Editor's note: One hundred years ago this month, a band of former British soldiers, Irish language enthusiasts and poets launched the first major armed uprising against the British empire in the 20th century. What became known as the Easter Rising was the first skirmish in a war of independence that resulted in the Irish Free State in 1922 and, eventually, the formal declaration of an Irish Republic in 1949. The revolt also planted the seeds of political discord in Northern Ireland, where troubles remained for the rest of the century. The Observer commemorates the anniversary of the Easter Rising by republishing this story from August 1994.
In this place, stories hang in the air like the smoke from peat fires on a dank spring evening — stories of sorrow, stories of rage, stories that follow you into your private corners.
Everyone knows them. Everyone tells them. Everyone is part of them. John Whiteside remembers the fellow worker, an army reservist, blown up by a car bomb. A wife and kids left behind.
Rev. Jim McCormick tells of the parishioner who was assassinated — car bomb again — because he sold some bricks to the police to repair a bomb-damaged station.
Newspaper editor Richard Montgomery recalls the day a grief-stricken 20-year old woman brought in a love-letter to her murdered fiancé. A week later, she was dead by her own hand, and Montgomery was writing about her funeral.
Jean Kelly remembers the man killed beneath the Celtic cross down the road from her home. Ken Stewart tells of the 800-lb. bomb that went off across the square from his flat. Father Denis Faul grimly talks about how many times he’s had to tell mothers that sons have been ambushed or were starving themselves to death in prison.
Here, in the County Tyrone town of Dungannon, and throughout Northern Ireland, stories have power. They shape identities, determine the course of lives, sow seeds of stories yet untold. They are part of a tragic, insatiable anthology called the Troubles.
The Troubles are a state of mind as well as a state of civil unrest, bequeathed from one generation to the next and hardened with each telling. The Troubles are a force bigger than other people, and so they sigh, “That’s just the way it is here.”
I have a story. Twenty-five years ago while on vacation in the British Isles, my family showed up unannounced on the doorstep of my father’s aunt in Dungannon. After figuring out who we were, she beckoned all of us to come inside. In we traipsed, my mother bringing up the rear. As mom crossed the threshold into the house, my father’s aunt, all four-foot-ten of her blocked the way and asked warily, “You wouldn’t be Roman Catholic, would you?
That was 1969, just as the most recent chapter of the Troubles was beginning to unfold. My father’s aunt is long gone, but I’ve thought of that incident many times as I’ve followed events in Northern Ireland over the years. If religious hostility could loom as a barrier between kin a quarter-century ago, how insurmountable must it now be, 3,200 dead and 40,000 injured later?
I’ve come back to Dungannon to find out.
To get an idea of the forces that dominate life in this town of 12,000, about an hour’s drive west of Belfast, you only have to scan the features that dominate the city’s skyline: St. Anne’s Church (Protestant) on one hill, St. Patrick’s Church (Roman Catholic) on the next, and on the third, the fortified garrison of the Royal Irish Regiment (the British Army, by any other name.)
Closer up, you see the small outward details of a town in the grip of relentless divisions. Painted curbstones tell you what kind of neighborhood you’re in — red, white and blue means loyalist and Protestant; orange, white and green means republican and Catholic. Graffiti proclaim neighborhoods not so much as places to live but as exclusion zones: “No Pope Here,” say the Protestants, “Brits Out,” say the Catholics.
If you walk up Irish St. to get to the market square at the centre of town, you’re walking up a mainly Catholic thoroughfare. If it’s Scotch St., Protestant. The square itself belongs to the police and military. Flak-jacketed members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary lurk in shop doorways, their automatic weapons at the ready. Without warning, soldiers in full battle-dress sweep across the square on foot patrols and vanish into the narrow streets on the other side.
From the square you hear the big Wessex helicopters lifting off from the landing pad at the army garrison as they ferry soldiers to patrols in the countryside. Once in a while an armored Land Rover slowly makes its way around the square, the soldiers inside peering through their telescopic gunsights at shoppers going in and out of stores, schoolkids lined up for a bus or young men trading brags and cigarettes under the cenotaph. At dusk you can hear the report of automatic gunfire as soldiers practise their marksmanship in the garrison weapons pit. And in the middle of the night you’re wakened with a start by the ghastly roar of an army helicopter making a low-level reconnaissance pass over town.
It’s not supposed to be like this here. This isn’t Belfast. This isn’t Londonderry. This is a small country town you rarely, if ever, hear about. All it takes is a casual stroll to realize that the Troubles reach into every corner of Northern Ireland.
While the killings and kneecappings and rocket attacks in Belfast generate headlines in the world press, Dungannon has quietly won a dubious domestic reputation as one of the deadliest towns in Northern Ireland. Next to Belfast, more killing goes on in the mid-Ulster area around Dungannon than anywhere else in the province. It’s part of an area the Irish media call “Murder Triangle,” where roughly equal Protestant and Catholic populations have been subject to a seemingly endless string of tit-for-tat murders, and where the military has suffered some of its greatest losses. In the tiny nearby village of Moy alone, there have been 30 sectarian murders in the last 25 years. On the walls of the Dungannon army barracks are some 60 plaques honoring soldiers killed in action.
In the cramped offices of the Dungannon News and Tyrone Courier, Editor Richard Montgomery opens a thick newspaper clipping file titled simply “Killings.” The contents spill out onto his desk, a random chronicling of violence and suffering. “We’ve seen so much of it, we sort of take it for granted by now,” says Montgomery as he rifles through the pile of clippings.
It’s said that Dungannon is the most bombed town in Northern Ireland. The area around the market square, bombed so many times that nobody keeps count anymore, is known locally as Detonation Row. Located just off the square, Dungannon Presbyterian Church claims to be the most bombed church in Europe, having been hit 28 times since 1969. During the worst bombings in the 1970s, even the battle-hardened Belfast tabloids took to calling Dungannon “Blitz town,” their columnists praising the “Dunkirk spirit of the local population.
It’s hardly a source of civic pride, but there are those who pin the start of Northern Ireland’s Troubles on a 1968 civil rights march that wound up in Dungannon. It was part of a growing movement to stop glaring injustices against Catholics in housing, employment opportunities and political influence. In Dungannon and elsewhere, long simmering sectarian tension quickly boiled to the surface.
“At first rival crowds would gather in the square at night, Catholics on one side, Protestants on the other, the police in between,” recalls Montgomery. “In the early days it was just a shouting match. But one night someone brought a pistol. It went off and a Catholic press photographer was hit. From there it escalated into riots around town. Then fire bombings.”
The seeds had been sown long ago, in civil war uprisings earlier this century, and in a history of conflict dating back to the tribal wars of the great Celtic chiefs. Dungannon was the seat of the last and most revered of them all, Hugh O’Neill, who fought a valiant but vain battle towards the end of the 16th century to preserve the ancient Irish ways against the incursions of the English. As the English conquerors systematically took the best farmland and gave it to English and Scottish Protestant settlers — “planters,” as Protestants are still called — the Irish were forced onto the rough upper lands, taking with them their legends, the Catholic faith bestowed upon them by St. Patrick, and their bitterness.
It’s Tuesday, so Mollie Whiteside has taken the British Legion poppy out of her car window. On Tuesdays, Whiteside goes to the hairdresser. Her hairdresser is Catholic, and it just isn’t a good idea to display any sign of attachment to Britain if you’re frequenting a Catholic shop.
“The troubles affect everything,” says Presbyterian minister Rev. Max Watson. “Everything. We have two distinct communities here, and there’s no room for middle ground because there’s a war going on.”
For example? “If you’re Catholic you buy Kennedys bread. If you’re Protestant you buy Ormeau bread. If you’re Catholic you read The Irish News. If you’re a Protestant you read The Belfast News. If your kids are Catholic they play Gaelic games like field hockey. If they’re Protestant they play British games — rugby, football. Catholic teenagers go to Catholic dances. Protestants go to Protestant dances. Catholics drink in Catholic pubs. Protestants in Protestant pubs. The government builds integrated housing estates, and in a couple of years they’re either all Catholic or all Protestant.”
'Where do you run for safety now that the one who is your enemy walks in the street like you and talks with the same accent and smiles like you and looks just like a friend?'
It hasn’t always been this way. Mollie Whiteside, who was born on a farm in Saskatchewan but moved with her family to Northern Ireland during the Depression, talks wistfully of life in Dungannon before 1968. “We lived with our differences. What side you came from didn’t really matter.”
Newspaper and magazine articles Whiteside has written over the years — including an annual dispatch for the Dungannon, Ont., page of the Lucknow (Ont.) Sentinel — have chronicled how life in the town has changed since the Troubles began: orphaned children, friends killed, mourned and then forgotten as something new happens to hijack the community’s grief. She wants to believe that people here are bigger than the Troubles, that the British carry-on spirit will prevail. But deep down she knows the gulf is formidable. Fighting tears, she reads from a letter wrote to the Times of London: “Where do you run for safety now that the one who is your enemy walks in the street like you and talks with the same accent and smiles like you and looks just like a friend?”
Whiteside is talking about fear, and fear more than anything is the wedge that is driving already divided communities asunder. Most of the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of the paramilitaries — the pro-British, Protest Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA), and the nationalist Catholic, Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the offshoot Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) — who are active in the Dungannon area and who have steadily intensified their war of retribution through the late 1980s and early 1990s. And as that dirty war widens, the paramilitaries grow more unpredictable. People wonder if there’s some twisted reason they’ll be next, or worse, whether they’ll be the next mistake. Best not to take any chances. As Whiteside says, “You need to know your company if you live here.”
It means the Presbyterian Church in Maghera, north of Dungannon, has to have a security guard with a cell phone connection to police on duty during Sunday services — a couple of known IRA types were seen lurking in the parking lot a while ago. It means the caretaker at Dungannon Presbyterian Church, a part-time soldier, fails to show up for work some Sundays because word’s come down that he’s a possible target. It means ministers have to pastor to terrified parishioners who don’t know whether it’s a crank or the real thing when a voice on the telephone tells them, “You’re going to be done.”
It means people turn a blind eye to suspicious activities. “Nobody wants to be fingered as an informer,” says Sgt. Basil Kerr, superintendent of the Dungannon subdivision of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. A schoolbag left carelessly on the sidewalk becomes a “suspicious package” so people on their way home and from work or shopping cross to the other side of the street. Catholics think twice about going out to a pub if there’s been a bombing of a Protestant pub somewhere.
No one is quicker to defend life amid the Troubles than the people affected by it. Mollie and John Whiteside take me to a Catholic-owned restaurant to show me that the two sides do interact. Rev. Jim McCormick, clerk of the Tyrone Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and minister of a small congregation in the tiny village of Moneymore, north of Dungannon, assures me the Troubles “have never kept Protestants and Catholics from doing what they want to do.” Newspaper reporter Kenny Archer, who was born in 1970 and has known nothing but the Troubles his entire life, shrugs when I ask him if he doesn’t find the divisions and the violence and the fear overwhelming. “No, it seems so natural. It’s just part and parcel of life here.”
In many ways that’s the point. While life undoubtedly goes on — the district council pursues new industry, the Dungannon rugby pursues rugby glory — the Troubles have been a fact for so long that they’ve narrowed expectations and twisted ideas of normalcy. (The term “Troubles” is itself a revealing euphemism.) Father Denis Faul, principal of St. Patrick’s Boys Academy and an outspoken critic of paramilitaries on both sides, doesn’t mince words when he characterizes the dynamics at work in the community. “It’s sad, but the first question we ask people here is, ‘Are you Catholic or Protestant?’ This community is diseased with sectarianism. We can’t think straight because of it.”
Faul is annoyed. All morning, the helicopters landing and taking off from the army garrison next to St. Patrick’s Academy have been passing right over the schoolgrounds. Kids playing basketball and soccer directly beneath the heliport pay them no mind whatsoever, but the deafening roar of the choppers — about one every five minutes — makes it nearly impossible for teachers to conduct their classes. “They’re supposed to go around us, not over top. Happens all the time, though.”
Faul has spent the last 36 years in Dungannon, but is known throughout Northern Ireland. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he rose to prominence in the prisoners’ rights movement, documenting abuses committed under British internment policies and intervening on behalf of prisoners on hunger strikes. He’s also a voice for Catholics who want to distance their faith from the actions of the IRA — a stance that has earned him the nickname “Denis the Menace,” not to mention the occasional death threat.
When Faul argues that the IRA do not represent the majority of Catholics or even necessarily Catholic interests, he’s raising one of the prickliest issues you can raise in Northern Ireland: Is this conflict religious or is it political?
It’s a question that’s bedeviled almost everyone who has tried to answer what the Troubles are all about, and perhaps how they might be resolved.
The best answer is that the Troubles are both. Religion largely defines the political constituencies — those loyal to Britain tend to be Protestant, those who want unification with the Republic of Ireland tend to be Catholic —while the fundamental political issues have a decidedly religious aspect: Protestants want no part of a unified Ireland where Catholics would be the majority and where they fear Rome would have undue influence; Catholics link colonization by the British with the evangelical imperative they believe is basic to Protestantism.
Each side is guilty of wallowing in myths about the other. Protestants who fear Rome ignore the changes in the Catholic Church since Vatican II. Catholics who view Protestants as agents of British imperialism ignore the fact that Protestant leaders have been among the most vocal critics of British policy toward Northern Ireland.
Yet the myths are real and persist; religion and politics remain as tangled as ever. “Ultimately this is conflict about power,” says Norman Richardson of the Belfast-based Churches’ Peace Education Program, a joint Catholic-Protestant initiative. “But it is also a conflict about identities — who you are; who you feel yourself to be. The trouble is, we’ve become very good at defining ourselves in terms of who we are not.
Even if the conflict is only partly religious, it stands to reason that at least part of the solution must be religious as well.