn Fein headquarters have been raided by police and the political party has been accused of having documents that would aid terrorists. Pro-Unionist leaders now want to exclude Sinn Fein from government representation altogether which would effectually end all the progress made since the Good Friday Agreement and at the very least require direct rule from London once again. How long must we sing this song?

The death toll in this ongoing struggle may have dropped off in recent years, but there are plenty of lingering signs of separatist aggression. In Belfast Kate and I drove along Falls Road, the Irish section, full of murals calling for peace and commemorating those who died at the hands of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the police and British troops. On one side of the Sinn Fein headquarters building is a two-story memorial to Bobby Sands. Then we drove to Shankill Road, the Protestant neighborhood, full of flying British flags (probably left over from the recent Golden Jubilee celebration for the Queen), murals commemorating dead soldiers, and whole residential blocks where curbs have been painted the colors of the Union Jack. Even the side of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant read, “Welcome to the UFF Heartland/Shakill Rd/Quis Separabit.”

And it’s more sectarian here, where tall fences separate the Loyalists of Londonderry from the Unionists of Derry to discourage the throwing of bottles. Everyone is free to go where they want but no one wants to go in the other’s neighborhood unless they’re looking for a fight. It’s not surprising that separatist tension feels more heated here than in Belfast. Derry saw the beginning of the Troubles and will likely be the last holdout before they end. Made up of about 60 percent Catholics in the late-60s but run by Protestants, Derry’s apartheid-lite was fertile soil for civil rights protest. Early marches and demonstrations for fair elections and equal job and housing opportunities for Catholics were met with either police brutality or Protestant mobs unchecked by the authorities. And when the protestors began to fight back, the first British army troops sent to Northern Ireland were sent here. The Catholics responded to this military presence with their own: the IRA. And so it went. And so it goes.

Northern Ireland is currently under a Cold Civil War. Peace negotiations have brought enough Protestants and Catholics to center ground where at least they can argue without bloodshed. But the problem is not just a political one. There is genuine and justified mutual animosity between Catholics and Protestants. British police and soldiers did deny Catholics their civil rights, even tortured suspected IRA members. The IRA is a terrorist group in the classic meaning of the word, using the threat of violence to further their goal of a unified Ireland. And because the Troubles happened in just the last forty years, the nation lacks the generational distance that helps the healing process along.

Sean has lived in Derry for 30 years but grew up in Dublin. When I asked him why he moved up North, he took a reflective sip of his whiskey and spoke cheerfully, if a bit cryptically. “When people here ask me why I moved I tell them it was for a woman.” There was twinkle in his eye and he looked at me. I smiled and nodded and asked if that was truly the case. “Aye,” he said, “Her name is Cathleen ni Houlihan.” (The “ni” prefix is the feminine form of O’, meaning “of the house or clan of.”)

“But the joke was on them,” Sean chuckled. “Cathleen ni Houlihan was Yeats’ name for Ireland.” So, like other Irish social activists in the early ‘70s, Sean came here to do his part in the struggle. Although he described himself as a hippie and has campaigned for travelers’ (a gypsy-like minority in Ireland and the UK) rights, he’s no pacifist. “I’m no longer active,” he said, meaning active in the IRA (I assumed). “But I do get the dole from the old b****,” he laughed at the uttering of lese-majesty and clearly pleased to still be doing his part to undermine the economy of his enemy.

After our evening in the pub, Kate and I caught an episode of “West Wing” on the television in our hotel room. One of the plot threads had the British ambassador arguing that a fictitious Gerry Adams should not be allowed to visit the White House. And the argument he made is the Loyalist one: Sinn Fein may be legitimate but they are still the political arm of the IRA and certain factions of the now-fractured IRA still refuse to disarm. And, the character argued, as long as they are armed and use violence to achieve their goals, even the Sinn Fein should be considered terrorists.

Although it may be impossible to disarm all who align themselves with one side or the other, or stop police from treating Catholics unfairly, there is still work to be done. The Sinn Fein could take a pacifist stance in their politics and use newfound inroads in Parliament to push for more autonomy in Northern Ireland without encouraging the IRA to help in the effort. The police could hire more Catholics. The IRA could turn in their guns. Britain could allow the Northern Ireland Assembly the same level independence Scotland now enjoys. And Northern Irish children can be encouraged to forget the past and help mend the future. Cathleen ni Houlihan, the title character of a one-act play that helped inspire the Easter Uprising battle in Ireland’s War of Independence, was described by Yeats himself as the woman “for whom so many songs have been sung and about whom so many stories have been told and for whose sake so many have gone to their death.”

And while reform is needed, it’ll still take time for the bitterness to go away among those affected first hand. Land given away to British barons to encourage occupation of the territory (reminiscent of the Chinese migration into Tibet), the exclusion of Catholic workers at British-owned industries, police brutality, IRA violence, military occupation, checkpoints to halt the free movement of Catholics, car bombs, death, and on and on. There’s a lot of recent past to ignore. But the alternative, to continue on this cyclical violent course, only gives both sides more to ignore.

“More than 300 years,” Sean said solemnly over his dram, and grumbling about a long legacy English persecution and brutality. I told him “Gandhi got the English to leave India in 28 years, and without a war. Don’t you think Northern Ireland needs a Gandhi?” Sean thought, sipped, and shook his head. “No,” he said, missing my point, “It won’t be over until they leave.”

Two Christian groups, murdering each other for decades now. “The only people on Earth who don’t realize that Christianity is a religion of non-violence are the Christians,” wrote Mohandas Gandhi.

I don’t know if this prologue or epilogue but back in 1970, British Home Secretary Reginald Maudling ended his political career when he made his famous and oft quoted observation that the best Northern Ireland could hope for is “an acceptable level of violence.” Thirty years later, that is exactly what we have, with no end in sight.

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CNN’s Editorial Director of Features (Travel, Style, Wellness, Science), plus The Wisdom Project column. This account represents my personal views, not CNN’s.

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