Across the Troubles in Northern Ireland

This is the first in a series of five articles about Northern Ireland on the eve of Brexit, which threatens to put a “hard border” between the six counties of the North and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the European Union. This is part I.

For almost thirty years, when the chance has arisen, I have tried to make sense of the issues that have divided Northern Ireland, which found peace from the Troubles in the late 1990s but now threatens to pull apart not just the United Kingdom but the European Union over the issue of a “hard border” between the North and the Republic.

I wish I could report more success in my lifelong enterprise. For whatever reasons, until recently I have never found it easy to get around Ireland, be it in the North or down south in the Republic. Much of that has to do with my loathing of rental cars, and by and large Ireland is as much a car island as it is emerald. That said, I have gotten around on trains and buses, and sometimes on ferries—but it has meant missing things along the way.

Of late, however, I have driven with several friends to many corners of the two countries that divide the island, and this has introduced me to an Ireland that I was not seeing from the rails—that of backcountry lanes and bluffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The problem with car journeys is that they are road kill for political conversations, and one of the pleasures of Ireland is talking politics.

Will Ireland Survive Brexit?

What are my conclusions from all these journeys? In the last thirty years, on my sporadic visits, I have watched “old Ireland” disappear. In its place is a modern European country—less obsessed with thatched roofs and the mournful past, and more open to dual carriage highways and indoor malls.

I have also watched as peace has come to Northern Ireland. In the late 1980s, Belfast was a city of meandering front lines, abandoned warehouses, and rotting piers. Now, a bit like Bristol or Leeds, it’s a hip European city, full of night life (not of the terrorist variety) and ethnic restaurants. There is more curry than stale pork pies.

To be sure the old divides remain, not just in Belfast but across Northern Ireland. But at the moment, I am sure the six countries have less violence than Boston or Philadelphia, and many of those individuals who used to bear arms are now running cafés, internet businesses, or community organizations.

It’s all for the good. But will the peace continue, even if Brexit forces the United Kingdon to fortify its European border with the Republic of Ireland?

Most of those who carried guns or bombs during the Troubles have no interest in restarting those conflicts, which to the next generation feels as remote as the Boer wars did to the last one. For one thing, they have better jobs today, and their children are going to better schools. And the avenues of politics are open in Northern Ireland, not just to Catholics and Protestants, but also to recent muslim immigrants, who, here and there in the North, have introduced a third pillar of ethnic tribalism, but in the good sense of adding small shops and investment capital to previously rundown neighborhoods.

Northern Ireland is one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom (the others are England, Wales, and Scotland), but another way to look at it is as a land bridge between Britain and Ireland. It’s neither English nor Irish, but a strange, often intransigent hybrid of the two that—and here’s the rub of its existence—wants neither union with the south nor to leave the UK or, for that matter, the EU.

Something has to give with Britain voting for Brexit, and if I were to guess, I would say that in the next generation or two, after hard-line Protestants cede some local political control, Northern Ireland will either vote for independence or union with the Republic.

Why? Geographically, it makes the most sense for the six counties to join the rest of Ireland, especially if Ireland has loosened its bonds with the Catholic Church and kept those with Europe strong.

That said, at the moment, the controlling Democratic Unionist Party is firm in maintaining the North’s ties to Britain, even if it means leaving the European Union and creating a hard border with Ireland. But if these issues were to threaten a rerun of the Troubles, I doubt England would struggle to keep the North any more than Ulster would take up arms to remain in the United Kingdom. In the twenty-first century, franchise capitalism counts for more than religious grievances.

In the meantime, all anyone in the North wants is to keep the good times coming. It wants more tourists, more trade, better agriculture, and even, selectively, more immigrants to revive neighborhoods or dilapidated farms.

It is possible that the United Kingdom, as we know it, will survive Brexit and that Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland will stand beside England in what is not its finest hour. (If she were alive, historian Barbara Tuchman could add a chapter on Brexit to her splendid book, The March of Folly.) It’s also possible, down the road, that Scotland will vote for independence and Northern Ireland will devolve further from British rule.

For now, I think it is less likely that Ireland will return to the Troubles, just as I think it is most likely that the United Kingdom will retain its constituent countries.

At the same time, in my travels across Ireland in the last thirty years, I have seen changes (for better and worse) that I never imagined when I bought my first train tickets. For anyone approaching Ireland, and what used to be called “the Irish question,” it makes the most sense to go with the unimaginable. As Sean O’Casey liked to say: “All the world’s a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.”

What follows are some of my impressions from these twisting roads.

The Boat to Northern Ireland

In the summer of 1990, I had a series of business meetings in London and Scotland (neither of which was a hardship, as off-hours I sipped single malt whisky and hacked out a round of golf). Before heading home to New York, I decided to make a long weekend in Ireland, and to take trains and ferries from Glasgow to Belfast, Dublin, and Limerick, where I could catch a New York flight from Shannon, the Irish airport that sits on a brooding headland, facing the North Atlantic.

On a Thursday afternoon in July, I took a local train from Glasgow to Stranraer, which I learned to pronounce as “Stran-RAH.” The coaches on the train were second class, and they ran along the west coast of Scotland, occasionally through such famous golf courses as Troon and Prestwick, where on a few holes the hazards include open train windows.

The Irish Sea, visible from my railcar window, had benign qualities on this particular summer afternoon, and when I boarded the ferry to Northern Ireland, I ignored my assigned lounge (no doubt a variation on steerage) and went topside to the upper deck, where I stood at a railing as the ship departed what felt like a Scottish fjord. (It recalled a line from James Joyce: “A day of dappled seaborne clouds.”)

I cannot remember now exactly how long the crossing took, but it must have been several hours. I recall feeling pleased that I was finally heading to Ireland, where I had never been, and that not only would I learn something about the Troubles but I might be able to hunt down some of the coordinates for my Gray ancestors, who had lived there until the Great Famine, or perhaps economic opportunity, dispatched them to New Jersey.

In the case of two of my mother’s great uncles, both of whom were Grays, they arrived in the United States just in time to be wounded and killed, respectively, in the Civil War at Seven Pines and Antietam.

My ferry docked in Larne, on a pier that connected directly to a commuter train. I remember the ride into Belfast taking less than an hour. There were only a handful of passengers from the ferry who got on the train—the rest vanished in cars and buses. I had my choice where to sit, and, looking out the window, I studied the passing landscape intently, knowing that my Gray ancestors had made a similar passage when the English evicted them from the Scottish borderlands and they made their own great trek to Northern Ireland.

Originally from Berwick, which is southeast of Edinburgh, the Grays were what is known as Border Scots, who, because of their independent nature, annoyed the ruling English, to the point that they were chased across the Irish Sea—much as they later emigrated to the United States, and assumed the identity of Scotch-Irish. (Good at business, crafty at politics, happy with books, and stingy with dollars.)

Needless the say, the local train from Larne to Belfast did not come with an audio recording of Irish history, so to fill in the blanks I was reading Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger, which makes the point that English rule (more than Irish agricultural skills) were the cause of the famine. She writes:

In the long and troubled history of England and Ireland no issue has provoked so much anger or so embittered relations between the two countries as the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England through the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation.

At times armed British soldiers had to accompany food goods that were to be exported to the England-bound ships.

Belfast After Dark

In summer 1990, I knew very little about Belfast hotels, except that bombs went off occasionally in the lobby of the Europa, which was where journalists and visiting British politicians tended to stay.

As this was the era before, I cannot say how I came up with a place to stay, but it was little more than a rooming house in the center of the city. I picked it for being away from either the Catholic or Protestant front lines, but no taxis were waiting at the Belfast train station to take me to my lodgings. Instead, my only choice was to figure out which local bus was heading in my direction and to board it from the stops in front of the terminal.

I cannot say that my first impression of Belfast was that of a vibrant city. The station had the feeling of BritRail in the 1970s—those of dank and forlorn platforms and derelict waiting rooms. More than most, I love train stations that evoke the eras of coal and steam, but the Belfast station did not recall the elegance of The Flying Scotsman or The Clansman so much as a city in receivership—although in this case the creditors were acolytes of hatred and the ideology of fear.

The bus driver sensed my unease, but welcomed me onto the coach. After a few more passengers boarded, we headed toward the city center, which reminded me of Brooklyn’s industrial past (not its hipster present). I was happy to be in the company of others and not dragging my suitcase toward an unknown rooming house, as if auditioning for a role in Death of a Salesman.

Somewhere along the route the bus came upon what had the look of a crime scene. Yellow tape was stretched across the road, and the flashing lights of police cars were ahead of us. The driver had a word with the police, and then announced to the passengers that this was bomb scare and the bus would not be going any farther.

I might have thought the other passengers—mostly older women with shopping carts in tow—would have huddled on the bus or returned in the direction of the station. But they reacted to the news of the possible bomb on the bridge as though the driver had said, “Sorry, folks, there’s some road work up ahead.” Most grabbed their carts and walked directly into the theoretical line of fire, shoving aside the yellow crime-seen tape with their umbrellas, as though they were in lockstep across the River Somme heading for the German trenches.

For a while, I joined their optimistic ranks, but then decided that while they had some local knowledge, I had none and might qualify for cannon fodder. When I returned to the bus, the driver figured out quickly that I was “from away,” and not used to Belfast’s indifference to pipe bombs.

Cheerfully, he closed the doors on the now empty bus and drove me across Belfast, using another route, until he dropped me close to my hotel—the first and only time in my life that a city bus has doubled as a car service.

I cannot report that my hotel that evening had as many stars as the Europa, but then most of those were of the shooting variety, and I was happy with my single bed, forlorn desk, and light bulb that hung from a cord at the center of the room. The innkeeper warned me about “going out at night,” so I passed the evening reading Woodham-Smith, in which she writes near the end:

The famine left hatred behind. Between Ireland and England the memory of what was done and endured has lain like a sword. Other famines followed, as other famines had gone before, but it’s the terrible years of the Great Hunger which are remembered, and only just beginning to be forgiven.

Time brought retribution. By the time of the second world war, Ireland was independent, and she would not fight on England’s side. Liberty and England did not appear to the Irish to be synonymous, and Eire remained neutral. Many thousands of Irishmen from Eire volunteered, but the famous regiments of southern Ireland had ceased to exist, and the ‘inexhaustible nursery of the finest soldiers’ was no longer at England’s service.

It was the Duke of Wellington who coined the phrase “inexhaustible nursery of the finest soldiers.”

Tooling Around The Troubles

Belfast looked better the next morning. I found a taxi driver who, for a fixed price, agreed to tour me around “the Troubles.” He thought we could cover the hallowed ground in about two hours, but such is the small size of Belfast (one reason it was so combustible) that I am sure it took us less time to cruise up and down Shankill Road (the Fifth Avenue of the Protestant enclave) and then, indirectly, to find our way to the Falls Road and Andersontown, which are Catholic neighborhoods.

I confess that, on that first introduction to the Troubles, I came away thinking that the violence was less of a product of religious differences than it was from economic decline. In the early 1990s, Belfast was city of the rustbelt. Its shipyards were idle, and it factories looked no better than abandoned mills in places such as Wooster, Massachusetts, or Providence, Rhode Island.

Looking at bombed–out buildings and razor wire on both sides of the ethnic divide, I could only think of the Jorge Borges quote about the Falklands War, describing it as “two bald men fighting over a comb.” Belfast was a shell of a city, and in many places all the car bombs did was make the rubble bounce.

After my morning tour of the Troubles, I went to the Public Records Office of the Belfast government, and tried to look up the coordinates of the village from which the families of my grandfather, David Beggs Gray, had emigrated.

In the era before, to do any kind of genealogical research meant poring over marriage and death registries, and the office that I located in Belfast had some of both. It also had a most obliging office manager, and she patiently guided me through a land survey from the nineteenth century so that I might locate the village of Ballybolly (which was the only name my mother had for the headwaters of her genealogical tree).

My grandfather’s parents had the last names Beggs and Gray, and they had married in Newark, New Jersey, in 1867. My grandfather was born in 1872. It was his uncles who were killed and wounded in the Civil War. But the families of the Grays and Beggs were originally from the same Ballybolly in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The word bally means town so there are dozens of places with similar sounding names.

As often happened with immigrants, when the two families emigrated to the United States, they went to the same neighborhood (in New Jersey) as did others from their home village. So the marriage of my great grandparents, while it took place in Newark, was actually an Antrimvillage wedding.

The manager at the records office, after finding many footprints of earlier Beggs and Grays in Northern Ireland, said that in all likelihood my Ballybolly no longer existed. At best I might find the ruins of the village church or cemetery. She directed me to a spot about twenty miles north of Belfast, and there she suggested that I go into the local pub and ask around for families by the name of Beggs or Gray. She was sure that I would find more than one family with those names.

I rented a car and drove to an X on my road map of County Antrim. Once I had driven to the approximate location of the village, I did as I was instructed and stopped in at a pub, which on a bright summer day felt as gloomy as Dracula’s tomb (assuming his red velvet dwelling came with pinball machines).

Time Travel In Ulster

The bar went silent with my arrival. I waved my map (as if it were a papal blessing) and explained that I was in search of lost family spirits. The mention of the two names sent heads nodding, and one man at the pub sketched on a napkin directions for me to follow to find a nearby farm. (I am a little surprised that GPS does not have a napkin interface, given how many directions in the past were sketched out in such a fashion.) He also explained to me where I might find the ruins of the parish cemetery in Ballybolly.

Using the napkin as my lodestar, I first found the outlines of the church, which were a collections of stones and fragments on a small hillside. Whether these were the cornerstones of Ballybolly, I cannot say, but it felt close enough, as one lost civilization, in a plain of open farmland, is as good as another.

Then I pushed on to a nearby family farm, owned by the McKenster family, where a farmer (add in a skeptical, quizzical expression) greeted me outside his barn where he had been milking his cows and tending some of his sheep.

I explained my mission—that of trying to locate some Grays or Beggs who had resisted the temptations of the new world. When I explained that my grandfather was David Beggs Gray, a small crease of a smile crossed his face (but it never turned into the welcoming embrace of a long lost relative).

Yes, he said, there were Beggs in the area, as there were Grays. I told him a little about the Grays in New Jersey, and he nodded politely, as I might have, had he launched into a digression on the local price of milk. We chatted for a while and then I drove off—to Belfast and the train to Dublin.

What was eerie about the encounter is this: the more I looked at Farmer McKentser, standing his barnyard in Country Antrim, the more his face reminded me of my grandfather. This man had the same high forehead and angular features as did my grandfather, and the same twinkle in his eye.

My grandfather died when I was eight, and before that—at least in my eyes—he was a cranky old man raking leaves in our backyard. My sense of him as a person, judged from pictures, stories, and letters of his that I have, is that he had a lively intellect, was well read, loved a good story, and was gracious to family and friends. When I stood talking to Farmer McKentser in County Antrim, I had the distinct feeling that I was seeing my grandfather, as an adult, for the first time.

I only wish I had been able to thank him for the first edition of Mark Twain’s Notebook, which was my only inheritance from my grandfather. The book survived various library purges and came into my possession after college, even though my grandfather died in 1963. And it would please me to think of us both chuckling together over the Twain remark, which appears in the Notebook: “If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be—a Christian.”

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books including An April Across America, Reading the Rails, and, most recently, Appalachia Spring.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.