Letter #3 from Northern Ireland – Blurred lines of violence, loyalty, and love

The trouble with the Troubles and what it's got to do with Game of Thrones.

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We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
Yeats #

Belfast’s most symbolic “peace wall”—yes, it still has peace walls, more than two decades after the Troubles. Extending along Cupar Way, this one is 800 metres long and 13.5 metres tall, blast-proof concrete topped with metal sheet and mesh. 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. (The terminology: loyalists and republicans are seen to be more strident than unionists and nationalists, 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 petrol bomb.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the 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 paramilitaries.

In April, it had the world’s attention again when Lyra McKee, a promising young journalist, was accidentally shot in the head by a splinter republican group called the Real IRA during a riot in Londonderry/Derry (depending 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 still 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” (The Atlantic), 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” (Foreign Policy)—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” (New York Times), and “Why the idea of a United Ireland is back in play” (Financial Times) 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.

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” (New York Times) 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 Game of Thrones tours—a lot of the show was filmed in Northern Ireland, and Belfast’s Titanic Studios was its home. But I’d spent most of the tour thinking—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.

Among the Gothic ruins of Inch Abbey, from the twelfth century, in County Down. It was here that Robb Stark’s banner men rallied to him after they emerged victorious in the Battle of the Whispering Wood. That’s me, looking away, when someone offered to take a photo for me. I think I was thinking: I don’t really want to be caught in this get-up, but…

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 sentiment of a place that has lent itself to a world that made 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 Game of Thrones. 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:

And now, our watch is ended. To rest, Game of Thrones. I look forward to continuing the books—I’d stopped at the second one years ago!—and the upcoming prequel headlined by Naomi Watts. (Though this, and this, still bothers me.)

P.S. All that said about violence, Northern Ireland is considered safe to visit. I’d put together a detailed Belfast guide, if you want to experience a city in transition with a rich history and culture. I’d also posted 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, the author wrote a New Yorker story, “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 this book riveting, illuminating, and moving.

In particular, I am struck by how former paramilitaries have tried to come to terms, in peacetime, with what they’ve done and the people they’ve killed—especially in the face of former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’ continuous denial that he was ever in the I.R.A., even as his old comrades say they 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 this book he wrote: The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American DreamHe’s one of my favourite nonfiction writers.

A snidely funny—and personally mortifying—excerpt from Lionel Shriver’s Ordinary Decent Criminals, from the back-of-book “Glossary of Troublesome Terms”:

It’s worth reading. Will make you less naive about the Troubles. I identified somewhat with the female protagonist.

Also, I’m on Goodreads.

Something 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.

Read more of my dispatch from Kelantan, Malaysia: “This Land Is Our Land” in the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Summer 2019 issue. It’ll soon be liberated from the paywall. Get in touch if you’d like a discounted annual VQR subscription: USD$25 for 4 issues—I have a code for you!

This letter was made while listening to…

…cobbled together from overheard music to live gigs to word-of-mouth recommendations during my trip to Northern Ireland.

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